Effective communication is a major element to success in any relationship, business, or organization. Communication barriers attempt to impede, and in some instances stop, the successful completion of the communication process. Law Enforcement agencies are susceptible to the consequences of ineffective communication and should work toward reducing and eliminating barriers blocking the flow of communication. Organizational flaws in the entangled hodgepodge of agencies within the American criminal justice system cause various communication barriers resulting in confusion and inefficiencies throughout the system.
Law enforcement agencies began sharing more information after the attacks on 9/11 but barriers still exist. Understanding the communication process and using active listening skills is vital to overcoming barriers to effective communication. Process of Communication Wallace and Roberson (2009) define communication as, “a process involving several steps, among two or more persons, for the primary purpose of exchanging information” (p. 15). The communication process is dependent on the sender’s ability to create an understandable message for the recipient and the recipient’s ability to interpret the message.
The process begins by transmitting an idea into a message made of carefully chosen symbols understandable to the receiver (Wallace & Roberson, 2009). To ensure success of the communication process, the sender should consider the recipient’s point of view while forming the message and selecting the means of transmission. The message can take the form of writing, speaking, or movement (Wallace & Roberson, 2009). Receipt of the message is very important or the process of communication stops. Sending the message using the appropriate medium continues the communication process to the next step.
Understanding the idea of the message requires interpretation by the recipient. The receiver interprets the message and provides feedback to the sender. Feedback indicates receipt of the message and whether the message was understood or requires more information. Formal and Informal Channels of Communication Information flows up and down through the police organizations according to the chain of command. The formal channels of communication within police organizations require strict adherence to order, written memorandums, and directives (Wallace & Roberson, 2009).
The Momentum that information flows within the formal channels is slow creating a delay in sharing new information throughout the organization. Slow transmission reduces organizational efficiency, wastes valuable time, resources, and puts the reputation of the police agency at risk. Formal channels are restrictive and at times seem unnecessary but police agencies do receive benefits using the formal channels. Through formal channels, all officers receive the same directions in an understandable message that reduces confusion among officers and creates documentation for later reference (Wallace & Roberson, 2009).
Informal channels of communication exist in all law enforcement agencies and are used to pass information outside the formal channels of communication. Informal channels of communication give officers a break from the rigid protocol of formal channels. Opportunities for personal discussions that build camaraderie naturally improve morale and work performance. Police agencies know the benefits of informal channels of communication. When the right balance of formal and informal communications is achieved, the agency becomes a united police force.
Overcoming Barriers to Effective Communication The barriers that influence effective communication within the criminal justice system are emotional barriers, physical barriers, semantic barriers, and ineffective listening (Wallace & Roberson, 2009). The sender and receiver both can contribute emotional barriers reducing effective communication by allowing beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and life experiences to enter the process. Criminal justice professionals can overcome emotional barriers by using peer support systems within the police department or support from outside sources (Wallace & Roberson, 2009).
Physical barriers are obstructions that interfere with movement of a message and are the hardest to overcome. The weather, distance, and failures in technology are a few examples of physical barriers a police officer may encounter (Wallace & Roberson, 2009). Some barriers are out of the officer’s control and cannot be overcome quickly such as an ice storm that becomes a physical barrier when power and telephone lines go down ending communication. Semantic barriers consist of language differences and ambiguous word meanings and prevent a clear exchange of ideas resulting in failed communication.
Hiring a diverse group of officers can reduce language barriers and choosing words carefully with the receiver in mind can help ease semantic barriers. Ineffective listening is another barrier present in the criminal justice system and occurs from disinterest, speaker bias, emotions, distractions, and words that invoke emotion (Wallace & Roberson, 2009). Every officer needs active listening skills. An officer using active listening skills can diffuse dangerous situations when armed with a clear understanding of the circumstances.
Active listening is different from hearing. Hearing is an automatic response to sound and listening is an act. While using active listening skills the officer is processing what the speaker is saying with interest, free of speaker bias, and emotions, before giving a response (Wallace & Roberson, 2009). Improving and eliminating barriers to effective communication is achieved through education and self-improvement courses offered as part of a criminal justice professional’s continuing education.
Communication Failure 9/11 The repercussions of failed communication can be seen in the attacks of 9/11. Many factors contributed to known terrorists entering the United States undetected and successfully killing Americans. Ineffective communication resulting in communication failure is one variable that allowed the United States to be attacked by terrorist from another country. The structure of American law enforcement agencies is conducive to linkage blindness. Grant and Terry (2008) define linkage blindness as, “the inability to analyze and link critical information across or within agencies” (p. ).
Communication failed because Federal law enforcement agencies did not share terrorist information with state and local law enforcement agencies. Competition and territorial greed between agencies contributed to the loss of communication within the law enforcement community (Grant & Terry, 2008). Best (2007) stated, “Almost all assessments of the attacks of September 11, 2001 have concluded U. S. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies had failed to share information that might have provided advance warning of the plot” (Summary, para. 1).
Congress eventually acknowledged communication barriers exist within the system of law enforcement agencies and enacted legislation and regulation to facilitate the sharing of information. Conclusion Most communication barriers can be overcome by using common sense and active listening devoid of emotion and bias. Police agencies and individual criminal justice professionals are responsible for learning and using active listening skills. Understanding the communication process reveals strategies to overcoming barriers that block the flow of information.
Formal and informal channels of communication can drive the movement of messages forward or stop movement completely. When terrorists attacked the United States September 11, 2001 Congress enacted legislation and regulations to tear down the communication barriers that existed between law enforcement agencies. Communication barriers will always exist within the structure of American law enforcement agencies but efforts will continue to eliminate barriers within reach and reduce those harder to reach.
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