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Police Work and Empathy

Take a trip with me. Let’s go back 15, 20, 30 years; before the grey hair, before the spare tires, aches and pains, before the service stripes and rank. At one point, we sat in front of that interview panel, ready to set the world on fire, ready to be asked that all-too-frequently used question, “Why do you want to be a police officer?”

Yep, you already know the answer. “Because I want to help people.” After the groans stop, let’s take a moment to re-evaluate this answer and how it might be the key to breathing new life into our departments. What is so wrong with wanting to help people? Have we become so cynical and jaded that we believe society is beyond our help? Do we just not care anymore? Have we given up hope?

Hopefully not. Certainly not. Cops are still human beings, with thoughts, feelings, and opinions of their own. Too frequently, the fact that cops are people with emotions gets pushed aside. Cops become the sounding board for society’s complaints and wind up turning a deaf ear to the actual complaint.

How frequently have we heard our cops mutter under their breath, “That guy is an idiot.” or “They have no idea what they’re talking about.”? That negativity is contagious. It’s a venom that spreads through the ranks and eventually infects the public. The most powerful weapon our officers have is their attitude. A positive outlook and a reminder that at one time we all wanted to help people is the anti-venom.


Reconnect with Residents

How do we encourage cops to reconnect with their residents? Let’s get back to the basics and have a refresher course in empathy. Empathy is understanding what our complainants are experiencing. It’s putting ourselves in their shoes. Being empathetic doesn’t necessarily mean holding hands, sitting in a circle, and singing songs together. Being empathetic is a process. It’s a demeanor. It’s understanding and feeling. It’s a series of simple tasks that once combined, identify a caring police officer.

Before we go any further, let’s first make an important distinction between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is understanding your complainant. It involves listening to the complaint and taking appropriate action. Any of us can be sympathetic. It’s even easy to fake. Empathy, on the other hand, means listening to the complaint, and experiencing the feelings your complainant is exposing. It makes for an emotional connection, a shared experience. When the experience is shared between both victim and officer, then the officer can truly offer the best service to make that person whole again.

Let’s break things down a little further to investigate how male and female officers approach contacts with the public and achieve the desired outcome. As a para-militaristic organization, we dress alike, follow the same guidelines, and enforce mostly the same laws. However, the way we go about it varies greatly from officer to officer, department to department, state to state. Male and female officers think differently, they act differently, they carry themselves differently. And yet, we are all out to achieve the same goal while keeping ourselves safe. Stylistic differences in policing work.


As an administrator, approaching your department and suggesting your officers be more empathetic will be as effective as telling a brick wall to be more empathetic. Perhaps less effective, the brick wall won’t mock you behind your back (That guy has no idea what he’s talking about, or he’s an idiot). Instead, try offering some of the following suggestions to introduce into the daily activities of male and female officers alike.


The Empathetic Male Officer

A dominant, male officer can easily apply empathy in uniform without sacrificing his macho demeanor. It’s quite easy, really. Just be rational; be reasonable. Emergency 9-1-1 calls are the result of a traumatic incident heard or witnessed by the caller. Although mundane and sometimes annoying to the patrolman, the caller wants his/her story heard.


While an immediate resolution to the situation may be impractical or even impossible, your complainant wants to know that at that moment, you recognize his/her pain or frustration. Officers need to understand and be aware of basic human emotion. Understanding cycles of emotion will help predict impending behavior. Having that Y chromosome is not a liability here.


Let’s look at applying empathy as a challenge or a contest. As a cop, we want control. We walk into a 9-1-1 emergency situation and are sometimes faced with a dangerous or chaotic environment. Our goal is to minimize harm, injury, destruction, and take the appropriate action. We want to control behaviors, movements, and actions all while ensuring our safety.


If we know that our desired outcome is a controlled safe environment, our presence and language are the first tools we use. Communication, both our verbal and non-verbal, can set the tone for the encounter. Our positioning and body language all speak volumes, especially when combined with the tone of our voice.


At no time should you be encouraged to jeopardize your safety; however, you can “win” the encounter by allowing a frustrated complainant to vent his/her frustrations to you. Loudly, if need be. Don’t take a screaming complainant on as an adversary; this is no time to worry about Contempt of Cop.


If the environment permits, allow the complainant to yell, scream, and get it out of his/her system. It’s probably been building for a while. The empathetic cop will understand, then smile, lower his voice, cock his head and ask, “Does it feel better to get that out? Now, let’s work on a solution together.”

Time is a friend to the empathetic cop. Asking permission to sit down while talking to a complainant is a great way to de-escalate a situation and show you are willing to put time into his/her problem. Perhaps even a pat on the shoulder and an encouraging, “I hear you man, I’ve been there myself” lets people know you’re human too and you can relate to their problems.


