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Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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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!


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