Sgt. Marty Tucker thinks millennials have trouble talking to strangers. Tucker runs training for the Sheriff's Office in Spokane, Wash., and he says new recruits seem inhibited when making face-to-face contacts with members of the public.
"They're so stressed out about making contact that they don't think about anything else," he says. "So they get up there, and then they'll freeze up."
In a job that depends on good communication skills, Tucker says this is a huge problem. And Tucker isn't alone. For the past few years, police administrators and trainers have become increasingly vocal about what they see as a major shortcoming of young law enforcement recruits.
"I wouldn't say they're a different breed," says Thom Dworak, a retired police sergeant in suburban Chicago who now works as a police trainer. "But I had a field training class two weeks ago that was primarily older millennials, on the job five to eight years, and they're even whining about the new ones coming in."
The problem, say trainers like Dworak, is that millennials conduct so much of their social interactions digitally that they don't have as much experience reading people's body cues. Dworak says when he was growing up, "if you had problems with your friend, you discussed it in the alley." Millennials discuss things online; but those online skills don't help much when dealing with the public out on the street.
That's why the Spokane Sheriff's Office now puts new hires through a kind of remedial people-skills class. Anthony Anderman set up the training, which requires rookies to walk around a shopping mall and a bus station, trying to engage strangers in conversation.
As he watches the deputies chatting with people, Anderman explains that the purpose of the exercise is to work on things like body language and to practice "reading" people before making contact.
"So that way when they walk up to them and actually speak to them, they have some sort of an idea of whom they're running into," he says. "If they get their pre-planning incorrect, or close, they then learn how to adapt their communication and body language."
After each conversation, field training officers pull the deputies aside to review small things, such as the deputies' hand gestures, eye contact, even the sincerity of their smiles.
Roaming the mall in search of strangers to chat up, new Deputy Russell Aldrich says he's developing strategies for "pre-planning" his conversations.
"Usually I'm looking at what they're wearing, if they have a logo hat or something," he says. "Then you can go up and start talking about that sports team to relax them a little bit."
Or, he says, "you can talk about the weather."
Some might think these people skills don't need to be taught, but Aldrich and the other young deputies seem to take the lessons seriously.
"I see the millennial thing a little bit," Aldrich says. He's noticed how much time people of his generation spend conversing online.
"Even through the [police] academy, watching some of our classmates, how they interacted with other people, some of them were interacting through Snapchat, and that is how they communicate with each other."
But not everyone is ready to blame millennials and their social media.
"I don't know if I completely buy into that particular assessment," says Shawn Weil, a cognitive scientist with a company called Aptima.
It did research for the Pentagon on how to strengthen the conversational skills of soldiers and Marines. That research is the basis for the training being given to the deputies in Spokane, and Aptima is now developing video-based tools to help police improve their interaction skills. Weil says some people need to be taught those skills, but he wouldn't single out one particular generation.
"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 [Generation] X or baby boomers who can't give me eye contact," he says.
What's important, Weil says, is to help police understand how small gestures and conversational styles are just as important in their daily work as in other social jobs, such as sales or journalism.
"You want to develop rapport and you want to develop effective engagement and have the right demeanor," Weil says. "The difference really comes in power."
That's because soldiers and cops carry guns — and wear uniforms. And in fact, in Spokane, the trainers have deputies approach people first in plain clothes, 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 — making body language that much more complicated.
Back at the mall, Tony Anderman watches his deputies, critiquing their performance.
"He still has his hands in his pockets, he's bringing it out, kind of talking," Anderman says. "He's relaxed, now the pedestrian is starting to talk with their hands."
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 a small thing that all cops should understand.
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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