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Columbus police put emphasis on communication


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Protecting and serving residents is the job of the Columbus Police Department. But doing so with empathy and clear explanations is how police are expected to perform those duties.

It’s the lack of empathy or a breakdown in communication that sometimes results in residents filing formal complaints with the Columbus

Police Department.

Eight formal complaints have been filed this year, the same number as last year but down from 16 in 2009.

Most formal complaints center on officers showing a lack of empathy, being short or rude in their remarks, showing indifference or disconnection, or not providing clear instructions, said Lt. Matt Myers, spokesman for the Columbus police.

About 40 members of CPD and its civilian staff attended a workshop last week to refresh themselves on the impact of communication between police and residents.

“We wanted to train them on words and phrases and how important communication can be when we’re handling calls and dealing with stressful situations,” Myers said.

Chris Clapp, a 15-year veteran of the police force, said he learned that most people have few formal dealings with police in their lives, so the encounters have a profound impact on a person’s perception.

“When we deal with people, it’s often at their worst points,” Clapp said.

Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix said police often have a businesslike approach to their job because of the volume of calls they respond to, so a businesslike approach could be misinterpreted as

being rude or not caring.

The training was to help police understand that customer service is part of their job, and how they explain their jobs to the people they encounter can build trust and cooperation, Maddix added.

One complaint this year stemmed from what was believed to be suspicious activity, Maddix said.

An officer responded to a call of two people looking into the windows of a house. The

officer, upon arrival, took a defensive posture and asked the people what they were doing and to provide some identification. The people explained that they were from out of state but were looking at the house because they were considering buying it.

A little more explanation on the officer’s part could have made the encounter a little smoother, Myers said.

In a situation like that, officers are instructed to first introduce themselves and explain why they have been asked to respond to the scene. A follow-up question would be to ask the men why they were at the house.

Patrolwoman Julie Quesenbery said she’s received some of this training before and finds herself using it in a variety of situations.

If she’s responding to a possible battery, where two people are blaming each other and are mad and yelling, Quesenbery said she has to remain calm and explain to each why both sides are being listened to in order to determine what happened.

“If you go in and get real excited with them, getting excited and yelling then you have a real bad situation,” said Quesenbery, a 7½-year member of CPD.

Police officers need to maintain a professional image to the public, even when they are asking people to comply with their instructions in difficult situations, said Lt. Tom Moore of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.

“The verbal teaching is to de-escalate situations instead of using force to get voluntary compliance,” said Moore one of the instructors at the four-hour workshop.

Role playing was used to help drive home the message. Officers were given the scenario of an intoxicated person at an establishment who has been asked to leave by the owner because of disruptive behavior. The intoxicated person refused to leave, even though he had a designated driver with him.

The participating officers told the intoxicated subject why they were present, why he was being asked to leave and presented him with his options. Both times the subject agreed to leave voluntarily, Moore said.

An officer’s tone is important, Moore said. So is thinking before speaking.

“Day in and day out, our officers do a good job communicating with the community, but they cannot have a bad day,” Myers said.

Complaint process

  • Complaint forms available at: The Columbus Police Department lobby, 123 Washington St.; Online at columbus.in.gov/police/.; In the personnel and human rights offices at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St.
  • People are asked to fill out and submit to CPD the complaint form within 15 days of the incident that generated the complaint.
  • Complaint forms ask residents what they would like to see done to resolve the issue.
  • Once received, CPD will respond within five days that it has received the complaint and is investigating it.
  • Investigations generally are completed within 30 days.
  • Most investigations are handled by a shift supervisor, who interviews the person filing the complaint and the officer involved.
  • Information from the audio and visual equipment in the officer’s car can be used.
  • The investigator looks to see if police policies or procedures have been broken, or if an officer displayed inappropriate behavior.
  • Actions against an officer could range from a written warning to suspension or firing.
  • An audit and review committee reviews complaints quarterly.
  • Complaints can be appealed to this committee.

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