Formal & Informal Channels of Communication in the Criminal Justice Field

by Linda Ray; Updated September 26, 2017
Policeman talking to a young couple sitting in a car

Formal lines of communication help police organizations by establishing order and security within the chain of command, but too much reliance on formal modes can inhibit flexibility and the ability to respond quickly as situations arise. Formal channels of communication are used as part of trials and investigations, and shared by interested parties. Informal communication also plays a significant role in solving crimes and creating partnerships to tackle criminal issues. Ideally, criminal justice systems rely on a balance of the two modes of communication.

Formal Communication Establishes Lines of Authority

The criminal justice system places significant importance on established lines of authority. Formal modes of communication help to solidify and uphold that chain of command. Procedures, assignments and job descriptions remain uniform throughout a department. Formal communications in the form of memoranda, policies, orders and directives are important in a police department and other judicial organizations to maintain uniformity. Everyone receives the same orders and is required to respond in a similar manner. Formal communications are clear and concise and provide a paper trail that’s critical to legal proceedings.

Formal Communication Leaves Little Room for Flexibility

Formal communication channels usually are uniform without any back and forth discussions, often leaving the listener or reader with only one side of an issue. They often block the flow of information between judicial system employees. They are time-consuming; by the time formal communications are authorized and filed, criminals often have time to disperse. Since formal communications typically are written, they may inhibit some officers from putting their ideas on the record.

Informal Communication Plays Important Role

Informal communication can help to foster understanding. Back and forth discussions clear up misunderstandings and explain the purpose of the communication. Police interviewing a witness, for example, may get more information by just talking informally at first, rather than asking formal questions and writing down the answers. Bypassing formal channels of communication in cases where expediency is vital can help law-enforcement agencies get ahead of sophisticated networks of criminals who know how to take advantage of the bureaucracy that’s created by the need for formal records. Informal methods also help when investigators need clarification from police officers on a case.

Informal Communication Can Lead to Misunderstandings

Gossip and grapevine chatter can undermine a new police directive and pose a threat to the effectiveness of the organization. Informal communication also is not helpful when a case goes to court, where only formal, authenticated communications are admissible. Informal communication that is not written down can lead to misunderstandings when information is perceived differently among those who receive it. When communications are spoken, important pieces of information may not even be heard, especially if officers are distracted.

About the Author

Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."

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