Nonviolent Communication & Policing

Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, is a process for creating the quality of connection out of which people spontaneously want to contribute to one another’s well-being.

Policing is another name for the act of enforcing laws. Though policing could some day evolve beyond relying so heavily on enforcement, in this article, the terms policing and law enforcement are used synonymously.

Where do laws come from, and what is the connection between NVC & law enforcement?

The foundation of human relationships, community, and civilization is trust.

It’s natural for our species to establish norms and have agreements for how to behave around each other, in order to contribute to safety, trust, autonomy, and many other needs.

This has been true over time — in foraging, horticultural, agricultural, industrial, and post-industrial cultures — as well as at every level of scope — including family, town, city — and in personal and professional life.

An informal version of norms and agreements could be as simple as a shared understanding for how to behave in certain contexts — for example, you wait in line for the cup of coffee or the movie ticket. A more formal version involves legislatures, courts, enforcement, and consequences.

In the conventional, punitive justice system consequences include fines, incarceration, or other forms of punishment.

In the restorative justice and transformative justice movements there are often co-created consequences, arrived at after a process of healing and reconciliation.1

Our system of laws is an attempt to meet Universal Human Needs, including managing the tension between agency and autonomy on the one hand, and cooperation and interdependence on the other.

One common challenge a group of any size faces is what do we do when someone in the group doesn’t follow the established norms (rules, regulations, laws) that the group has adopted for itself?

In most western societies this is addressed through “law enforcement” and policing.

When you add dynamics related to unequal power and issues of corruption — things immediately get more complicated.

For most of its history, law enforcement has been based on what, in NVC, is known as “life-disconnected thinking and language” — but it doesn’t have to be!

For example, conventional policing is based on static right/wrong concepts and punitive thinking. It’s not that these are wrong, but rather that they have severe limitations, falling short of the promise and potential for how humans can live together.

In this article we’ll explore the connection and overlap between NVC and policing, what NVC teaches us about cultivating safety and trust in a community of any size, and what a future paradigm of life-informed policing could look like.

Scandals and police reputation

Police are often maligned and reviled. The mass adoption of body cameras, dash-cams, and smart phones has allowed people to scrutinize the actions of law enforcement in ways that were much needed and never before accessible. And we have seen police officers abuse their power, use excessive force, and even commit murder — thanks to ubiquitous video camera technology. (We are not focusing on poverty or race in this article, but we need to acknowledge that most of the abuse of power on the part of the police has been directed at poor people and people of color.)

There are reasons many people have antipathy and mistrust toward police.

Police officers are not victims, they have chosen their line of work, and it’s reasonable to assume that they knew what they were signing up for.

The issue is deeper and broader than most conversations around “police reform” usually touch on.

Yes there are “bad apples” AND there are deeply entrenched cultural and structural issues that complicate matters.

Law enforcement officers will see improvement in their profession’s reputation when they collectively elevate their standard of behavior. This is especially true in situations when it might be tempting to rely more on their physical and structural power than on commonly accepted ethics and norms.

Compassion for Law Enforcement

Police officers are human beings with families, dreams, hopes, fears, aspirations — and with feelings and needs.

Let’s try this thought experiment together: putting ourselves in the shoes of police just for a moment.

Imagine being exposed to the very worst of human nature and human behavior, day after day!

Imagine, every day you leave home for work, not knowing if you will return because of the dangerous nature of your work.

Imagine being trained to restrain and even stop with deadly force, yet day after day encountering other peoples’ challenges with mental health which you were not trained to handle and for which an enforcement paradigm is inadequate.

Imagine little to no gratitude from most of the people you serve.

Imagine being met with negativity and fear — and disrespect — at nearly every turn.

And imagine having few to no resources for receiving empathy, despite having this daily experience!

Police officers encounter the worst side of humanity, day after day — without receiving adequate empathy and without support for deeper and ongoing mourning. On top of that they carry lethal force — which comes with its own psychic toll — and constantly worry that their lives are in danger.

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see how people in a police officer role could harden and contract, and easy to see how they might become jaded and cynical.

This lack of societal compassion and understanding — coupled with citizens’ disrespect, distrust, and animosity — is part of what leads groups of police officers to turn inward, and become insular groups with a unique internal culture. Unfortunately, this only exacerbates the problem.

If we want to contribute greater safety for society — including police officers — humanizing the police seems like an important component.

Police culture

Law enforcement officers are known to band together — not entirely unlike a college fraternity — in part because they feel so misunderstood by people from outside the profession.

This sets up a concerning us vs them dynamic.

When you’re out in dangerous situations with other officers, you have to trust each other to have each others’ back. It’s part of the job.

There is an imperative to support each other and protect each other.

