The Explanation as an Essential Police Technique

I believe that every recruit school should include a two-hour module on The Art of the Explanation.

The Explanation is a powerful technique.  Over the course of a career the honest and artful use of the Explanation should prevent many stomach aches; headaches; spikes in blood pressure; resentments; sleep disorders; IAD tabs and other injuries.  Why do we need to teach such an off-beat thing?  Explanations can be hard to do right. It’s hard just to get our heads around them.

Explanation has a bad rep.  I am sure that a sworn person’s first associations with the word are negative, maybe hostile.  Explain myself? No way.  I am authorized under law.  I’m not justifying myself to Them. I need not justify my actions nor my right to take action.  Screw Them.  I only put myself at risk by looking weak.

The larger culture and the organizational culture of law enforcement discourage males, and those who work in these male-dominated settings, from offering explanations. The culture sets up a mano v. mano dynamic in which we must have a winner and a loser.  It’s what the economists call a zero-sum game.   In my observation, it takes some years of experience for individuals to harvest enough physical pain and emotional injury to appreciate the habits of empathy and humility. At 20 years on, the best officers could write a guidelines book entitled, “Zen and the Art of Police Effectiveness.”  As one old pro said, “I give people the room to do what I want them to do.”

The word explanation comes from the Latin root word for making things level or equivalent.  To explain is not to justify oneself or qualify oneself.  It is, the dictionary tells us, “to make plain or clear; render understandable or intelligible; to make clear the cause or reason of something.”  One does this by giving the other party some more info.  You never ask permission and you don’t have to tell them chapter and verse, but some info to create a mutual understanding of what is going on.  You explain in order to create a shared pool of meaning.

Never use explanations or apologies as backdoor efforts to win the argument.  As in, “If you had half a brain you’d know why I am detaining you,” or “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt.”  If one has not developed the humility that guides the best cops and best leaders, you do much less damage if you simply remain silent.

We cannot control our first reactions to things. Human brains don’t work that way.  We still respond to others initially with the primitive brain, that is always going to want to lash back at or run from perceived threats.  Old Fight or Flee.  We CAN control our second thought and first action.  That’s where humility comes in, protecting our integrity and our effectiveness.

Some explanation basics.

Make enough space in your head by temporarily quieting any anger, reluctance or insecurity.  Take a deep breath and try to keep your mind and your feet in the same place.

Make it brief, for everyone’s benefit.  Any explanation that takes more than 30 seconds is probably disintegrating into an excuse, a cover story or a quarrel. “Sir, I stopped you because you are the same height, gender and ethnicity as the rough description we have of a suspect in the area.” Period. (10 or so seconds).

Uphold the dignity of the other person throughout.  When one says “Sir…” one should use facial language and a tone that says “dignified human being,” not “Listen, asshole…”  Most beefs that escalate from stops to arrests and IAD tabs start with simple disrespect, transmitted by nonverbal and verbal signals.

Create shared understanding of the meaning of the encounter.  “Sir, I stopped you because you are the same height, gender and ethnicity as the rough description we have of a suspect in the area.

With the right attitude, signals and words, in that order, one can in less than 20 seconds create a mutual, working understanding in a potential conflict situation.

This kind of training will help personnel live happier, longer lives.




About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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1 Response to The Explanation as an Essential Police Technique

  1. bob282 says:

    Powerful stuff and great wisdom.

    Like all things, practice, practice , practice.
    Could be a well used reminder at all levels of annual retraining.

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