Every Interaction as an Opportunity for Change

Last night I made a traffic stop for a fairly minor moving violation. As soon as I walked up to the passenger side of the vehicle, I saw that the driver’s cell phone was lying on the passenger seat, facing up towards the window, with the front-facing camera activated and recording. I was looking at myself through the screen of his phone, as it was recording our traffic stop. I quickly had to remind myself that this was not the objective of my stop and returned my focus to the driver.

The stop was completed with the issuance of a citation and a very cooperative subject. Nothing was out of the ordinary for this traffic stop; this is what truly sparked my curiosity and introspection.

This young man, who clearly respected my position as a police officer, and clearly understood why he was being issued a citation, even to the point of admitting he was wrong, still felt the need to record our interaction. Now, my employ has equipped us with body worn cameras that are, of course, recording any and every interaction that we have with the public. It is very possible that he was not aware of this; I wouldn’t necessarily expect anyone to be.

My concern and my curiosity are what incident, what interaction, or what skewed media representation made this individual feel as though he could not trust an interaction with the police to the point that he must film it? I certainly would never ask someone to turn their camera off, just as I would not expect them to ask me to turn mine off. On the same note, never have I felt the need to film an interaction with the police myself. This is to include any and every interaction I had with the police, prior to becoming a police officer myself.

Perhaps this gentleman had a negative interaction with a police officer before. Perhaps this young man decided that what he has seen on the news regarding police officers, sometimes locally, is absolute truth. It may even be the case that his mother or father has told him to always film interactions with the police as a precaution or a way to back his own defense. Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, I believe that we, as police officers, have an opportunity to take something away from these situations, despite how minor they may seem.

First, I always assume I am being recorded by a camera other than my department issued body worn camera. I have always operated this way and it tends to keep emotions in check, which always ends up better for everyone on both sides of the coin. This is especially important for officers who belong to departments who do not have body worn cameras in operation. I can guarantee, someone or something is recording you, no matter where you are.

Second, we need to realize that every interaction we have with the public is an opportunity to impress upon that person the importance of police in society and the trust that they can have in each and every one of us. There are, of course, some who have had contact with the less-than-desirable officer. It is then our responsibility to give that person a reason to trust the police again. Every interaction we have with someone from the public is a blessed opportunity to make a difference, regardless if that person is a victim or a suspect. I cannot tell you how many times I have had an arrestee thank me. They certainly aren’t thanking me for taking them to jail. Most often they are thanking me for treating them with respect, not talking down to them and accommodating their emotions in the moment. This is not inferring that I ever allow complacency into my interactions. I attempt to maintain my tactical advantage while treating the individual with respect. These two things can be done together. Where one is absent, the other becomes weaker.

It can be easy to let a long-tenured career or burnout affect our interactions with the public. I cannot say I have hit that point yet, as I am still well within my first decade of experience. It is our responsibility to each other to keep ourselves in check. Where someone’s emotions may be taking them towards a negative interaction with a subject, it is our responsibility to attempt, in the best way you see fit, to reel that person back in. By making every contact with the public a positive one we are doing ourselves and others in our profession a favor. We are setting the base for a positive interaction with another officer later. We are making our job safer. We are making each other safer.

Just remember that every interaction is the opportunity to make a difference, if not for you, if not for the subject, perhaps for your fellow officer.