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Mark Clark

Mark Clark

Mark Clark is the public information officer for a law enforcement agency in the southwest. He is also a photographer and contributor to POLICE Magazine.
Patrol

Responding to Civil Disputes

People often call the police for private matters; know how to handle it, even if it isn't technically in your job description.

April 11, 2008  |  by Dan Pasquale - Also by this author

The calls come in seemingly every day. It's another civil dispute between two people who just can't get figure out a problem on their own. So, they call on you, public servant, to come deal with their very personal problem.

These calls range from neighbors disputing property lines to a separated couple bickering over property and belongings. Any way you slice it, it's a private problem. Nevertheless, here you are being thrust into the middle of a situation that took years to deteriorate. Now you are expected to solve it in five minutes or less because you are, in fact, the police department, right?

Although civil disputes are no one's favorite calls for service, they do remain a very frequent part of our job. For every annoying caller that has made a career out of calling the police for every problem they have, there are usually several innocent people dragged into this battle standing in front of you. These are the people that may have never had an experience with the police department until you stood in front of them on that fine day. How will you handle it? How will you shape this person's view of your city's or county's police services?

Let's go over a few basic tips to help enhance the service you may be able to provide these people, despite the fact it isn't a police matter to begin with:

Work Out a Compromise on the Spot

Sometimes the quickest and easiest way to handle private arguments is to play mediator. Remember, just because you don't have the legal power to issue out a decision, that doesn't mean you can't give an opinion, right? Think about it, that is what they expected you to do when they called you, isn't it?

Try listening to both sides of the story separately and then come together and try to offer a compromise to the problem. If accepted, this can get you on the good graces of the callers and stop you from getting that oh-so-familiar recall to the same address for the same problem shortly after you leave.

Just remember, you can't tell people how to handle truly civil problems, but you can encourage and offer opinions and solutions. What they do with them is up to them, but usually people will take what you say to the bank if the offer is fair.

Public Mediation Services

When your opinion doesn't work, or when it's a problem that can't be solved by a quick and easy fix, try referring to two parties to a public mediation service. These can be found in the yellow pages, but for a better reaction have a list ready to go with you at all times. Most police departments have access to services through the county or private contracted services for just this situation. Ask around at your department, or check out the department's "information wall." You'll be surprised by the wealth of services offered.  

Public mediators tackle the problem the same way, but with more resources and more time. They have the time and energy to sit with people for hours while they explain the entire situation leading up to the problem that caused them to call the police. More importantly, these services free you up to do your job elsewhere while the involved parties still get the problem resolved and avoid having to call you back every time they disagree.

Find a Temporary Band-aid Solution

Sometimes, despite your best Dr. Phil impression, certain problems just can't be solved in a timely matter. In these cases, it's time to try to find a temporary fix, or a "band-aid" solution.

For example, if it is a separated couple arguing over who keeps what, a temporary fix may be to leave everything as it is until the two can see their attorneys the next morning and work it out legally. If both parties agree to this, the problem is solved for the moment. This still frees you up to get back to your other calls and keeps both people happy, however temporary it is.

Lay Down the Law

Last but not least, when all else fails, some people or problems (or combinations of both) just can't be satisfied no matter your effort level. Some people will stick to their guns and not budge an inch, and others seem to be in desperate situations that they simply won't see a way out of.

In these situations, when your best efforts have failed, it's time to tell them what a civil problem really is. It is not a police matter, it is a private matter between two parties that the police department often has no power or authority to rule on. That's what civic court is for, and that is the route these people will likely have to go.

The important thing to remember during this time is this: Be as polite as possible and let them know that despite their problem being a civil issue, it can turn criminal if one party crosses that line. For example, if a couple can't decide who gets what and one side decides to swing on the other, the line has been crossed.

It is important to tell people this because often in these kinds of situations, other officers will be recalled to the house later in the day to "clean up" a civil situation that has suddenly turned criminal. Try to help people avoid this scenario by telling them about it up front.

Sometimes we as officers can assist in solving civil problems, but other times our best efforts may be met with failure. Either way, we as officers have a responsibility to serve the community in which we work, so give them a shot. Good luck!

 

Tags: Duty Tips, Domestic Disputes


Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

a355_2673 @ 4/11/2008 2:59 PM

Can there be someone that can hadial the calls the cops do not want to respond to like civial maters like child custody and visitation, where the parents are supose to be exchanging the child for visitation and may have run into problems with a spouse wile trying to exchange the child. Private maters like room mates who did not pay rent and are wanted out of the house. Let me know If any ideas are out there.
Nic

officer-lindgren @ 4/11/2008 6:20 PM

There is a position that some department have, and that is community service officer. The draw back is that they are unarmed. Child custody situations are more frequently becoming a trigger to violence. And, depending on your jurisdiction, a room mate that failed to pay rent could end up the receiver of some type of metal (not to be confused with medal). In addition to safety issues, if the administration of a department finds a way to justify the hiring of less expensive personnel, they just might. This could leave you one or more sworn and armed persons short during a major situation. Face it, the Chiefs don't always worry about safey since their desk, at least most of their desks, never go faster than 0 and their biggest risk they face daily is spilt hot coffee.

David Moore S-55 @ 4/12/2008 12:05 AM

These are very tricky and dangerous calls even though they may appear or are civil in nature, until the unit arrives for assessment. Anytime families are involved (Emotions –Alcohol – Drug use are very good possibilities upon arrival and reason for call). These calls can become very dangerous, very quick for even the best Officer, Deputy, and Trooper! For unarmed folks like a (Uniformed -Public Safety Aid or department family support function member – even more so...Better to have a uniform respond initially to survey and perform an assessment based on dispatch priority assigned to call for service. Have cards made up with support agencies numbers, email addresses, web links and provide them to parties. Your empathy and your attitude of how you verbalize recommendations, suggestions will either make things better or worse…That’s the reason you have two ear’s and only one mouth on the human body. If after assessment the scene is stable then call the PSA, support folks to try and handle, resolve the issues. Good training is Key to success here (MOAB-Verbal Judo etc). There is never an easy answer to these type calls, and will be responding for a long time to come, as the action to solve these has to come from within the parties themselves to solve, you are only mediating, recommending or taking in to custody as needed. It’s their responsibility to make better. Talking to an intoxicated, drugged up, or emotional person will tax your toolbox of resources quickly!! Always expect the unexpected as it will happen on these and other high emotion calls - the sky is falling calls. Hope this helps some. Stay Safe & Aware!

Scott Baker @ 7/14/2014 9:19 AM

I have an child custody issue, the mom called the police after dropping off my son to her. She tells them how she is afraid of me I always have to bring a witness with me besides my son, and I do not want my son in the middle of something that the adults should handle. I have no police record, no restraining order, NOTHING. Then last week she had a police escort, my son is put in a bad situation he does not need to see that.I have never assaulted her, I do get frustrated because she does not follow the court order, I go with weeks with not knowing if my son is ok, they always take her side over listening to what she does. How come she can lie to the officer without them even talking with me? I know that court is probally the only solution but I have been there four time and every time she goes back doing the same things, alienating me from my son. I am not perfect I do get frustrated but it's because my son is suffering and I want is best for him.

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