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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two questions that can change your life from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.

A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way

My best friend’s father has owned a business in a surrounding city for nearly 30 years. Like many small businesses in this economic climate, he has been forced with the difficult task of closing his doors. With this comes the harsh reality of displacing his employees – one of whom has worked for him for 15 years. Unfortunately, this employee did not take the news very well and his anger at the situation manifested in the form of threats of violence against my friend’s father.

He called and told me that he has had to fire many employees over the life of his business but none left him with such an unsettling feeling as did this employee. For the first time, he felt as though a person was capable of harming him.

Workplace violence is a very real phenomenon as evidenced by the recent shooting of 8 people by a disgruntled employee in Connecticut. For this reason, I advised my friend’s father to call his local police department to report the incident.

But this column is not about workplace shootings. It’s about police service and how one interaction with an officer can formulate a reputation about that police department – and all police officers.

When the officer responded, my friend’s father explained the words and actions that lead him to believe that his employee may be capable of coming back to harm him. The police officer’s response was this: “You may as well hire a body guard because the police can’t protect you 24/7.”

Because I think like a cop, I will admit to you that the very same thought has crossed my mind in some situations. In fact, when people are victims of property crimes and ask for a full forensic work up, I have to fight the urge to make a sarcastic statement about watching too much C.S.I.

But then I remind myself that no matter how many similar reports I have taken, there are human beings that were victimized and the crimes against them are significant and singular to them. Now, I know for sure that my friend’s father was under no illusion that the police were going to provide him with a 24-hour bodyguard. He wanted the incident documented in the event that the employee returned. Furthermore, he needed some direction from a person who was equipped to give him some advice about keeping himself safe. What he didn’t need was a cop who seemed bothered by the fact he had to show up.

I realize that poor attitudes are not exclusive to the police profession. I have had many encounters in my role as a customer or client when I wondered how the person assisting me had come to loathe his job so much. I suppose it has less to do with the job and more to do with his or her overall attitude about life in general but that is a column for someone in the field of psychology.

Most people are reasonable and understand that a police officer cannot solve all of their problems. What citizens come to expect, however, is an attitude of service when they encounter a police officer. Service comes in many different forms but the most effective thing a police officer can do is provide people with a sense of empathy for their plight. It wouldn’t have taken much for that officer to tell my friend’s father that his fears were understandable and provide him with some tangible resources and reassurance that the police where there to assist him.

The most successful police officers I know have achieved levels of success by treating people with dignity and respect – whether it is a citizen to whom they are providing a service or a person who breaks the law. An important lesson for police officers is that people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Going Above and Beyond

I know that Aurora Police officers provide excellent service to the citizens of Aurora on a daily basis. If you are rolling your eyes, perhaps you were the unfortunate recipient of a traffic citation or other incident of misfortune. Even so, I believe the majority of the police officers you encounter are polite and professional even when enforcing the law. Like your own profession, there are only a small percentage of police officers that skew the perspective with a bad attitude.

Despite the overwhelming majority of good police officers, unfortunately it is the negative encounters we remember much the same way we tell more people about bad customer service we have received in a restaurant or a store than we do about good service. Being treated badly evokes such emotion that we go out of our way to warn anyone who will listen about a negative experience. As customers, we expect good service and when it is delivered we simply go about our lives without giving it much thought. If you are like me, you will make a mental note to express thanks for good service but then never follow through. My head is filled with good intentions but thought that does not follow action may as well not have been a thought at all.

When someone does take the time out of their busy day to compose a note or an e-mail for good service they have received from the Aurora Police Department, I am always extremely grateful. Deb Czajka, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two, probably doesn’t have a lot of free time in her schedule. And yet, she found the time to write a letter about an encounter she had with Aurora Police Officer James Zegar.

On a recent afternoon, Deb noticed the air in one of her mother’s car tires was very low so she followed her to a nearby gas station to inflate the tire. Deb was having difficulty with the air pump when she spotted a squad car parked nearby. She rapped on the window and asked Officer Zegar to assist her. According to Deb, he willingly assisted, inflating the tire while educating her about the equipment.

Officer Zegar noticed that Deb’s children were craning their necks from inside the car and asked if they would like to come talk to him. She told him her six year old would love to meet him but her three year old was afraid of police officers for reasons unbeknownst and may have some reservations. She described Officer Zegar as being genuinely concerned that her youngest son was fearful so he set out to change that impression. He allowed both boys to “help” him inflate the tire and then allowed them inside his squad car where they got to turn on the overhead lights. She offered this:

“A casual observer might wonder why a police officer would help to fill a tire or take the time to play with kids while on-duty. I would tell that person that Officer Zegar was building community relations with my mother and me. He was also educating my children. Through his kindness and actions Officer Zegar set a wonderful example for my six year old and reaffirmed his idea that police officers are “really cool” and helpful people..”

In Deb’s letter, she said that Officer James Zegar made a difference in her life through his willingness to assist her outside of an emergency. Think about the magnitude of that statement. The single most compelling thing a person can do is to make a difference in the life of another. Police officers have the opportunity to do that every day by going above and beyond what is expected of them.

Come to think of it, we all do.