Crime & Courts

Wichita police learn to handle verbal abuse

People have threatened to follow Janette Griggs home and kill her family. Jerry Manuel has been called every name in the book — profanities he never wants his children to say.

More than once, someone has gotten in Shane Russell's face and unleashed a tirade that would have been little more than a string of bleeps if it was shown on television.

Because they wear the badge of the Wichita Police Department, Griggs, Manuel and Russell have endured the abuse silently.

"It's part of the job," said Griggs, who has been an officer since 1998. "If you can't handle it, you'd better find another line of work."

The verbal abuse heaped on law enforcement officers has come under scrutiny in the wake of the city of Olathe's decision earlier this month to drop a disorderly conduct ticket and have its insurance company pay $5,000 as part of settling a civil rights complaint filed by a man who was ticketed for a traffic violation, then cited after he flipped off the officer and swore at him.

The city agreed to pay $4,000 to the motorist and $1,000 to his attorneys, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri.

The man said he became frustrated because he was taking his children to school and the traffic stop caused them to cry.

Courts nationwide have long held that when it comes to such police cases, the curse word and the finger gesture express discontent or frustration and are protected by the First Amendment.

What bothers Wichita officers most about that case is that children were in the car at the time of the outburst.

"They're getting the idea that this is OK... that this behavior is acceptable," Russell said.

Common occurrence

Acceptable or not, it's unavoidable for law enforcement officers.

Though they are not verbally assaulted every day, officers said, it's a common occurrence.

Most instances occur in two settings: When officers issue traffic tickets or respond to domestic violence calls.

"We are the referees of society," said Manuel, who has been an officer since 2004. "You go to a basketball game or a football game, and refs catch it all the time.

"We are in the same position."

Not everyone can handle that.

Potential recruits are screened during the interview process to see whether they have volatile personalities and would not be able to remain composed in the face of verbal abuse.

"The last thing we want to do is have a cop out here with a temper," said Lt. Don Phelps, a training lieutenant for new officers. "You don't want a cop out here who loses control."

Cadets go through extensive training in "tactical communication," Phelps said, where they are taught how to engage and disengage, how to respond instead of react, and how carefully chosen words can defuse a hostile situation.

Officers are taught that body language — even a smile — can convey a wide range of meanings.

A badly timed smile "could be the match to the flame," Phelps said.

Academy trainers make it a point to try to "push buttons," Griggs said, to see whether there are terms or situations in which a cadet might retaliate against the abuser.

Some cadets drop out of training, unable to endure the verbal abuse. Others have graduated and hit the streets with a field training officer — and found it unbearable.

"I've had friends... who quit within three weeks" of graduating from the academy, said Russell, who has been a cop for 17 years. "They're not used to the violence that you take, the verbal abuse."

That makes the screening process particularly important, Phelps said, as well as working with seasoned officers who may have lost their composure during a call or been the source of repeated complaints.

"You identify a problem and get it corrected," Phelps said. "The city makes a tremendous investment in every officer. You can't lose it."

Keep it in perspective

Officers and police officials say the key to handling the verbal assaults is to not take them personally, and to keep it in perspective.

The outbursts may be a reflection of frustration, or simply an inability to better express themselves.

"We're not going to arrest someone for being verbally ignorant," said Capt. Felecia Norris, commander of the training bureau.

"When they get upset, they resort to profanity or resort to rude hand gestures simply because they don't have the language skills in order to communicate."

The tirades are supposed to be tolerated, officers said, unless they escalate to the point where the offender is interfering with an officer's ability to do his or her job — or the person is showing signs that the verbal attack is about to turn physical.

Those are grounds for arrest. But someone simply venting anger or frustration at an officer is not.

"There is no 'contempt of cop,' " Griggs said.

Effective training and proper self-control are more important than ever, Phelps said.

"With the advancement of technology, everything we say, everything we do is being watched," he said.

With cell phone cameras, "that momentary lapse of just chewing somebody out is recorded and it's out there for everybody to see," he said.

Defusing hostility

Wichita's community policing policy is actually one of the department's best tools in defusing hostile behavior toward police, Griggs and Manuel said.

By interacting regularly with people they meet on their beats, they say, residents of all ages learn that officers are people, too.

Griggs said she puts a special emphasis on talking to kids because attitudes take root in childhood.

"I let them look at my new Charger," she said of her patrol car.

They love to climb in and look around, she said.

"If you let them know you're OK, and you talk to them —'What are you guys doing?' — they know and they respect that," Griggs said.

"Then, when you're driving down the street, they'll be waving at you or hollering, 'Hey, Griggs!' That's our way to counter the abuse you get from the older people."

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