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How Military Research Is Helping This Police Officers's People Skills

Mike Suniga, a patrolman in Airway Heights, Washington, joined a military project to improve the way soldiers and cops talk to strangers.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Mike Suniga didn’t want the three men gathered in the park to know he was a cop. His assignment was to start a friendly conversation with them, to test his social skills without using the badge as a crutch.

But how? He was, as far as they knew, just a random guy in a t-shirt and jeans, strolling through Riverfront Park on a Thursday afternoon. Why would they want to talk to him?

Approaching slowly from the top of a hill, Suniga came up with a plan. He’d tell them he was a tourist from Texas, seeing the sights.

The part about being from Texas was true, though he’d years ago moved north to become a police officer in the tiny nearby town of Airway Heights. But he couldn’t tell them the real reason for his wanting to chat: he was practicing the social skills he’d been learning as part of a government research project, run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aimed at helping police and soldiers interact with the public.

Authorities believe that the new training regimen could help reduce the deadly use of force and violent public protests like those that followed a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri last summer.

After four days learning the science of human interaction at Fairchild Air Force Base, Suniga and 27 classmates were scattered throughout downtown Spokane, “making contact” with strangers as coaches recorded the encounters on tablets for instant analysis.

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“In the academy, they teach you tactics, they teach you want you need to do on this thing or that, but they don’t teach you how to talk to people,” Suniga, 33, whose ancestors migrated from Mexico generations ago, said as he prepared for the park encounter. “If you have it, you have it. If you don’t, it takes a while for you to struggle to get to talking to people. That’s one of the things that helping me with this course.”

The project, called Strategic Social Interaction Modules, was conceived to develop a new way to train soldiers and Marines for modern warfare. But there are also clear applications for American police departments. The curriculum stresses the importance of listening, empathizing and using physical cues to adjust one’s approach. Students memorize a seven-step “core competency” checklist to follow during an encounter: pre-plan, observe and assess, contact, engage, self-control, adapt, disengage.

Talking about it in class was one thing, but taking it to the streets was another. Many of the students weren’t used to engaging the public without with their uniforms, so the man-on-the-street assignment made them nervous.

But not Suniga. An Airway Heights patrolman and member of the Air National Guard, he considered himself pretty socially adept. He volunteered for community-relations duties. He'd had people thank him for putting them in jail. Still, he knew he needed to do better. Trust was built one encounter at a time. And in a small place like Airway Heights, he was sometimes the only patrolman on the street, leaving him in a position to handle fraught encounters alone until backup arrived.

“It’s hard, because in our job, a lot of officers get jaded very quickly,” Suniga said.

Dressed in a short-sleeved collared shirt, t-shirt and jeans, Suniga descended the hill toward the three men. Assessing them on the fly, he picked one who seemed most approachable, and introduced himself. Then he pointed to a structure in the park that had been part of a 1974 world’s fair exhibit. “Do you know what that is?” Suniga asked.

Soon they were strolling together, talking about the fair, restaurants, the man’s job. Suniga ticked through his checklist. He made sure to avoid positioning his feet in the defensive "bladed" stance instilled in the police academy. He tried to "mirror" the man's body language to put him at ease. After about 5 minutes, Suliga thanked the man and said he hoped to see him around. Then he retreated to a bench a hundred yards away and debriefed his coach while they watched a video of the encounter.

Suniga said he could see great things coming out of the DARPA project, particularly if the curriculum is used to train young police recruits.

“This definitely can change the perception of law enforcement, and that’s what needs to happen,” Suniga said.