The Citizen Interview Exercise is one of the more common of all assessment center exercises because it is so typical of what police officers do—at almost any level—day in and day out. Dealing with the public in a variety of settings and circumstances is a common occurrence for most police officers, and dealing with citizen complaints and problems—even those involving the way they were treated by the police—is something police officers, supervisors and middle managers do on a regular basis. But it is also one of the most important things the police do and they need to do it correctly.
In the Citizen Interview Exercise, the candidate is placed in the role of a police supervisor or command officer and is informed that he or she is about to meet with a citizen who has a problem who is coming to them for assistance. The “problem” will usually be something to do with the way the citizen was treated by a police officer with the level or quality of services rendered by the police.
The complainant may allege racial discrimination, sexual harassment or simply rude or unprofessional conduct on the part of an officer. In any event, it will be up to the candidate to find out all he or she can about the incident and to attempt to find a reasonable and acceptable way to solve the problem in a way that will satisfy the complainant. The person playing the role of the citizen will usually be following a script to ensure consistency in the manner in which the role is played from one candidate to another.
The Citizen Interview Exercise is usually not a difficult exercise for most police officers because dealing with citizen complaints is something that they have been doing from the very first day they graduated from the police academy. However, the candidate may not be prepared to deal satisfactorily with the citizen’s complaint and may be tempted to try to either minimize the problem, make some excuse for the officer’s behavior, or hand the problem off to their own supervisor.
None of these actions is acceptable and will usually result in low marks from the assessors. Instead, the candidate is expected to accept ownership for the problem and to attempt to find an acceptable and reasonable way of solving the problem, even if it must eventually go to someone in higher authority for eventual resolution. This is not always an easy task and some candidates may find this task more difficult than they think.
One of the biggest problems candidates encounter in the Citizen Interview Exercise is getting to the heart of the problem and devising a plan of action that will solve the problem to the satisfaction of the citizen. Candidates sometimes fail to probe deeply enough into the situation to see the real issues and then treat the problem in a very superficial manner.
For example, if the person playing the role of an aggrieved citizen happens to be an African American or a member of another minority group, a candidate may suspect that some kind of racial discrimination was involved, particularly if the role player continues to insist that the officer had no reason to “single me out.” Failure to at least explore the possibility of racial discrimination in such a situation could be a key error by the candidate.
Candidates may also jump on simplistic, short-term solutions to solve a problem that, if not properly addressed, may grow worse. For example, if a candidate is told by an attractive young lady that the officer who stopped her asked her inappropriate questions during the stop and was obviously trying to pursue a personal relationship with her, the candidate would fall far short of the mark if he or she promised only to have the officer apologize to the woman and do nothing else.
In this situation, the officer may have a history of using his official position to pursue women and the candidate should probe further into the officer’s conduct to determine if this was an isolated incident or a pattern of inappropriate behavior by the officer.
Some candidates may make the mistake of immediately criticizing the officer and accepting the citizen’s story at face value, even when there is no evidence to support their story. “Officer Randall was clearly in violation of our policy in this situation,” would not be something a candidate would want to say before checking deeper into the facts of the incident.
The citizen might very well tell the chief the next day, after finding out that nothing had been done about her complaint that, “Sergeant Brown told me that Officer Randall was clearly in violation of your own policy!” This is obviously not something the chief wants to hear a citizen say, and you can be sure that he will be discussing the incident with Sergeant Brown very soon.
Candidates need to be sympathetic and show the citizen that they have their full attention. In this exercise, a candidate should try to make the citizen believe that solving his or her problem is the most important thing on his or her mind at that very moment, regardless of that stack of performance evaluation reports sitting on the candidate’s desk that are due tomorrow!
While it is important for a candidate to make the citizens feel that he or she is sincerely interested in their problem and that the candidate will take all necessary and reasonable action to resolve it, the candidate cannot afford to make snap decisions or to make promises that her or she cannot keep.
Sometimes citizens expect too much of the police and have unrealistic expectations of what the police can and cannot do for them. It is much better to tell the citizen what can and will be done and to promise that, if a problem is discovered, it will be corrected.
While it is important to get “the other side of the story,” this is not something the citizen wants to hear. To the citizen, there is only one side of the story and they have told the candidate what happened. A more tactful way would be saying to the citizen, “Well, this is certainly a serious matter, and I will speak with Officer Jones immediately to find out what he (or she) has to say about this.”
It is always a good idea to let the citizen know what will happen next. Will they be contacted by someone later? Will they be informed about what will happen next? A candidate should never allow the citizen to leave the interview with any questions about what happens next or about where they stand.
“I will call you next Tuesday to let you know what I have found out” or “Our policy requires us to resolve these matters within two weeks, so you will be hearing from someone very soon.” This lets the citizen know that some action—maybe not what they want, but something—will be taken as a result of their complaint.
A candidate should not be too eager to hand the problem off to someone else because that shows a lack of concern for the feelings of the citizen. Even if the complaint may eventually go up the chain of command to someone in a position of higher authority, a candidate must do what he or she can to solve the problem now. No one likes to be told, “Well, sir, this is not something that I can handle but if you will come back on Monday and see . . . ”
Finally, a candidate should always avoid the tendency to be defensive or to make excuses for the officer or for the department. It is permissible to explain why certain things are done, but not in such a way that the citizen feels like the candidate is simply making excuses for the officer, which is a sure sign of a cover up. If the citizen believes that the candidate is simply covering for the officer, nothing will ever convince that person that his or her complaint was taken seriously, and the police will have lost credibility in their eyes.
In the Citizen Interview Exercise, as in almost anything else the police do, experience is the best teacher. Candidates develop their skills by practicing every day when dealing with citizens and by assuring them of their interest and sincerity in all they do. Candidates must be problem-solvers, not just a report taker. They must take the initiative and find a reasonable and appropriate way of solving their problem presented to them.
Dealing effectively with citizen complaints is a skill that police officers will find increasingly important as they continue on in their professional career and as they climb the promotional ladder. Ultimately, isn’t solving the problems of citizens what the police are all really about?
Charles D. Hale is the president of Resource Management Associates, an organization that specializes in designing and administering customized written examinations and assessment centers for police and fire personnel. Charles is the author of Police Patrol, and The Assessment Center Handbook for Police and Fire Personnel. He may be reached at RMA2500@aol.com.