Every year, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director in Ontario gets thousands of complaints about the conduct of police officers. The head of the provincial watchdog says many of them could be avoided if officers simply showed a bit more respect and used better manners.

"A high percentage of them deals with incivility, and it all comes down to how I was talked to and how I was treated by the officers," Gerry McNeilly of the OIPRD said of the complaints.

The majority of the complaints come from members of the general public, average citizens.

"And it tells me that there's an issue of how we communicate," McNeilly said. "One of the things I am pursuing is to encourage better communication, so when members of the public encounter the police, the experience will not always be a bad one."

McNeilly said it's really important for officers to understand that most people have an innate respect for police. Some even fear police.

The first few seconds of any encounter with a police officer can make or break that relationship.

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A negative experience with a police officer, whether it's real or perceived, can shake a person's confidence in the police service as a whole.

So it's important that people walk away from a situation feeling good about police, McNeilly said.

According to the Windsor Police Chief Al Frederick, incivility is a problem with his officers. Complaints about civility outnumber complaints about other conduct.

"It's not use of force, which would be much more serious. It's not for any other serious type of misconduct. It's for lack of basic communication or a perception from either party that the other person could have done something differently," Frederick said.

Number of local complaints average

The chief says last year there were 77,000 calls for service in the city. Windsor Police made thousands of arrests. Fewer than 50 complaints were made. Those numbers are in line with the provincial average. 

More often than not, the complaints are about officers using bad manners or showing disrespect. "That's why there's such a focus on communication. Let's try to do defuse things and let's treat people with respect."

'You need to get back to some basics ... Communications 101.' — Gerry McNeilly, OIPRD

Most often, the complaints are about young officers with fewer than seven years of experience, McNeilly said. He thinks that may explain things. 

"You need to go back to some basics, and I call it Communication 101: How do you communicate better to the members of the public?" McNeilly said.

For example, he said, during a traffic stop, a person may ask why they were stopped, and McNeilly said there is an obligation on the officer to say why.

"'[Say], 'I stopped you because you ran a red light,' as opposed to, 'Don't ask me any questions,'" McNeilly said.

Frederick said he dealt with that exact situation a few years back. He said officers were getting their backs up if people asked why they were being pulled over. 

'Officers getting offended'

"Officers were taking that as a challenge to their authority. I said, 'Listen, we publish literature, we have brochures, where we tell people it's their right to ask a police officer why they are being stopped. They have a right,'" Frederick said. "Yet when they do that, when they exercise that right, officers are getting offended. Being defensive sets the whole interaction off on the wrong direction.

"I said, 'Don't take offense to that.' We're telling them, 'Be calm and relax, because they are not challenging your authority. They just want to know why.'

"We've gone through that hurdle, locally, and there's not that many issues anymore."

Frederick said communication is something that is always being addressed through training. Officers are constantly being retrained in ethics and communication.

Frederick said good communication skills are something administration looks for right from the point of hiring an officer. 

McNeilly wants to get to all officers across the province when they are just starting out. He has contacted the Ontario Police College to talk about the problem. He is now speaking to classes there about how to approach members of the public, and why it's important to make a good impression.

The chart below tracks complaints about the Windsor Police Service.

 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012*

Chief's complaints 13 22 7 11 10
Public/OIPRD 54 57 38 44 37
*as of Sept. 30          
Source: Windsor Police Service