Airport police training for customer service

By Ed Brock

Atlanta Police Officer Artis Parker knows a few tricks about dealing with stressed-out travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

"What I try to do is keep myself in check," Parker said.

Now Parker and the more than 160 other police officers and personnel at Hartsfield-Jackson are learning some new tricks for being authoritative without being aggressive. They are undergoing eight hours of training on customer service.

Parker said he was a little apprehensive about the training at first but now he's beginning to appreciate it more and more.

"It gives you some extra tools. It also makes you aware of one of the basic principles of life, that is do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Parker said.

The classes began March 7 with the "front-line" officers who deal directly with the public while directing traffic or managing the tremendous crowd of people who flow through the airport every day, said Atlanta Police Maj. Darryl Tolleson. The classes are divided into two, four-hour sessions at a cost of $32,000 paid for by the Atlanta Department of Aviation.

Tolleson said he had been pushing for the training since taking the position, but the conflict that occurred in November between a Stockbridge woman and a police officer at the airport may have put the training plans on the fast track.

In that incident a security video camera filmed Officer Terance Alexander removing Diana Dietrich-Barnes from her SUV and forcing her to the ground. Dietrich-Barnes, who claimed she had not provoked the officer after he told her to move her vehicle, was later released with no charges against her.

Alexander, who said he arrested Dietrich-Barnes after she cursed at him and then hit him with the side-view mirror of her SUV while backing up, tried to press charges against her later. Clayton County prosecutors refused to support those charges.

Dietrich-Barnes' attorney Steve Lister said their complaint to the Atlanta Police Department about Alexander's behavior, one of about 24 complaints on the officer's record, was still pending.

Tolleson said the department was taking action on that incident.

Most police officers learn people skills and conflict resolution at the police academy, said Atlanta Senior Patrol Officer Joseph A. Villafane.

"These are skills we've already learned and we just need to hone in on those skills," Villafane said.

About 80 million people pass through the airport every year, Villafane said, and the officers at the airport must take a different approach to dealing with them than they would as officers working in downtown Atlanta.

"A lot of times the traveling public comes to the airport already stressed," Villafane said. "The officer has to be more empathetic. We have to put ourselves in their position."

But the classes are not designed to "soften you up as cops," Tolleson told one class on Tuesday. Officer safety and "law and order" are still priorities.

"You'll hear in this class that you can't fix a problem with the same mindset that created it," Tolleson said.

The officers must seek a balance between being aggressive and being non-assertive, said class instructor Jules Ciotta with "Motivation Communications." They have to be sensitive to the needs of the people they're helping without compromising the authority of their office.

The officers must be simply assertive, Ciotta said.

"The assertive person says 'I'm concerned about you, but I'm equally concerned about me,'" Ciotta said.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin endorses the training.

"We know that customer service is critical to the success of Hartsfield-Jackson and all of Atlanta's city government," Franklin said. "Equipping our police officers with the necessary skills to interact with the public is a win-win situation."