The criminal justice sector provides extensive pre-employment and ongoing training to law enforcement and corrections officers. Various training academies as well as in-house “on-the-job” training programs prepare criminal justice professionals for the duties and responsibilities of the profession.
The focus of training is often on what we refer to as “hard skills,” which are quantifiable, measurable, task-specific skills needed to perform the basic responsibilities of the job. For example, defensive tactics, critical incident response techniques, and threat analysis are considered hard skills. They require specific knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that can be measured through a multitude of quantifiable assessments. Employers within the criminal justice sector place a heavy emphasis on hard skills, and rightfully so.
However, “soft skills,” such as interpersonal communication skills, are of equal importance. Soft skills encompass personal characteristics and traits. They are the intangible skills, which are challenging to quantify and measure, but something that criminal justice employers, myself included, seek out in candidates. Unfortunately, soft skills are largely lacking and overlooked within the criminal justice profession, particularly within law enforcement and corrections.
Soft Skills Deserve Consideration
In addition to teaching, I also assist students to obtain internships and job placements within the criminal justice sector. Criminal justice employers, particularly those in law enforcement and corrections, have expressed concern that so-called soft skills are underemphasized since we appear to have shifted away from the important role that they serve in our profession. For example, officers need soft skills to help them communicate effectively and deescalate situations or resolve conflicts.
Most would agree that we have become a nation fixated on academic assessments in grades K-12, and also at the university level. Both students and faculty proudly promote and publish assessment outcomes in newsletters and on social media to highlight academic standing amongst our competitors and to attract new students to our respected high schools and universities. But is academic success a measure of true capability or potential?
A 2018 Bloomberg study concluded that today’s employers have realized the importance of prioritizing a job applicant’s interpersonal skills over their high school/college GPA (grade point average) or academic standing amongst their peers. According to an August 2018 Diverse Education article, employers are acknowledging that a graduate’s GPA is essentially an artificial measure of how successfully the individual will perform on the job.
My comments are not intended, by any means, to discount or dismiss the importance of one’s academic standing or cumulative GPA, but rather to place just as much emphasis on the importance of a candidate’s soft skills. Unfortunately, these soft skills are rarely weaved into the K-12, college/university, or training academy curricula. Nevertheless, so-called “people-skills” are vital in criminal justice because, as criminal justice professionals, we work closely with members of the community, as well as with crime victims, eyewitnesses, suspects, convicted offenders, judges, lawyers, and so on.
Soft Skills for Criminal Justice Professionals
According to a 2018 article by Timothy Roufa, a law enforcement subject matter expert, criminal justice careers, particularly those in law enforcement and corrections, demand that you interact with a diverse and varied group of people at any given time. In some of those encounters, tensions may be high and the potential for the situation to quickly escalate is a reality of the job. The best way to resolve potentially dangerous use-of-force situations is to rely on your cognitive and emotional intelligence skills.
Roufa further explains that de-escalation does not involve the hard skills acquired through professional training, but rather the soft skills you need to develop to be truly effective in your day-to-day life as a police or corrections officer. In a 2017 Huffington Post article, journalist Tom Turpin suggested that employers help develop their employees’ soft skills by coaching and mentoring them, creating diversified training programs, strengthening critical thinking skills, and cultivating a culture of innovation. Roufa highlights the importance of the following nine soft skills for criminal justice professionals:
- Empathy – The ability to not only understand someone else’s feelings but also to share those feelings, which allows for a deeper appreciation of what others are experiencing.
- Compassion – Compassion begins where empathy leaves off. If empathy is an understanding and sharing of other’s feelings, then compassion means putting that understanding into action.
- Nonverbal Communication – Those cues we send through our tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and enunciation often carry far more weight in how our messages are received than the actual words we use.
- Active Listening – In our profession, most situations involve individuals who just want to be heard. Active listening means interpreting and understanding the needs of others in a conversation.
- Adaptability – Anyone who works in law enforcement or corrections will tell you that your day is going to be largely unpredictable; we must be able to anticipate, adapt, and overcome challenges that we are likely to encounter.
- Building a Rapport – As mentioned, we will encounter a number of individuals each day, each with their own wants and needs, so we must establish a rapport with these individuals in order to build a certain level of mutual trust.
- Critical Thinking and Observation – There is no such thing as a routine day when you work in corrections or law enforcement. Officers must be able to quickly and efficiently assess and analyze facts, observations, and information so they can make informed, sound decisions. Critical thinking is essential to solving problems and resolving conflicts. Keen observational skills require that officers be able to visually, mentally, and emotionally gauge a situation, often quickly. Officers must be detail-oriented, so they can observe and identify small, yet important details.
- Conflict Resolution – Because conflict accompanies much of an officer’s job (corrections and law enforcement), he or she must have the ability to resolve that conflict quickly and peacefully.
- Work / Life Balance – Between erratic shift work, long hours, and the stresses of the job, officers’ physical and mental health can be compromised. Officers must be able to find ways to reduce that stress at home and on the job.
The criminal justice sector must focus more attention, training, and education on indispensable soft skills. We must also screen for them in interviews. For example, in some interviews, candidates will be presented with a hypothetical scenario and then asked how they would de-escalate the situation through communication. The ability to control a situation through communication rather than physical force is always preferred. Granted, in some situations physical force will be necessary, but in most situations, the ability to de-escalate the situation by problem-solving and critical thinking are favored.
Soft skills are proving to be the difference between positive and negative encounters, especially when empathy, active listening, and conflict resolution are embraced. Soft skills are not intended to replace or mitigate the value of hard skills, but rather to enhance and improve the quality and performance of our job responsibilities and duties. They provide the balance that we want to see in our criminal justice professionals.
As a university professor, I acknowledge that a student’s academic success depends largely on the student’s understanding of content, especially in core subject areas; however, a student’s future success as a law enforcement or corrections officer also depends on their ability to apply their knowledge in an intuitive, thoughtful, and effective way. All criminal justice professionals should consider how soft skills can be further honed and applied on the job.
About the Author: Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.