Verbal and Nonverbal Communication in Criminal Justice
The administration of criminal justice is difficult and complex work which requires training not just in legal doctrines and procedural norms but also in the psychological makeup and behavioral tendencies exhibited at various levels of the criminal justice system. This calls for a perceptive ability to engage in effective communication both of the verbal and nonverbal kind. Indeed, from police work and courtroom procedure to detention and juvenile corrections facility oversight, the processing and placement of individuals within the criminal justice system is accommodated by certain communication approaches that can optimize efficiency, stability and fairness. The discussion hereafter considers the array of techniques and expectations that shape the communication practices of police officers, court personnel and corrections officers.
Communication is an everyday part of police work. A great many law enforcement scenarios call for the intuitive use of communication methods, whether one is working the field to apprehend a perpetrator, working within the community to enhance a police presence, working in coordination with other officers and public administration personnel or filing a report on n incident. In all of these instances, it is incumbent upon the police officer to possess certain fully developed capabilities within the scope of the English language. However, this is often not part of the extensive training that police officers undergo as they prepare for the challenges and hazards of the occupation. The result, Wallace & Roberson (2009) remarks is that "not only do some police officers have difficulty writing a simple sentence, their spelling can cause laughter or professional embarrassment." (p. Wallace & Roberson, p. 2)
For many officers, these seemingly academic dimensions of the occupation are seen as secondary in importance to the physical and procedural realities of law enforcement at the street and neighborhood level. However, the research encountered here and particularly in the text by Wallace & Robertson underscores the increasing emphasis placed on certain communication techniques which can significantly improve the dexterity and intuition of police officers while simultaneously improving public relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities that they are dispatched to serve. To this point, one way that trust and connectivity are earned betwixt law officers and members of the community is through effective use of the media. Here, we can see that it is extremely important for the seasoned police officer to understand the medium being used and to harness it through effective verbal and nonverbal communication. As Wallace & Roberson note, in addition to direct interaction at town hall style meetings and safety-watch gatherings, "law enforcement officers also pass on information within the community through the local media. This form of communication reaches a large audience and in some situations is instantaneous, as in the case of a live newscast." (p. 36)
The manner in which the police officer presents himself and the information which he seeks to broadcast can directly impact the safety and security of the public. Communicating with clarity, in an organized fashion and according to the particular realities of mass media broadcasting can be the difference between a message that is received and one that is disregarded by its intended audience. For instance, if a police officer intends to inform the public about the looming threat posed by an impending natural disaster, the audience's receptiveness to the message will depend considerably upon his ability to convey the need for proper evacuation procedures, to detail plans for sheltering members of the community, to ensure that target audiences have access to the proper channels of information and to ensure that there is generally a notable police presence to assist the public during a time of crisis.
It is thus that many veteran officers, especially those owning higher ranks in the police force, will engage in some training -- whether formal or on-the-job -- in order to gain some media savvy. To this extent, positions of leadership in law enforcement often take on proportions that are simultaneously practical and political. Using mass media as a way to communicate with the public can carry significant and sometimes unexpected consequences relating to public impression. The expectations placed upon law enforcement by the public are often tested before the camera. As a result, many law enforcement agencies have very particular procedural norms used to guide officers in a position of leadership who must speak before the press. According to Wallace & Roberson, "chiefs, administrators, and officers will have contact with the media -- sometimes daily. In many departments, the rules for these contacts have been codified by a standard operating procedure (SOP) of media relations. This procedure has three advantages. First, it assures the media and the city manager of uniformity in dealing with the press. Second, it establishes procedures that both parties know and can follow. If media representatives are consulted when the document is being drafted, they will be more understanding of its purpose and will follow the procedures more readily. Third, the SOP informs the officers on the street about how they should respond to an unexpected contact with a news reporter." (Wallace & Roberson, p. 234)
One area in which the value and importance of nonverbal cues is essential is within the walls of the courtroom. Here, decisions are made by a combination of legal parameters and human instincts. While the courts are designed to maintain a core objectivity in rendering these crucial decisions, the human element of the process within the jury, amongst attorneys and within the judge will all have an impact on how decisions are ultimately rendered. This means that the manner in which communication occurs will impact personal responses. According to Peskin (2011), this is a reality which has a significant bearing on the behavior of an attorney, especially within the context of a witness testimony. Peskin reports that "over 60% of the impact of meaning of the communicated message resides in the non-verbal behavior accompanying the oral message. The ability to read and decode this leakage is of invaluable aid to the trial lawyer. It can be used in detecting deception during the interview or interrogation; it can be used in orchestrating your conduct and your witness's conduct during the course of the trial; it can be used to enhance your ability to communicate to the jury or to the court." (Peskin, p. 1)
In Peskin's view, there is an inextricable relationship between the meaning of the words spoken in testimony and the nonverbal cues that accompany them. The manner in which a witness's tone wavers while speaking; certain movements of the eyes; facial expressions caused by involuntary muscle memory; body language; hand gestures and a host of other nonverbal cues can help to betray sentiments, feelings and facts that a person may have attempted to obscure in verbal communication. It is thus that certain nonverbal cues can become an essential part of interpreting the meaning of one's testimony and using it to pry further into otherwise obscured information concerning a case or crime. Peskin notes that the degree to which an attorney is able to effectively use these cues to yield information pertinent to a case will be highly dependent on his or her capacity to read and respond to these cues.
Peskin also indicates that the attorney may give off certain cues inadvertently. The use of certain body language or vocal intonation can impact the impressions of a jury or a judge and have a direct bearing on the outcome of a case decision. Therefore, the effective legal counselor will work to build impressions using these subtle cues in order to influence the outcome of a case, whether questioning a witness or delivering an argument to the courtroom. In either instance, word choice and nonverbal cues are intertwined in the delivery and receipt of the intended message.
Corrections are a decidedly challenging context in which to practice communications tactics. In this instance, officers are typically given the very difficult and sometimes dangerous job of maintaining order, stability, equity, fairness and authority while largely outnumbered by inmates and frequently working in hostile environments. This imposes a demanding task of crafting messages and their delivery very carefully so as not to stoke resentment but to simultaneously retain unfettered jurisdiction. Achieving this type of balance requires extensive training on how to choose words, how to carry one's self and how to differentiate communication whether with inmates or colleagues. Further, communication with colleagues must be differentiated depending on whether this occurs behind closed doors or within the earshot or visual range of prisoners. In the latter case, it will be necessary to be selective with the information availed and specifically to avoid the conveyance of any personal information that inmates might attempt to exploit.
Communication also takes on an important role in the preventative and responsive capacities of a corrections facility. The predisposition of those housed in a correctional facility either toward crime or violence requires procedural plans for coordinated prevention or response, both of which demand…