“Received a complaint letter? Sounds like you’re doing your job, kid!”
In today’s society of “Everyone Wins!” simply for showing up, understanding that criticism is inevitable is often a hard lesson to learn, much less accept, and turn into a positive.
In my policing career, it was not too long out of my field training status that I quickly learned complaints are part of the job, even when doing the job well.
Working midnights, in one of our municipality’s parks notorious for late night activity, I encountered an individual, shall we say enjoying his own company, in the obvious ‘privacy’ of his personal vehicle, in a lighted lot, no less.
I wrote the appropriate citations, suggested that he keep his amorous activity in the privacy of his home, and sent him on his way.
Apparently, rather unsatisfied with his experience, this gentleman put his pride to the side, writing a letter to every official in the municipality of his unfair treatment, specifically stated that he believed that I, as the responding officer, encourage his behavior, even taking time to enjoy the view.
As a new officer, one of the few females on the department, I found this embarrassing and inflammatory. For the record, it was nothing worthy of writing a letter about.
“But I did my job! I handled this well!” I defended. Gales of laughter ensued. Maybe “handled the situation” was not the best defense.
My sergeant explained, “Kid, apparently this guy didn't think so. Moreover, he wants everyone to know. More important than that, in this job, people are going to tell you how they could do your job better. But congrats, that means you are learning how to do the job.”
One of the biggest unexpected challenges in policing, and instruction in policing, is when you do a job to the best of your ability, there will always be critique and criticism.
An important skill is learning how to take that critique, not allow it to become personal, but allow it to fuel your continual drive to improve your performance.
1. Practice asking for feedback: If we have a good sense of our performance evaluation prior to the unexpected criticism, we will already know our strengths and our weaknesses. Regularly asking for feedback is an important aspect, it allows us to see outside our own experience, adds insight from perspectives we do not always see, and is a good measure to accept that others see outcomes differently than we do.
2. Differentiate the difference between criticism and cynicism: Feedback that fueled by individuals who are already burnt-out often overshadows any value to their suggestions. Low morale, feeling unappreciated, underpaid, overworked can be normal sentiments in this field. Many of these elements of policing are valuable to understanding and improving our role; however when seeking individual feedback, be cautious of the motives of critics.
3. Increase Self Awareness: Establish your own moral compass: Personal values are prescriptive, meaning they actually shape our decision-making and how we view the world. They are the moral base that give our actions meaning, they are the purpose it which light the fire behind our behavior. A confident sense of the values that shape our behavior strengthens our ability to accept outside perspective without chipping away at our own sense of self. The stronger we feel in our own viewpoints, we can accept outside viewpoints, adjust our own perspective as needed.
4. Learn from your leadership: To offer constructive criticism only to have it ignored is a hopeless feeling. When offering criticism to others, what are the goals of providing your viewpoint? How do you want your thoughts considered? If taking the time to offer our thoughts and opinions, we often want to see follow through. Practice seeking feedback, but then implementing suggestions on probationary period if the suggestions have value, as can always go back to the drawing board if the feedback did not offer solutions.
5. Leave the ego at the door. Success often comes from learning from our mistakes. However, it is not easy to make public or professional mistakes. To err … is a personal failure. Therefore, practice adjusting mindset that to one that every winner has overcome adversity, we learn through trial and error and that hands-on practice is a continual process. Mistakes are simply the stepping-stone to being one-step closer to finding a solution.
In these trying times, 2nd place is often the first loser, but we do not practice how to lose gracefully, productively, because we are rewarded for simply “doing our best.” In my classroom, I attempt to build a ‘learning’ atmosphere in which wrong and right are irrelevant, because the learning process is an incorporation of multitude “right” perspectives.
Accepting criticism is not easy.
Accepting criticism is not easy.
However, as it is essential, learning how to differentiate between the critics that can help us improve, and those that can be filtered out is an important task.
Most of us do not like criticism; it is not a natural skill set, accepting criticism requires thoughtful practice.
When I read this piece, I was reminded of complaints I had received during my own law enforcement career. Although complaints are a part of the job, even if you are in the right, they can be frustrating and hurt your pride. I have received my share but fortunately, none were sustained. One in particular comes to mind.
I had been on the department for two or three years when one Friday night I was dispatched to a large disturbance at an apartment complex. It turned out to be just a group of friends intoxicated in the parking lot and they were dispersed without incident.
While clearing that scene, another officer and I heard a woman screaming from a nearby apartment. We contacted her and determined it was an argument between an adult woman and her intoxicated mother. The mother wasn't allowing the daughter to leave for the evening and so the daughter was screaming.
We sorted everything out and in the process, the drunk mother became physical and attempted to lunge at the daughter so I restrained her in handcuffs and the daughter left. The mother calmed down and I uncuffed her shortly after. That was that, as the mother was apologetic and the adult daughter had left. Peace was kept and all was well. That is what I thought anyway.
The next day I learned that the mother had gone to the hospital and said an officer (me) hurt her wrist. Indeed, she had a small fracture to one of her wrists.
An officer was dispatched to the hospital, a report taken, and an IA complaint was initiated. I kept running the call through my mind and was positive the woman wasn't injured after our contact with her.
Days later, I was summoned to the dreaded Internal Affairs. I gave my statement not knowing at the time the injured woman, her daughter, the other officer, and a civilian "ride along" , with me that night , had all been interviewed prior to me.
The interview went quicker than I had expected. Had I injured her wrist? What would be my punishment if I did? Would I be out of a job? These questions had been running through my mind since hearing about the complaint.
I was young and hadn't been on the force that long and took the complaint personally. Afterall, it was criticism about what kind of police officer I was. I merely did my duty keeping the peace and preventing violence and now my career was on the line for unintentionally injuring someone?
After my interview, the IA Sergeant told me the complaint was unsubstantiated. Apparently, during the investigation, the woman admitted she had injured her wrist by striking the front door in frustration long after police had left. Her daughter also admitted to this. I had not caused the injury.
Needless to say, I was relieved and upset at the same time. It was generally my agency's practice to not criminally charge people who made false IA complaints, so there were no consequences for the woman who complained on me.
The challenge for me was to not let the incident jade me. I would learn that it went with the job. When you contact dozens of people a week as a police officer, not everyone will be happy with your level of service. Criticism and policing go hand in hand. Whether it's from the public or your supervisors, you are not always going to please everyone.
The challenge is to keep from getting disgruntled by criticism , to grow a thick skin but not too thick that you let it change you negatively. The hardest part is to take an honest look at the criticism and ask yourself if it's valid and what areas do I need to work on. This self-examination can be difficult for me as it can be for many others. I appreciate Professor Furlow's insight on a subject that routinely impacts all of us.