The meaning of donuts
A new officer offering a sugary treat to his precinct commander bears testament to the value of ongoing communication
By Dave King
It is often daunting for an officer to approach or engage a higher-ranking officer in conversation within the police organizational structure. That barrier to communication can be reinforced or removed based on the routine responses of the ranking officer.
When you engage personnel around you in easy conversation on a routine basis, it can help ease conversation when something hard needs to be discussed. It can be the difference between an officer working for you or an officer who believes they are working with you. An officer working for you will do what is expected when you are present; an officer working with you will do what is needed without you being present.
Communicate both the "what" and the "why"
Justin was walking through the patrol room hall carrying a box of donuts that he was giving away to celebrate the completion of his formal field training program imminent release to patrol duties on his own. Justin came into my office and offered me a donut.
As I accepted his gift, I told him we would miss him tomorrow as he reported to East Precinct for duty instead of West where he and I were currently working. I had issued a personnel order for Justin a month ago that kept him assigned to my command at West Precinct. By issuing the personnel orders a month in advance, I try to allow an officer and their family time to work through any scheduling issues a new assignment might create at home. That personnel order was changed by the department the day before it went into effect and Justin was now reporting to duty across town on a different shift with little to no warning.
I asked if anyone had explained to him why he was so quickly assigned to East Precinct, as this was a last-minute move.
Justin said, “No. I am just happy to be here, sir.”
I directed Justin to sit down and explained why the recent staffing crises at East Precinct necessitated the move from West to East Precinct. I told him we were sorry to see him leave but the needs of the department made this the best course of action. In our short conversation, I tried to convey his value to the department and West Precinct. His willingness to be flexible and fill the staffing need at East Precinct was appreciated by me as well as the officers at East Precinct who were shorthanded. Justin nodded in understanding and left my office, continuing his rounds of the patrol room in search of new homes for the remaining donuts in his box.
How open is your door?
I see many aspects of effective communication on display in my contact with Justin.
It was a compliment that he was willing to come into the office of the precinct commander to extend a ritual of completion of the FTO program that was common among his peers. His confidence to do this was based on our prior conversations and contacts. He believed my “open-door policy” included him and that I would be interested in partaking in his completion of the field training milestone.
I called him by his name, Justin, which is the singular identifier he possesses that separates him from every other officer at the police department. With over 200 officers in the department, it is easy to not know everyone but a key component to communication is to know and use the names of those personnel who are assigned to your workgroup or command. It demonstrates you place value on that individual. This value builds trust between both parties and allows for an open communication platform.
By asking Justin if anyone had given him an explanation as to the reason for the sudden change in his assignment, I sent a message that he had value to the organization and deserved to know why he had been reassigned. Personnel who feel valued are more engaged and productive than those who believe they are just a name on a squad assignment sheet. In the absence of correct information, humans tend to fill in the gaps. We know “what happened” but will assign motive as to the “why it happened.” When our communication provides the “why,” it leaves less room for confusion or assigning ill intent to the action.
The value of verbal communication
Verbal communication is the most effective manner in which to convey value and worth to a member of the organization. Face-to-face verbal communication demonstrates a respect for the individual by the simple act of carving out time to meet. It allows for immediate feedback or questions by the individual and allows for non-verbal cues to demonstrate the authenticity of the message. It is not possible or practical to explain every decision made to every officer affected, but when possible or practical, I strongly recommend it.
Communication is as necessary to the health of an organization as blood is for a healthy body. Any restriction to the circulation of blood has consequences to the body and restrictions to communication have the same effect on an organization. Strive to know the names of those you work closely with. Engage in regular conversations with them and provide them with more than “what is happening” if you can provide the “why it is happening” when practical. The "why" will be the reason for those in your department to work alongside you without hesitation. Demonstrate that you consider yourself a police officer no matter what your rank or assignment.
About the author
Dave King began his law enforcement career in 1983 as a reserve deputy for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBSD). Hired full time by SBSD in 1986, he worked gang investigations and patrol duties for a 250-square-mile mountain substation. Dave joined the Vancouver Police Department in Washington state in 1993 and has served there as a patrol officer, detective, detective sergeant and patrol sergeant. He served on special operations (both as a lieutenant and commander), oversaw SWAT, K9, the civil disturbance team and traffic, and partook in a police practices exchange in Northumbria England and the Mounted Patrol Unit. He is currently assigned as a patrol precinct commander where he oversees police services to over 85,000 citizens and has served as the incident commander for multiple Antifa/Proud Boys protests. Dave is a graduate of the 248th session of the FBI National Academy.