Incivility: At What Cost?

Not long ago in Montreal an oriental lady and her husband were pulled over in a routine road traffic stop. The driver, a woman and recent immigrant, was driving on a learner’s permit. The police officer took identification from both the driver and her husband. A second police car arrived and the officers talked among themselves. After waiting for what seemed an interminable time, the husband got out to inquire what was taking so long, but he was ordered to return to his car. Finally, the officer returned the licence and other identification and at the same time gave the woman a ticket for a defective taillight. When the couple went to pay the ticket they discovered that a cartoon monkey was drawn on the licence next to the wife’s Cantonese signature .

Was this racism? Was it a practical joke? Whatever it was, it was disrespectful and hurtful. The couple had every right to complain. This one incident did inestimable and lasting harm to the police service’s reputation.

Damage from incivility is instantaneous and almost irreversible. Consider the recent report from Connecticut where a state trooper was suspended because of his response to a 911 call. The call was for aid for a severely injured motor cyclist. The trooper responded to the call saying “Too bad” and hung up. On the second call the trooper said ” Yeah. Help will get there. Shouldn’t be playing games”. The cyclist died of brain injuries five days later. There was no suggestion that assistance was delayed because of the trooper’s response, but irreparable damage was done.

On a practical level incivility in word and gesture demonstrates arrogance and disrespect. Needless to say this invites a response in kind that frequently spirals downward into distrust and confrontation. In policing, officers’ arrogance and incivility brings the service as whole into disrepute. In the worst-case scenario whole segments of communities, most notably visible minorities, hold the police in contempt. Much of it can be traced to a lack of respect and police incivility.

A number of years ago my partner analysed the public complaints filed against his police service and found to his astonishment that over ninety- percent stemmed from a lack of civility.

Civility is defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as acting in a civil manner and civil is defined as “sober”, “decent”, “humane” and “polite”. Many scholars, such as Stephen L Carter , make the compelling argument that civility is the cornerstone upon which a free and democratic society is built.

Does the lack of courtesy have real consequences? Of course it does. Here are a couple of case studies that make the point.

Malcolm Gladwell in his intriguing new book Blink recounts the research undertaken by Wendy Levinson who wanted to determine why some highly skilled doctors got sued a lot, while other doctors who made lots of mistakes never faced a medical malpractice lawsuit. Her research revealed that the surgeons who had not been sued spent three minutes longer with their patients than those who had been sued .

In depth analysis revealed that there was no discernible difference in the quality or quantity of medical information given by either group, it came down to bedside manner. Those doctors who displayed dominance were more likely to be sued than those who demonstrated concern for their patients . Gladwell writes, “But in the end it comes down to a matter of respect, and the simplest way that respect is communicated is through tone of voice, and the most corrosive tone of voice that a doctor can assume is a dominant tone.”

Gladwell also describes the work of a psychologist John Gottman at the University of Washington where since the 1980’s he has conducted fifteen-minute interviews of over 3000 married couples in his “love lab”. Couples are asked to engage in a seemingly innocuous conversation, such as a discussion of the family pet. After the conversation, Gottman can predict with over 95 percent accuracy whether the marriage will last. Ironically the marriages of many argumentative couples lasted, whereas the marriages of couples who were outwardly polite to each other proved to be doomed. What made the difference? Was there any factor that made a difference between the two groups?

Of course, Gottman uses sophisticated measuring devices of the couple’s emotions during these seemingly innocuous conversations . But Professor Gottman concluded that there is one emotion above all others that is the greatest indicator that a marriage is in trouble. That emotion is contempt.

Gottman says, “Contempt is closely related to disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely rejecting and excluding someone from the community. … Contempt is special. If you can measure contempt, then all a sudden you don’t need to know every detail of the couple’s relationship.”

William H. Simon, a Columbia University law professor writing on the problems associated with solicitor-client privilege tells the story of a recent experiment at the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Centre in Lexington, Kentucky. The hospital responded to large losses in two malpractice cases in an innovative way. Instead of trying to limit disclosure of damaging information when mistakes were made, it adopted a policy of routine disclosure. When mistakes were made, the hospital informed the patient or family and apologized. They recommended the patient consult a lawyer and made the relevant information available immediately without request. When a malpractice claim was made, the hospital responded promptly with a reasonable offer of settlement.

Professor Simon writes, “The hospital’s premise was that malpractice law suits are fuelled less by financial motives than by anger and distrust. Disclosure and apology go a long way toward assuaging such feelings.”

True, many patients learned of mistakes that they never would have known of without the disclosure. But the astounding result was that, although the number of claims went up, the average payout and the total costs of claims dropped dramatically. The hospital considers the program a “resounding success.”

Lawsuits against police have become more prevalent. It was revealed recently10 that the Toronto Police have paid over $30 million since 1998 to settle claims against it and against its members. The terms of the settlements were confidential. The media report caused considerable public consternation. In fairness, each case must be assessed on its own terms to know whether the amount being paid to settle litigation was appropriate. But still, it cannot be denied that lawsuits against the police are a big budgetary item.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned by police communities across North America from the Lexington Veterans’ Medical Centre experience. Candour, full disclosure and apologies have a big payoff, and not just in human terms. More important, full disclosure ensures that lessons are learned, corrective action taken and a platform established for continuous improvement. Confidentiality and lack of transparency only leads to the perpetuation of problem conduct.

The big lesson, however, is that civility really matters. Incivility breeds anger, disrespect and distrust. And there are costs, both real and hidden.

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