“While police officers certainly have a responsibility to focus on ‘enforcement,’ they also should spend considerable time and energy on ‘engagement’ … transparent and authentic community engagement,” ~Jeffrey Blackwell, Cincinnati Police Chief
Since a police officer defended himself with deadly force against a vicious assault and attempted gun grab in Ferguson Missouri this past summer, there has been a major assault on police. As a small town cop of 28 years this saddens me. When I think of police I think of the thousands of police I have met and worked with over the years and know that 99.9 percent of them got into policing because they have compassion for their fellow man. They wanted to help people in their communities and to make a difference in the world. Somehow that message is all too often missed in the reporting of police use of force incidents who skillfully grab people’s attention with provocative conscious shocking headlines such as; Cops kill unarmed teenager! Cops kill mentally ill person! Cops choke man to death! Cops shoot and kill 12 year old boy with toy gun! This leads us to seek answers to some critical questions such as; why are police seen as the enemy by so many people? Why do so many people see the police as angry, full of violence and fear? Why do people want to burn police vehicles and beat up, ambush or assassinate the police? Why are police the focus of their anger and frustration? Why do the police respond angry and frustrated themselves towards the people they police? Why do they begin to see those they started wanting to help in an, us versus them way when in reality here in America “the police are the people and the people are the police.”
The Availability Cascade and What You See is All There Is
The media drives the cascade of information most people utilize to stay up with current affairs, and understand the world we live in. This and their own experiences throughout their lives shape their views on the how things are. When it comes to policing and police officers most people see police on the television news and in the movies which creates an effect on their perception of policing and police officers. I even know some police officers who naively pursued a policing career because their image of police was a media driven Starsky and Hutch, T.J. Hooker or Dirty Harry, the good guys catching the bad guy’s view of policing. The good guys catching the bad guys perception of policing is mostly media driven and the media driven view is prevalent and powerful. So powerful that the “law enforcement” aspects which is only 4-5% of what the police do is ironically exactly what they are measured by both externally and internally. The reality is catching bad guys is only a small percentage of what police do. In fact cops spend much, much, more time handling quality of life issues and solving everyday problems that have an impact on the environment and the community climate they police in. The media driven ideas of what cops are, gives both police and the people a false sense of what policing is all about.
What You See Is Not All There Is
Daniel Kahneman, author of the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” describes this effect on people’s view of the world as a cognitive bias he calls the “availability cascade.” An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing cycle that explains the development of certain kinds of collective beliefs. This cascade of information can have both a positive and negative influences on our beliefs which affect our orientation of the world or in topic the police. The cascade of information we receive can be positive if our beliefs are based on collective knowledge that includes dissenting opinions or views that help to shape a bigger view. (Kahneman, 2011) The availability cascade of information we receive can also be negative if its group think, or peer pressure based ‘WHAT YOU SEE IS ALL THERE IS’ conclusions, when in reality WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT ALL THERE IS and we are not fully aware of what we don’t know.
The availability cascade affects all of us and shapes our world view. Every human being has a view of the world that is based on their life experience from birth to present. The stories we hear or see on the 24/7/365 news cycles are normally 3 minute segments and only pieces of a story. The stories are not reality. In police use of force incidents for example the continuous cycle of information, the video feed the pundits and so called experts discussing their views on the particular incident create this powerful affect that we know the whole story when the fact is we do not. The police officers involved in the incidents described above are vilified as cold blooded killers, racists or just plain bullies hell bent on using force. Although the police profession has had its share of bad cops the overwhelming majority of police do not ever tarnish their badge. They are good people doing a tough job that at times the circumstances require them to use force. In less than 1% of all police contacts is physical force used to resolve incident. Deadly force is used even less .0001 % of all police contacts is deadly force ever used. The reality is that police rarely use physical force performing their duties, so why the people/police disconnect? However the availability cascade affects the police as strongly as it does the people they serve. Police begin to believe that the people they serve are against them and this influence begins to build an US (POLICE) versus THEM (People) mentality that can create and nurture an adversarial climate.
The People/Police Disconnect
Fear and a lack of understanding seem to be the dynamic the drives the people/police disconnect. People do not understand what and why the police do what they do and the police do not understand the reaction to their actions while keeping the peace on the street. This drives fear and frustration. The police and people begin to circle the wagons in defense and the people/police divide widens and compassion for one another diminishes. This is a dangerous climate as it drives violence, ignorance and injustice in us and we get the riots, protests and deaths.
Showing Respect and Kindness: Is This Really a Weakness?
