Blue Line

Policing is NOT a Customer Service Profession

December 10, 2012  By Richard Neil

1674 words – MR

Policing is NOT a customer service profession

by Richard Neil

We have taken the philosophy of customer service (a square peg) and repeatedly tried to force it into the law enforcement profession (a round hole). This was a well intended idea taken from business that someone tried to make work for law enforcement, and it has continued to spread.


The problem: police officers don’t have customers. We swear an oath before God to uphold the laws of the land. That is our solemn contract with society, not a customer service policy.

The following example is from a company that provides its “Law Enforcement Customer Service” course to hundreds of agencies across the United States.

{Customer service goals for law enforcement officers}

“Play: Creating a law enforcement environment where employees and the public can thoroughly enjoy themselves.” (I failed this goal daily when on patrol and usually as an investigator… well, let’s just say every day.)

“Make their day: Is about doing something special for customers and co-workers. The idea is to give another person a gift they don’t forget and feel good by giving it.” (Was the gift that first came to your mind a good example of customer service? No? Me either.)

The best known saying in the customer service industry is “The customer is always right.” That means you do whatever it takes to make people happy with your company so they will buy and hopefully come back again and again. This square peg of the customer service philosophy will never fit into the round hole of policing. As the guardians of justice, we daily enforce the law on drunk drivers, wife beaters, burglars, child molesters and murderers. Do we want to earn their repeat business? Are they always right? Heck, are they ever right?

Should officers focus on customer service when approaching a wife beater? “Hello sir, I see that you found the need to brutally assault your wife today. I hope I can create an environment that allows you to thoroughly enjoy yourself during your attempt to resist me and the uncomfortable arrest process.”

Drunk drivers would also be treated quite differently. “I see you have shared a 12 pack with some of your buddies. No wonder you had trouble staying on the road. Please keep this mouthpiece from your breathalyzer test as a gift and I will drive us from here – so you don’t spill any more beer. I hope you call on our agency again the next time you decide to create a risk to society.”

Ask agencies which have taken this training – and the company which sold them the goods – and they will likely say my examples are ludicrous and officers wouldn’t worry about meeting the goals in these situations. I agree but that means we’re not a profession that should be focused on the business philosophy of customer service; it doesn’t fit the needs of the communities we serve or our officers. You can change the definition of customer service for your agency but it will always have “the customer is always right” perception attached – regardless of what is said or written.

I know some readers disagree, and you’re welcome to chuck my opinion out with the morning trash. The reality is, I am married with two kids in their twenties, so I am reminded that my opinion sucks all the time – I will be okay.

The customer service mission of one California police department states, “We create a quality customer service environment by providing safety, service and support for everyone.” Why even add “customer service” to the mission statement?

Let’s survey the people given speeding tickets or arrested by California’s finest in this city. How many would say, “I was provided quality customer service when the officer issued me a ticket,” or “I was given great support as the cop hauled my butt off to jail.” That wouldn’t be my first response – and I like cops. The fact is that when we stop a “customer” for speeding, they are never “right.” They were wrong or we would not have stopped them in the first place. It just doesn’t fit the philosophy we use.

Another common tag line I found within these policies: “Customer service is an overall approach to the way we conduct business…”

Calling police work a business is another mistake. People applying to Costco, GM, or United Airlines are interested in working for a business – organizations with a fundamental goal of making a profit by satisfying every customer through some product or service. The people of character drawn to serve as police officers are not interested in joining a business team. They want to serve society as a worthy protector. Our profession is not filled with business-minded individuals but with people protectors and law enforcers by the very oath they take.

Some people will misinterpret my viewpoint on how police should interact with citizens. I firmly believe officers should treat everyone with the utmost respect whenever possible and serve their communities with a focus on integrity and equality. I don’t even like it when a cop uses profanity without a specific purpose. I’m a bit of a Boy Scout, but I don’t think adding unneeded goals, guidelines, or philosophies benefits anyone.

Wikipedia defines customer service for us:

We definitely need to focus on areas of this definition but other parts should have no bearing on our profession. We have all been to domestic violence calls where the husband was arrested for assaulting his wife but both ended up hating us for life. Even though we were passionate and protected the woman, she wouldn’t cooperate, threatening and even attacking us when we refused to release her loved one. We can never meet the expectations of customer service in such a circumstance.

{Violence is sometimes the only answer}

I once gave a prevention presentation on bullying at a local middle school. It was the perfect environment for customer service philosophies to flourish. A worried 12 year old girl and several of her friends approached me after my talk. They had seen a recent news report where we arrested a high school student who was planning an attack and the reporter mentioned several other school shootings. Unlike an adult, she got straight to the point with her question.

“Officer Neil, if someone comes into our school and tries to kill all of us, will you try to kill them first?” I thought she deserved an honest answer in return so I replied, “Yes, I will kill them.” Not the type of question you will hear at the customer service desk at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

She seemed somewhat relieved by my answer but next questioned my abilities.

“What if they are, like… really prepared? How do we know you can win?” I gave her a short repertoire, as if I were applying for a crack commando unit. “I was an infantry soldier in the Army before serving the last 15 years as a police officer. I can hold my own in a fight.”

She huddled with her friends and it was obvious something still bothered her. I was about to give her some references to call when she turned and posed her final question.

“What if it’s another student that is shooting at all of us? Can you really kill a kid?” No parent ever had the guts to ask me such a question, but leave it to a sixth grader to push the limit. I replied without much thought – my responsibilities to protect other people’s children were clear and I had already decided what to do long before that day.

“Please understand, I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I am a father of two children and I swore an oath to God Almighty that I would protect you with my life. Yes, I will kill them. I am, like… really, really prepared.”

The girl smiled and her friends perked up.

“Very good, thank you officer,” she replied and they headed off to the cafeteria for lunch.

The principal overheard the conversation and had his own worries about the subject.

“I thought that was about to go really bad and you were going to have a cry-fest on your hands. I couldn’t believe they left happy, but I have to admit, I felt relieved when you said you would kill anyone who would try to shoot up my school. I guess it was the same for them. We just needed to know that you are willing to do what the rest of us cannot.”

The sixth grade girl didn’t think I should worry about treating an active shooter as a customer. She wanted him dead, even if he were a fellow student. That 12 year old didn’t want me to focus on customer service but on protecting my community with my last breath. She understood that there were times when awful things are done to people in the name of justice and, strangely enough, that made her feel safe.

Our philosophies and policies should include courage, integrity and large helpings of respect, but the awful things that we are required to do will never fit neatly into a customer service philosophy.

We should see people as citizens we have sworn to protect and serve – not customers. They will be better served if we don’t try to fix policing by hammering a square peg into a round hole.


Richard Neil created <>, a web site dedicated to law enforcement training resources, and wrote

Print this page


Stories continue below