In Social Media Age, Young Cops Get Trained For Real-Life Conversation : All Tech Considered Some police officials say their millennial-aged recruits are so used to communicating using social media that they need training in talking with people face to face.

In Social Media Age, Young Cops Get Trained For Real-Life Conversation

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, all the attention on shootings by police and, in some cases, the shootings of police officers make it easy to forget a basic reality. Most law enforcement is not about guns.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's about talking to people, taking complaints, listening to witnesses, building relationships with sources or just managing an encounter on the street so it doesn't go wrong.

INSKEEP: Some police trainers say that part of the job has been neglected. The trainers say younger officers of the millennial generation need help with their people skills.

MARTIN: NPR's Martin Kaste spent time with officers who are working on them.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If you happened to walk through the River Park Square Mall in Spokane, Wash., last week, you might have been approached by a clean-cut, young man who seemed a little nervous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How are you doing today, sir? How are you doing today?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good. You?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good. I was wondering if you had a couple of minutes that I could talk to you, ask you a couple of questions about law enforcement in the community.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Got to go. Sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. Have a nice day.

KASTE: The fellow trying to start a conversation there, he's a cop, a Spokane County Sheriff's deputy, to be exact. And he's not the only one. Seven newly hired deputies were roaming the mall, all in plainclothes with instructions to chat people up.

ALEX VELIKODNYY: My third contact, she was hesitating talking to me.

KASTE: This is Deputy Alex Velikodnyy, reporting back to Tony Anderman. Anderman's the one who set up the exercise. They're reviewing the deputies' ability to recognize body language - other people's and his.

VELIKODNYY: Yesterday, you pointed out some things I was doing, like messing with the ring, shifting body. So I've been watching that and working on that.

TONY ANDERMAN: Right. You do a lot of the rocking of the foot. So when - again, it goes back to sincere conversations. How do you establish that trust within the first 30 seconds with a sincere greeting?

KASTE: You might think that this kind of thing doesn't need to be taught. But Sergeant Marty Tucker says you'd be surprised.

MARTY TUCKER: These young people, they have no idea.

KASTE: Tucker runs the training of new deputies, and he's convinced that the new generation's dependence on social media means they have less practice with face-to-face communication.

TUCKER: We are finding and talking with these guys and seeing them, they're so stressed out about making contact that they don't think about anything else. So they get up there, and then they'll freeze up. They'll just go - oh.

KASTE: And that just won't work, Tucker says, not in a job that's all about talking to strangers. You hear this kind of complaint all the time from police chiefs and trainers, that millennials just don't know how to talk to people.

RUSSELL ALDRICH: I can see it a little. I see the millennial thing a little bit.

KASTE: Russell Aldrich is another one of the young deputies roaming this mall. He thinks he has better people skills because he didn't get a cellphone until college. But when he looks around at the others his age, he does see technology replacing conversation.

ALDRICH: Even through the academy, watching some of our classmates, how they interacted with other people. Like, some of them were interacting through, like, Snapchat. And that is how they communicate with each other.

KASTE: But is it really fair to call this a generational problem and to blame it on social media?

SHAWN WEIL: I don't know if I completely buy into that particular assessment.

KASTE: Shawn Weil is a cognitive scientist with Aptima. That's a company that's done research for the Pentagon on how to strengthen the conversational skills of soldiers and Marines. That research is the basis for the training that's now being given to the deputies in Spokane.

WEIL: I've met plenty of folks who are millennial in their generation who have fine social interaction skills and certainly plenty of people who are Gen X or baby boomers who can't give me eye contact.

KASTE: He says, for some people, these skills come with experience. Other people need to be taught. The skills are familiar to anyone in a social job, like sales or journalism.

WEIL: You want to develop rapport, and you want to develop effective engagement and have the right demeanor. The difference really comes in power.

KASTE: Because soldiers and cops carry guns and wear uniforms. In fact, in Spokane, the trainers have the deputies approach people first in plainclothes and then in uniform so they can see how it changes things. Cops also have to try to seem approachable, while at the same time staying alert for possible threats. And that makes the body language that much more complicated.

ANDERMAN: He still has his hands in his pockets. He's bringing it out, kind of talking.

KASTE: Back at the mall, Tony Anderman is still watching his deputies, critiquing their performance.

ANDERMAN: He's relaxed. Now the pedestrian's starting to talk with her hands.

KASTE: It's a small thing, someone mirroring someone else's hand gestures. But to Anderman's trained eye, it's the sign of a respectful, informative interaction. And regardless of generation gaps, he thinks it's the kind of small thing that all cops should understand. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Spokane.

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