The altercation between Sandra Bland and Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia has stayed in my head for the sheer senselessness of it and the tragic result, but also because of the lessons we might learn about public service.
It’s pretty clear that Encinia escalated what was going to be a warning into a physical encounter, including a threat to “light you up” with a taser, because he asked her to put out her cigarette and she said, “No.”
Whatever you may think about whether the stop was warranted in the first place, Encinia—the man with the badge, taser, gun, and legal sanction to use force—used his authority to serve his ego, not to control a dangerous situation.
But Encinia’s attitude toward Bland, and the reaction many had about Bland’s behavior (“She should have just bitten her tongue, been polite, and the whole thing would have been over”), points to a set of expectations that enable—and maybe even perpetuate—poor communication and bad customer service in the public sector.
The thinking is that you should always be polite and respectful to someone who holds all the power, even if that person’s job is to take care of you, even if that person’s salary is publicly funded, and even if that person is treating you like shit. Power trumps everything.
It’s easier, perhaps, to bite your tongue when the power holder carries a gun. But the sentiment extends to other situations as well. The stories of rudeness at the post office, the permit office, DSS, or the school district headquarters are legendary. To be sure, there are stories of very polite and helpful public servants as well, even among police officers. But as long as the worst cases are tolerated, the reputation of public servants as callous and insensitive bureaucrats is going to persist.
I think it goes beyond “customer service” training. It’s tied to the power dynamic that being a monopoly produces. For the most part, police departments are the only ones legally allowed to stop you from whatever you’re doing, detain you, question you and possibly arrest you. Similarly, there is usually only one purveyor of driver’s licenses or building permits where you live.
When everyone has to deal with you, even if you suck, it removes much of the economic incentive to treat people with respect, empathy and kindness. That’s especially true if your bad behavior or that of your fellow professionals elicits no consequences. But there should still be a social incentive to just be nice.
It’s no fun to get stopped by a cop, or to wait in line at the DMV, or to have to take time off from work to get your kid registered for school. But imagine how you’d suffer those events if you’re met with words or actions that say, “I know this sucks, but I’m going to do my best to make this easier,” compared to, “This is how I do things; deal with it.”
Public agencies—especially police departments—should proactively ensure that their people know and take to heart that part of their job is to empathize with the people they serve.