Officer Safety

Communication: It's About Time to Remove the Reactionary Gap from Training


Michael Warren

November 24, 2020

November 24, 2020

In an earlier blog entitled “It’s Time to Think CLEAR About Officer/Citizen Encounters”, we introduced you to an approach to police interactions designed to increase officer safety while simultaneously increasing the quality of contacts officers have with the public. Each letter in C.L.E.A.R. represents a critical element in officer safety. Today I want to talk about “C” which is communication.

Almost every officer has been told at one time or another “it’s easier to talk someone into cuffs than fight them into cuffs”. As young officers, we didn’t always realize the wisdom in those words. Many of us learned it the hard way, but after three broken watches in different fights, we started to listen. That’s not to say we can always avoid fighting with people who are actively resisting arrest, but we can all agree that good communications skills are a critical part of officer safety. As part of our Think C.L.E.A.R approach, we have some basic rules for effective communication.

The #1 rule of effective communication is this: always communicate from a position of safety/advantage. Officers have no obligation to place themselves at a tactical disadvantage in an effort to communicate with people. I’ve seen countless examples where officers place themselves in very risky circumstances in an effort to build rapport, with tragic outcomes. We can almost always create a position of safety and we should look for ways to do it on every encounter.

If you buy into the idea that we should always communicate from a position of safety, then the next question to be answered is “how do you create a position of safety?”. We ask this question regularly in our classes and inevitably the resounding response is “create distance!” or “create a reactionary gap!”. Not surprising, since we have been taught the concept of the reactionary gap since our very earliest days of the police academy. Here’s the problem with saying “create” distance. Officers don’t typically work in a world of distance.

How much distance can you create when you’re on a car stop on a busy road? How much distance can you create when you’re in someone’s living room on a domestic fight? How much distance can you create if you’re a corrections officer working in a jail pod? Or how much distance can you create if you’re a probation officer who has a client visiting your office? The answer to all of these questions is “not much”. Distance is great when you have it, but it’s not the world officers work in.

Instead of trying to create distance, I want to encourage you to consider “create discretionary time”. Time is always one of the most valuable tools you have as an officer. The more discretionary time you can create, the more likely you can communicate with people effectively and the more time you have to make decisions and get more resources to the scene if necessary. You cannot always create discretionary time, but the more often you can, the safer you, your partners, and the public will be.

Next time, we’ll dive into exactly how discretionary time is created. It’s a concept that very well may save your life.