Vox Populi

Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry

Phoebe A. Cirio: A Tragic Failure to Communicate

 “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Captain to Luke in Cool Hand Luke.

I am a white, middle-aged woman, someone not likely to be regarded as a threat to a police officer. I don’t have a gun; I generally abide traffic laws, except occasionally rolling through a stop sign when no one is in the intersection. But the phrase in the NBC news account of the shooting by police officer Betty Shelby of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma last week caught my attention when an officer said that the “black dude needs to be tasered for not following commands.” I think people like me, who tend to see the police in a positive light and expect them to be helpful, often do not understand how these things can go wrong. And the police also do not understand what they do that contributes to the problem.

It’s often about a breakdown in communication.

I was driving to my gym at about 9pm recently. They were repaving the street I was on, using this late hour because the traffic volume is high during the day. I pulled up to the intersection where I usually turn to get there. There were no lines on the street; they had been covered over by the new asphalt. There was a big steam roller going over the newly laid asphalt across from me. I wanted to make a left turn, but was completely confused about what to do. It was clear to me that I needed to avoid the steam roller, but not what I should do instead. I stopped. There was a police officer who seemed to be signaling to me with his hand-held light sabre, but I could not tell what he wanted me to do. He walked over to me, I rolled down my window, and he began yelling at me, and berating me for being there. I was surprised, shocked, and appalled at being treated this way. I quickly pulled forward avoiding the steam roller, and left the intersection. I had never been spoken to by a police officer like this before in my life, but when I look at in in the context of the shooting of completely innocent black men in America, it made more sense. The officer was yelling at me, and he assumed this was sufficient to communicate to me what he expected me to do. It wasn’t. And I was lucky to be a white woman, rather than a black man because the ugly situation could have gotten a lot uglier. Just because you are yelling at someone does not mean they understand. And increasing the volume does not make the message any clearer—in fact, it often does the opposite–things get more confusing.

The core of the issue was that the situation was ambiguous, and I was confused about how best to respond. And my situation was far simpler than the one in Oklahoma. The officer was 3 feet from me, he was looking at me, and I was looking at him, and I still did not understand what he wanted me to do. In Tulsa, the officer appears to be yards away from Terence Crutcher. Other officers appear and all of them appear to have guns drawn, which heightens the tension of the situation. The situation between Mr. Crutcher and the police escalated and there seemed to be some feeling of urgency on the part of the police to get him under control. The ensuing action of the police involved tasering, and shooting him, resulting in his death. Why did any of that seem to be necessary? The situation became more chaotic because the police did not communicate clearly to Mr. Crutcher what they wanted from him.

Remember earlier this summer when Philando Castile in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, were each shot and killed by the police? In the following days black men were posting video on You Tube for how to behave if you are stopped by the police. Keep your hands in sight, tell the officer before you make any moves, do what they say. All of which may be sound advice, but if you can’t understand what they are saying, you can’t comply. If you can’t understand what is being said, the situation will deteriorate and become more chaotic. If the police have the guns, and if they get scared, it is you who will get shot.

In communication theory there is something called the signal to noise ratio. The message, the signal in any communication, has to be selected out of the surrounding noise. There is always noise obscuring any signal, and the more noise, the less likely the signal will get through. In ordinary speech, the distance between speaker and hearer increases the noise. Intense emotion can increase the noise. Being afraid of someone adds noise, having a gun pointed at you adds noise, and confusion adds noise. So does the climate of racial mistrust in this country. When Officer Shelby shot Mr. Crutcher it was a very noisy situation. The first thing that needed to happen was that the people in charge of the scene, the police, needed to lower the ratio of noise to signal so they could communicate with Mr. Crutcher.

As the police become more militarized they also become more remote. They are behind shields, wearing armor, their faces are obscured. The chances of meaningful communication decline as there is more and more noise in the environment obscuring efforts to communicate. Unless this is addressed there will be more of these tragic, and utterly senseless, deaths.

 Copyright 2016 Phoebe A. Cirio




Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby, who fatally shot unarmed Terence Crutcher last week, is under federal investigation.

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