Unfortunately, this leads to a culture of tremendous peer pressure to look the other way when misconduct happens. This person has your back and keeps you safe every day. If they hit the restrained person extra hard, or if they pocket some cash from the drug dealer — ANY misconduct — an officer is weighing the pros and cons of speaking up against their peer.

How can police culture become less toxic? How can police culture evolve to have more heart in a way that acknowledges and makes more transparent police officers’ humanity?

Prediction: if police had access to more empathy resources, and if emotional intelligence was normalized in police culture, this would go a long way toward (1) supporting them to bring their full humanity to the job, (2) police seeing the humanity in others, and, (3) beginning to transform the negative reputation that plagues their profession.

Empathy and emotional intelligence would be necessary, but not sufficient.

Equally important, and not unrelated, is restoring trust with the communities they are sworn to protect and serve.

Community relations with the police

There’s a quaint image you find occasionally in American culture — on movies or TV — of the police officer who walks their beat on the street, exchanging friendly hellos with everyone they pass.

This paradigm of “community policing” — in which there are actual relationships between police and the community in which they work — seems like an antiquated relic from a different time.

And yet, police are among the public servants people are most afraid or suspicious of and for whom people have the least respect!

Changing how policing happens — so that it is more life-connected and more life-serving — would involve structural and cultural changes that are beyond the scope of this article.

However, a few highlights could include:

  • Increasing visibility for police officers, so that people understand the challenges they face,
  • Designing strategies for the community to get to know their local officers and vice versa,
  • Having some police officers also trained as conflict mediators, and others trained as mental health professionals, so that you can diversify and amplify the skills within any police force to deal with complex issues in more nuanced ways. Many cities have created rapid-response mental health teams when that is what is needed rather than a police response;
  • Training police in Nonviolent Communication would be a robust addition to their crisis intervention and de-escalation training. With NVC, police would de-escalate situations faster and more effectively, and neutralize threats in a way that preserves the integrity of everyone involved. Additionally, with NVC training law enforcement officers would bring less work-related stress home, and less home-related stress to work.

Unfortunately, some of the deeper issues with policing relate to cultural stories that are thousands of years old, and into which most of society is bought in. These include cultural narratives that people are essentially bad and in order for society to function people need to be kept in line; this is best done through punishment and threat of force; people go to penitentiaries to “do penance” — in other words there is belief in the cleansing and purifying nature of shame and violence.

The growth and expansion of restorative justice and transformative justice provide a basis for hopefulness in changing some of these old stories and how we practice justice.

Enforcement versus enrollment

The biggest paradigm shift in NVC-informed policing is probably the shift from enforcement to enrollment.

This might be easier to visualize in a workplace or school setting. When people are enrolled in a vision, they don’t need to be coerced to comply.

For better or worse, we are in a period of civilizational transition during which there has been a breakdown in the sense of a shared societal vision that would prove cohesive on a large scale.

Most of the successful enrollment in a shared societal vision has for the last 100 years been in the realm of “full employment,” 9-to-5 work, and mass-consumerism, all of which have documented deleterious effects on families, communities, and the environment — and which have proven rather inadequate for meeting peoples’ needs for meaning and purpose.

If a cohesive shared vision were to emerge societally, the thrust of NVC-informed policing would be to work with people from the basis of shared enrollment in that vision rather than having to enforce compliance coercively and punitively.

When human beings work together toward shared aims, we transcend us vs them, and can accomplish great things in a way that is connecting and satisfying.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC & Policing

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg said that even an ideal nonviolent society would still have a police and a military.

But the major difference is that the use of force would never be punitive — it would always be protective use of force.

During a training with a police department of a major US city, a skeptical police officer asked, “OK, so I’m called in to a domestic disturbance, and this guy pulls a knife on me and lunges at me. You’re telling me I’m supposed to have a conversation with him?”

Dr. Rosenberg responded, “Tell me the few minutes of dialog that preceded him pulling the knife on you.”

The officer replied, and based on the reported dialog — which could be characterized as compliance enforcement devoid of empathy — Dr. Rosenberg said that it was predictable that the situation would escalate.

With the tools Dr. Rosenberg has given us, police departments around the world can (1) give their officers much needed de-escalation training, (2) contribute to reducing violence in society, and (3) humanize their police force in the eyes of the people they are there to protect and serve.

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC & Policing

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and law enforcement.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of arriving at mutually satisfying solutions.

Training law enforcement officers in NVC for de-escalation, crisis intervention, and conflict prevention will predictably deliver outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

PuddleDancer Press’s books can help you:

  • Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
  • Offer compassionate understanding to others,
  • Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
  • Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
  • Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict,
  • Create mutual understanding without coercion.

Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on de-escalation and conflict prevention, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!

1. You can see one example of an effective Restorative Justice approach, led by our colleague Dominic Barter, here: