A former patrol officer and police detective shares his wisdom about defusing conflict and staying cool when the crazies start ranting.
Police officers deal with a lot of difficult people—more so, I’d bet, than any other class of professional does. I learned this the hard way. As a young police officer on patrol, I got screamed at on a regular basis for simply doing my job. I thought this would end when I became a police detective. Nope! At least once a day, somebody called me yelling about a case.
I eventually left law enforcement to open my own private investigation firm. I quickly learned that people like to scream at P.I.s, too.
How Not to Get Out of a Ticket
When I was a patrol officer, people on traffic stops felt it was necessary to scream at me. I was always, and still am, amazed at their logic. Do they think that yelling at a cop will get them out of a ticket?
I usually got yelled at for “not going after real criminals” or “harassing innocent people.” Then there were the ones who claimed they didn’t do whatever it was they did, like run a stop sign. First they would ask, “What stop sign?” and then they would say, “I didn’t run it.” When I heard this, I would remind them of my reasoning: If they didn’t see the stop sign, they didn’t stop.
If there is a chance of getting out of a ticket, it will be through kindness. Try it sometime.
How Not to Win Friends and Influence Police Detectives
When I became a detective, I thought the days of screaming citizens were well behind me. I was wrong. People were always mad about their cases. Someone’s house would get broken into, and if I made an arrest but didn’t get the property back, they would yell at me for not being able to find the property. If I got the property back but couldn’t make an arrest, they would yell at me for not getting the suspect.
It was a no-win situation. Once, I made an arrest and got the stolen property back, but the victim yelled at me because the suspect had broken the tray on his old printer. The victim wanted the police department to buy him a new one.
Another time, a lady whose house had been burgled came to the police department and asked to see the detective working the case. I got the call and sorted through my eighty-plus case files, trying to find hers. After several minutes, I still hadn’t found it, but I headed down to the lobby to speak to her anyway.
She immediately screamed at me because I hadn’t arrested anyone and pointed out (loudly) that I should have no problem making a quick arrest because the suspect was on video. I calmly explained that I had more than eighty cases, I would get to hers, and if I could identify a suspect, I would seek a warrant.
She not-so-calmly berated and belittled me for several minutes. She said I was lazy and incompetent, much more. I asked her when the break-in had happened.
“Last night,” she said. Which meant that the case had not even made it across my desk, a chief reason that I couldn’t find it in the files.
A footnote: When I reviewed the video, it showed a guy with a towel over his head—surveillance video fail.
How Not to Engage with the Crazies
After leaving law enforcement and becoming a private investigator, I thought my days of being screamed at were behind me. Wrong again.
One of my first jobs was a child custody case. I was retained to do a social media investigation and to gather witness statements from an incident involving a lot of alcohol. I headed to one witness’ house. The guy who answered the door was very nice, but the girl I needed to speak to had just left.
That night I received a call from the girl, and I could immediately tell from her tone that she was not in a good mood. I told her what I wanted to speak to her about, and she screamed at me to stay away from her house, her kids, her friend, and her friend’s house and kids. The latter people had nothing to do with my case, so it was fairly easy to stay away from them. I kept my cool and tried to calm her down, but she eventually hung up on me…and that wasn’t the end.
The next evening, I got another call from some girl I didn’t know, but she knew the person I’d spoken to the night before. She first asked me my rates, and then launched into a tirade. She told me that I was worthless because I didn’t have a job. (I guess she doesn’t understand how a small business works.) She told me I was not a real P.I. because “real P.I.s drive around with hotties and take pictures without being seen.” (I guess she doesn’t understand how an investigation works.)
Sometimes, it’s just not worth explaining the business to people. She continued to share her strong, hostile feelings with me and warned me to stay away from her, her house (She even gave me her address.), her boyfriend, and her kids. I told her that was fine because I had no idea who she or any of those other people were.
It turns out that the girl was going through a divorce and thought her ex had hired a P.I.
How to Be the Bigger Person…and a True Professional
When I am faced with difficult people, I remind myself to be professional. I have learned that nothing good comes of yelling back, even if it makes you feel better in the moment. When you’re getting screamed at, remind yourself that this isn’t about you; it’s about the screaming person—his insecurities, his problems. Remember that when you’re calm, collected, and in control, you’re the bigger person because you are behaving like a professional.
Ignore what they are saying and stay calm. Talk to them in a normal voice. Once they realize you’re not getting upset, they will most likely start to mirror you and calm down themselves.
This is especially important for P.I.s who work for themselves or at a small agency. An irate or defensive P.I. is bad for business. Reminding yourself to be professional is like a mantra of sorts: It focuses your mind and removes you from the drama of the moment.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few techniques through trial and error that (I find) can help to defuse people’s anger:
- I learned to be overly polite. I would even apologize for bothering them, and tell them I understood they were upset, but that I had a job to do.
- As soon as they started yelling I would hold up my hands and say, “I’m just here to help!” No matter what the situation.
- Confront their attitude. I would tell them I was being respectful to them, and then ask why they were talking to me that way.
Don’t give up. You want something from them; otherwise, you wouldn’t be there. If you’re an investigator, you probably like challenges. So challenge yourself to stay cool and use your powers of persuasion to calm the screaming person and convince them to help you.
That’s what a true professional does.
About the Author:
Christopher Borba owns Emissary Investigative Services, a Roanoke, Virginia investigative agency specializing in due diligence, corporate investigations, and executive background profiles. He served as an infantry paratrooper with the U.S. Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He also worked as a patrol officer and a detective with the Fayetteville, NC police department.