Police officers constantly talk to people and usually ask a lot of questions. It’s the primary gadget in our tool bag. Not everyone we engage with likes the situation they find themselves in, and they understandably are uncomfortable and guarded with their responses. But if we don’t ask, we don’t learn, and if we don’t get answers, we can’t solve crimes. Most new officers are timid at first because they are in a new place in their lives, but over time, they settle in and develop a style and a way to engage with others. At least that has been my experience as both an investigator and a supervisor.
I was never taught or thought much about the importance of the right way to begin a conversation. As I matured and found my own voice and style of interviewing, I was guided by a quote attributed to many folks: “People won’t care about what you want until they know how much you care about them.” So, I came to approach every encounter on equal ground. I learned to start, or try to start, with a handshake and then introduce myself by my name and then by my title. It is both unexpected and disarming and more often than not allows for at least an opening dialogue. Then I listen, not pretend to, but really listen. I discovered that you learn little from talking, but a boatload by listening.
One of my favorite examples dates back several decades, but serves as a great lesson for all of us. I am a white male of Irish Catholic heritage and grew up in the Dorchester section of Boston (see Dennis Lehane and the Wahlberg family). I was assigned to the Major Crime unit and one of my duties on my way in to work each morning was to find and recover stolen cars before they headed to a chop-shop to be cannibalized. I found some fertile ground in a section of Roxbury and I visited almost daily. Let’s just say I stood out like a sore thumb and my presence, while not applauded, was largely ignored. On most mornings I would see a man a few years older than me, walk from an apartment building and sit on a playground wall a few hundred feet from where I was parked. He was always well dressed and walked with a cane. This went on for a few weeks. I would catch him sizing me up while I was doing the same to him. One hot summer morning he was drinking from a brown bottle that I quickly identified as Guinness Stout. I couldn’t imagine why this man who looked like he was from a Caribbean Island would be drinking “my beer”. He looked at me and raised his bottle and smiled. After weeks of never speaking, I yelled over to him; “Hey why are you drinking my Guinness?” He responded with a smile, “Your Guinness. This is the number one drink in my country too!” I was really surprised, but once again I learned something that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t ask a question. That was the opening to a series of short daily conversations. I learned he was from Trinidad, a practicing Muslim, and lived in a three-bedroom apartment with his wife and three kids. He was disabled as a result of an industrial accident that destroyed his ankle. I sensed he may have dabbled a bit in the sale of marijuana, but that went unspoken and unexplored by me. He had enough problems to deal with and I was not going to add to them with my prying into that part of his life.
I’ll cut to the chase and say we discovered some commonality during our talks and that led to trust. One day he asked if we could meet at a location outside of Boston because he had some information to share and was uneasy talking about it on the street corner next to his home. His information was jaw dropping and resulted in the solving of a heinous crime where an innocent, unsuspecting man was shot while on his way home from work in the early morning hours. My new friend not only arranged for the sale of the weapon to an undercover Trooper, but he testified at trial against the shooter who had previously been a friend. He did so at great peril to himself and his family. In fact, they had to be relocated to another community for safety reasons. He told me he spoke out because he needed to right a wrong. The victim was paralyzed, and wheelchair bound. He was married with children and their lives were forever changed by a wanton act of violence aimed at an innocent man. He identified with that man in a special way and wanted to help us put the shooter off the streets and in jail in any way he could. He taught me a huge lesson about humanity and the goodness in many that I have shared over time with everyone that will listen. I was honored to become his friend. As the years went by, we may have shared a Guinness or two, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat a bowl of his “world famous goat curry!!”
When was the last time you started a conversation with someone you didn’t know, or like or assumed would be adversarial because their political thinking was different than yours? Maybe we could get this country back on course if we simply started talking to one another. As my children’s children often tell me, “It ain’t rocket science Grandpa.”