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Powell: Officer professionalism to be a point of emphasis

MORGANTOWN — According to the proverb, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. 

It’s a way of saying, “be nice.” 

While it’s probably naive to think law enforcement officers can use a sunny disposition to catch more criminals, Morgantown Police Chief Eric Powell said attitude is an incredibly important aspect of police work, particularly when engaging with members of the community. 

During a recent conversation with the Morgantown Civilian Police Review and Advisory Board, Powell said he plans to put a renewed focus on people skills — in other words, attitude adjustments. 

“There’s lots of issues right now with our department when it comes to professionalism and how they treat people and how they talk to people, and I’m in the process of addressing that right now. I think that will go a long way. It’s a work in progress. You identify problems and you try to address them the most effective way you can. It’s a struggle sometimes,” he said. 

Powell doesn’t believe the issue is department-wide. He said he’s witnessed a recent uptick in what he calls a “bully mentality” primarily during interactions with “drunk kids.” 

He said an officer’s attitude and demeanor sets the tone for each interaction. Establishing trust and even a kind of rapport with an individual, when possible, can head off a lot of problems.

“It’s mostly just about how officers are interacting with people; how they’re approaching what they’re doing. They’re not using de-escalation techniques … It almost reminds me of a sort of us-against-them mentality. Rather than trying to resolve issues they’re enforcing things. I don’t want that to be how we operate,” he said. “We’re trying to move away from it. I think we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of monitoring it and calling it out when we see it. It’s something that takes time.”  

It was pointed out by Powell and others that police officers are like everyone else in that they each bring unknown stressors, pressure and frustrations to work each day. 

That said, board member Bryan Church added, they’re not doing just any job. 

“Even though you’re subject to the same flaws, biases, prejudices and all those things, you’re held to a higher standard, and you should be,” Church said. “You can deprive someone of their liberty. You can deprive someone of their life. You have a lot of things going on that other people in jobs don’t have.” 

Powell agreed. 

“I value the professionalism this job should aspire to. I always felt like you should never, kind of, go below that level of professionalism just to be able to effectively communicate with someone. You should always be above it,” he said. “And when I see it happen, and, like I said, I’ve seen it happen a lot more recently — at night with drunk kids, usually — I’ve observed it and I’ve taken note of it, and I want it to come to an end. I think there’s many times when we aren’t approaching and interacting with people the way we should.”