Open body language and a relaxed demeanor shows that you’re receptive to their needs.

Active listening and appropriate responses are how empathetic cops remember details. Maintain eye contact, try not to be distracted by the baseball game playing on the television. Avoid checking your watch or cell phone while taking a report. Be aware of your surroundings from a safety standpoint, always be alert, but in that moment, focus as much attention on your complainant as you can.

Occasionally repeat details back to them, ask if they mind if you jot notes during the conversation so you can try to get every detail. Be sure your non-verbal communication matches the words you are speaking.

Don’t patronize or belittle complainants. Don’t embarrass them for falling victim to a scam. The empathetic cop will explain how frequently scams occur and how charismatic bad guys take advantage of otherwise sharp, intelligent people. People calling 9-1-1 are already in a bad way, don’t add to their misery.

Finally, follow up with complainants. This is the easiest and least intrusive way to show your community that you care about their needs. A day or so after responding to a medical call, stop by the house and ask how the patient is doing. If a resident is having a problem with false alarm activations or unknown-source 9-1-1 calls, stop by the house to see if they made any progress with their alarm company or phone provider.


Leave a business card or note on the back of a ripped-off incident card in the mailbox of a family that had a fire. Stop by an accident victim’s house to see if his/her insurance company has all the information they need.



The Empathetic Female Officer

Time to put those two X chromosomes to use. All cops have strengths and weaknesses and female officers tend to have a knack for guiding behavior to their desired outcome. Manipulate is such a dirty word, let’s say female officers can cleverly influence the public. The application of empathy oftentimes comes naturally to female officers. How do they do it? By conversing.


To many female officers, striking up a conversation is natural, easy. It’s incredible the relationships that can be created just by interacting with a stranger. A smile, a laugh, and some friendly but professional banter foster relationships with the public.


Empathetic people enjoy the dying art of conversation and getting to know their neighbor. Humans are social beings; we mostly enjoy company and avoid loneliness. Engage the public while on a foot patrol or getting a cup of coffee. There’s no need to erect a wall and substantiate an “us vs. them” mentality. There is no requirement to appear macho just because there is a badge on your shirt. While on scene taking a report, initiate a conversation about something in the house or the neighborhood. Change gears from discussing the matter at hand to getting to know the person. This is how empathetic people interact.

Body language and non-verbal communication are equally important for female officers.


Expressing care and genuine concern are easier to exhibit when you can put yourself in the shoes of the complainant. By imagining that you are speaking with a family member or friend, you are more apt to dedicate more of your resources to them. Speak slowly, calmly, with a low voice while making eye contact and you’ll exude interest. Getting face to face and adding a non-threatening touch to the arm, combined with a meaningful look, show compassion.


A perfect example can be applied to many accident scenes. How many times have you heard, “This is my first accident”? Yet we have investigated thousands. So you know that look from the involved driver; walking around the scene, looking bewildered. “What happens now?” they wonder. Look at all the commotion, the devastation! So many lights, so much activity! Your driver may be running on adrenaline or may be panicked. How about walking the driver away from the commotion and explaining the process of what is going to happen. Slowly, and in plain language.


Explain that a tow truck is coming, that they will have the other driver’s insurance information in a few minutes, that we can make phone calls to arrange a ride, or take them some place safe. Let them know what to expect calling an insurance company, or that they may be sore tomorrow.


Explain that soon their legs may start to shake and they’ll feel extremely tired. You have now taken away that unknown variable and replaced it with helpful information. You know the fear in their uncertainty, why not take it away to minimize their stress?

The key to empathy is feeling. Feeling should not be a character trait assigned to one gender over another. We are all out to accomplish the same goal. Interacting with the community, developing a positive reputation, and being respected among your community is not so you could be the star of a video snippet posted on social media. Our goal is not to be a flash in the pan. We have a long-standing tradition of protecting and serving, enhancing quality of life for our residents, and promoting a feeling of safety to all who pass through.

Police need to encourage and maintain strong community ties. Without the support of our residents, our jobs become that much more difficult. A little effort goes so far in the long run to an officer who will be remembered so fondly by the public. Just remember, that citizen you are dealing with is loved by someone. They are a mother, father, child, or significant other. Imagine that as your loved one. Wouldn’t you want your brother or sister in blue to treat your loved one the same way?


Beth Sanborn is a 17-year veteran with Lower Gwynedd (Montgomery County, Penn.) Police Department currently assigned as a School Resource Officer. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, Penn.


Published in Law and Order, May 2015

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Posted on : May 15 at 10:48 AM By Officer Beth Sanborn

Wow, Officer Sanborn is 110% correct and an example of what police officers should be doing in their work. I can only wish that others will listen and follow her advise. She is a fine example of what we need in law enforcement.

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