We have taken the philosophy of customer service (a square peg), and repeatedly tried to force it into the law enforcement profession (a round hole). This was a well intended idea that someone took from the world of business and tried to make it work for their law enforcement agency and it has continued to spread. The problem: we don’t have customers as police officers. We swear an oath before God to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States. That is our solemn contract with society, not a customer service policy similar to the one at your local gas station.
The following example is from a company that provides their “law enforcement customer service” course to hundreds of agencies across the country.
Customer service goals for law enforcement officers
“Play: Creating a law enforcement environment where employees and the public can thoroughly enjoy themselves.” I failed this goal on a daily basis when I was on patrol and probably as an investigator, and, well…, let’s just say every day.
“Make Their Day: Is about doing something special for customers and co‐workers. The idea is to give another person a gift they don’t forget and feel good by giving it.” Was the gift that first came to your mind a good example of customer service? No? Me either.
We are all well acquainted with the most well known and common saying in the customer service industry: “The customer is always right.” This phrase means you are doing whatever it takes to make people happy with your company, so they will purchase your product or use your service. The hope is that they will come back again and again.
That is the square peg of the customer service philosophy that will never fit into the round hole of policing. As guardians of justice, we enforce the law on drunk drivers, wife beaters, burglars, child molesters, and murderers – on a daily basis. What part of that list sounds like someone you are trying to draw to your company for repeat business? Are they always right? Heck, are they ever right?
Should officers approach the wife beater focusing on the goals above? “Hello sir, I can see that you found the need to brutally assault your wife today. I hope I can create an environment that allows you to thoroughly enjoy yourself during your attempt to resist me, as well as the uncomfortable arrest process.” Drunk drivers would also be treated quite differently. “I see you have shared a 12 pack with some of your buddies. No wonder you had trouble staying on the road. Please keep this mouthpiece from your breathalyzer test as a gift, and I will drive us from here – so you don’t spill anymore beer. I hope you call on our agency again, the next time you decide to create a risk to society.”
If we pose the same questions to organizations that have incorporated the training above – and the company who sold them the goods – both will likely say, “Of course not, those examples are ludicrous and officers wouldn’t worry about meeting the goals in these situations.” I would agree with them, but that means we are not a profession that should be focused on the business philosophy of customer service, it doesn’t fit the needs of the communities we serve or our officers. You can change the definition of customer service for your agency, but it will always have “the customer is always right” perception attached – regardless of what is said or written.
I know I already have some who are disagreeing with me while shaking their heads, and you are welcome to chuck my opinion out with the morning trash. The reality is, I am married with two kids in their twenties, so I am reminded that my opinion sucks all the time – I will be okay.
One California police department has a customer service mission that states, “We create a quality customer service environment by providing safety, service, and support for everyone.”
If we surveyed the people given speeding tickets or arrested by California’s finest in this city, how many of them would say, “I was provided quality customer service when the officer issued me a ticket,” or “I was given great support as the cop hauled my butt off to jail.” Probably not many, I know that would not be my first response… and I like cops. The fact is that when we stop a “customer” for speeding they are never “right.” They were wrong or they would not have been stopped in the first place. It just doesn’t fit the philosophy we are using.
Another common tag line I found within these policies: “Customer service is an overall approach to the way we conduct business…”
In my humble opinion, this is another mistake we have made, calling police work a business. People who apply to Costco, GM, or United Airlines are interested in working for a business. These are organizations with a fundamental goal of making a profit, by providing satisfaction to every customer through some product or service. The people of character who are drawn to serve as law enforcement officers are not interested in joining a business team. They want to serve society as a worthy protector. Our profession is not filled with business-minded individuals, but with those who are people protectors and law enforcers by the very oath they take.
Times when Violence is the Only Answer
I was assigned as a school resource officer and was giving a prevention presentation on bullying at a local middle school. It was the perfect environment for customer service philosophies to flourish in the world of law enforcement. A worried 12 year old girl and several of her friends approached me after the talk. They had seen a recent news report in which we arrested a student at the high school who was planning an attack. The same report covered several of our nation’s school shooting tragedies.
Unlike an adult, she got straight to the point with her question. “Officer Neil, if someone comes into our school and tries to kill all of us, will you try to kill them first?” I thought she deserved an honest answer in return so I replied, “Yes, I will kill them.” Not the type of questions you will hear at the customer service desk at WalMart or The Home Depot.
She seemed somewhat relieved by my answer but she questioned my abilities next. “What if they are like…, really prepared? How do we know you can win?” I gave her a short resume as if I were applying for a crack commando unit, “I was an infantry soldier in the Army before serving the last 15 years as a police officer. I can hold my own in a fight.” It was obvious that there was still something bothering her as she huddled with her friends. I was about to give her some references to call when she turned and posed her final question.
“What if it’s another student that is shooting at all of us? Can you really kill a kid?” No parent ever had the guts to ask me such a question, but leave it to a sixth grader to push the limit. I replied without much thought – my responsibilities to protect other people’s children were clear, and I had already decided what to do long before that day. “Please understand, I don’t want to hurt anyone/ I am a father of two children/ I swore an oath to God Almighty that I would protect you with my life. Yes, I will kill them. I am like…, really, really prepared.” The girl smiled and her friends perked up. She replied, “very good, thank you officer,” and they headed off to the cafeteria for lunch.
The principal had overheard the conversation and had his own worries about the subject. “I thought that was about to go really bad and you were going to have a cry-fest on your hands. I couldn’t believe they left happy. I have to admit, I felt relieved when you said you would kill anyone who would try to shoot up my school. I guess it was the same for them. We just needed to know that you are willing to do what the rest of us cannot.” The sixth grade girl didn’t think I should worry about treating an active shooter as a customer. She wanted him dead, even if he were a fellow student.
That 12 year old didn’t want my focus on customer service, but on protecting my community with my last breath. She understood that there were times when awful things are done to people in the name of justice. Strangely enough, that made her feel safe. Our philosophies and policies should include courage, integrity, and large helpings of respect, but the awful things that we are required to do will never fit neatly into a customer service philosophy. We should see people as citizens we have sworn to protect and serve – not customers. Those citizens will be better served if we are not trying to fix policing by hammering a square peg into a round hole.
Richard Neil is LET’s Police Training Contributor. He is the creator of www.LEO-Trainer.com, a web site dedicated to law enforcement training resources, and the author of “Police Instructor: Deliver Dynamic Presentations, Create Engaging Slides, & Create Active Learning.”