07/06/2006

Utah officers learn how to deal with the irate

By PAT REAVY
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City) 
Copyright 2006 The Deseret News Publishing Co.

Sticks and stones can cause serious injury to police, but officers are more likely to have names thrown at them. And although name-calling won't physically hurt them, it can wear on them after awhile.

That's why some police departments along the Wasatch Front offer classes for officers on how to deal with an irate person. Some departments call it verbal conflict resolution. Others call it verbal judo.

Those verbal judo skills get used daily, not on hard-core criminals but with regular citizens, such as those pulled over for speeding.

"No one likes to get stopped. Most people do not believe they were wrong," said Utah Highway Patrol trooper Jeff Nigbur. "Generally the public doesn't think failure to signal is a big violation, and it's not, but it's still the law."

Some motorists aren't afraid to tell an officer how they really feel about being pulled over. Police hear everything from "don't you have a real crime to solve?" to name-calling and in extreme instances, people refusing to pull over.

Nigbur once stopped a woman who had her two young daughters sitting in the back seat. The woman's registration had expired six months earlier, he said. She had even received a ticket for her expired registration three months before the stop but still hadn't resolved the problem.

The woman, he said, was none too pleased to receive a second ticket.

"All her emotions and anger spilled out on me," Nigbur said. "She basically verbally assaulted me. She lost it, right there on the side of the freeway . . . just goes berserk."

The woman refused to sign the ticket that Nigbur dropped in her lap.

"I don't particularly care if someone calls me a name. It doesn't bother me," he said. "It's like they think for some reason that that morning you decided you were going to pick on that person. You have to deal with the negative all the time."

Sandy police Sgt. Victor Quezada said he has had motorists take away the pen with which he was writing a citation, scribble all over a ticket once it was handed to them, and crumble up a ticket and throw it on the ground.

"You can't take it personal. You've got to realize it's a job," he said. "I don't think any officer actually gets enjoyment issuing citations, but at the same time, it's something that has to be done. It has been proven people do change their driving habits through citations."

But the name-calling and the abuse can wear on officers. And if a motorist unleashes on an officer who happens to be having a bad day, most do have a breaking point.

"You make more contact with citizens almost every day than anyone else, but it's not always the best contact," Quezada said. "We're here to take a little bit, but we're not here to be abused."

That's why some departments offer classes to help officers remain cool.

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Lutz Noth teaches conflict resolution for the sheriff's office. It's the same class, he said, taught at POST and the Fred House Academy for the Utah Department of Corrections.

"We teach how to recognize each officer's button and how they cannot personalize (the job)," he said. "If this is your button and this is how it gets pushed, this is how to deal with it. The point is to deactivate the button."

One of the best things to do is to talk to the upset person and let him know he has options, Noth said. For example, officers will let an upset person know they can either take their ticket and go home or, if they continue being abusive, they can be taken to jail for disorderly conduct.

"Usually if we give options like that, the person will take the lesser," he said.

The public holds law enforcers to a higher standard, Nigbur said. So it's important for an officer to keep his cool.

"You have to maintain control of your emotions because you have a pretty special power to take a person's rights away," he said.

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