To be kind does not mean to be passive. To be compassionate does not mean to allow others to walk all over you, to allow yourself to be destroyed. You have to protect yourself and protect others. If you need to lock someone up because he is dangerous, then you have to do that. But you have to do it with compassion. Your motivation is to prevent that person from continuing his course of destruction and from feeding his anger. You don’t have to be a monk in order to be compassionate, you can be a policeman. You can be a judge or a prison guard. But as a policeman, a judge, or prison guard, we need you to be motivated by great compassion. We need you to be beings of great compassion. Although you have to be very firm, you should always keep compassion alive in you. (Hanh, 2001)And if you practice mindful living, you have to help the policeman act out of compassion and non-fear. The police in our time are full of fear, anger, and stress, because they have been assaulted many times. Those who hate the police and insult them don’t understand the police yet. In the morning, when the police put on their uniform and guns, they are not sure that they will return home alive in the evening. The police suffer very much. Their families suffer very much. They don’t enjoy beating people. They don’t enjoy shooting people. But because they do not know how to handle the blocks of fear, suffering, and violence in them, they also can become victims of society like other people. So, as a police chief, if you really understand the minds and hearts of the people on your police force, you will train yourself in such a way that compassion and understanding will be born in your heart. Then you will be able to educate and help the policemen and women who have to go out on the streets every morning, every night, to do the hard task of keeping the city in peace. (Hanh, 2001)
In France the police are called “peace-keepers.” But if you don’t have peace in you, how can you keep peace in the city? You have to keep peace in yourself first. And peace here means non-fear, intelligence, and insight. The police do learn a number of techniques in order to protect themselves, but self-defense techniques are not enough. You have to be intelligent. You have to act out of non-fear. If you are too fearful, then you will make many mistakes. You will be tempted to use your gun, and you may kill many innocent people.
“However good we are, however correctly we seek to lead our lives, tragedies do occur. We can blame others, look for justification, and imagine how our lives would have been different without them. But none of that matters: they have happened, and that is that. From this point on, it is necessary that we review our own lives, overcome fear, and begin the process of reconstruction.” ― Paulo Coelho, Warrior of the Light
THE key to effective policing, according to Sir Robert Peel, founder of the first metropolitan force in 1829, is centered on an understanding that “the police are the people and the people are the police.” Getting out in the community, dealing with the daily issues that concern people, earning their respect and co-operation in preventing crime, were the bedrock of good policing, he thought; they also allowed the people to exert an effective democratic check on the police.
In light of all the critical viewpoints about police and how they handle dynamic encounters it, is imperative we do all we can to develop mutual trust between police and the people we serve. It is with mutual trust we are capable of maintaining police legitimacy. Essentially “police legitimacy” is the measurement of the public’s trust and confidence in the police to do their job. The public must believe that the police are honest, competent and treat people with dignity and respect. (Humphrey, 1992, 2012)
I have learned over almost 29 years of policing, and now speak the core value that substantially controls all human relations, controls the existence of crime or peacefulness in domestic relations, and controls the probabilities of peace or war. The answer is, as I have heard over the years more times than I can count: “Respect us as Equals.”
The most frequent responses making up that general category “Respect us as Equals” were these:
- Show us more respect
- View us as equals
- Treat us as equal human beings
- Respect our human equality
- Respect our families
- Respect our culture
- Don’t look down on us
- Don’t consider us (stuff) in the grass
- Don’t act like our bosses when you are not
- Don’t call us names and respect our lives
- Don’t consider our lives of less importance than your own
The Strategic Game of Interaction
How do the police demonstrate and harvest respect? What readily available tools can help us bridge this us vs. them, or respect us as equal’s gap? Once again the GOLDEN RULE: TREAT OTHERS, LIKE YOU WANT TO BE TREATED displays itself so plainly. And this is the simple answer to getting this done. To show respect, be friendly. Act like the person you’re dealing with has a say in the process. Use some tact while you interact with people, while at the same time being tactical. But haven’t we been taught, trained not to be friendly because it’s dangerous and unsafe for us? Yes we have and in my humble opinion it’s a big and I mean BIG, lie!
What’s the expected payoff? Col John Boyd nailed it in his briefing the Strategic Game of Interaction: “Vitality and growth, with the opportunity to shape and adapt to unfolding events thereby influence the ideas and actions of others. Boyd describes the art of success as “the ability to shape or influence the moral‑mental‑physical atmosphere that we are a part of, live in, and feed upon so that we not only magnify our inner spirit and strength, but also influence potential adversaries and current adversaries as well as the uncommitted (PEOPLE WE SERVE) so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success.” (Osinga, 2007)
The name of the game is moral leverage. Use moral leverage to amplify our spirit and strength as well as expose the flaws of competing or adversary systems, all the while influencing the uncommitted, potential adversaries and current adversaries so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and empathetic toward our success.
As the police we must always hold the moral high ground or as Boyd termed it “Moral Leverage.” With respect to ourselves we must: Surface as well as find ways to overcome or eliminate those blemishes, flaws, or contradictions that generate mistrust and discord so that these negative qualities neither alienate us from one another nor set us against one another, thereby destroy our internal harmony, paralyze us, and make it difficult to cope with an uncertain, ever-changing world at large.
In opposite fashion we must:
Emphasize those cultural traditions, previous experiences, and unfolding events that build‑up harmony and trust, thereby create those implicit bonds that permit us as individuals, as police officers, police departments, and as a society, or as an organic whole, to shape as well as adapt to the course of events in the world. (Osinga, 2007)
With respect to others (i.e., the uncommitted or potential adversaries) we should:
Respect their culture and achievements, show them we bear, them no harm and help them adjust to an unfolding world, as well as provide additional benefits and more favorable treatment for those who support our philosophy and way of doing things; yet Demonstrate that we neither accept nor support those ideas and interactions that undermine or work against our culture and our philosophy hence our interests and fitness to cope with a changing world. (Osinga, 2007) What is the aim or purpose of our strategy to bridge the gap between the police and the people? It is to improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture) can live on our own terms. Or in other words win at low cost.
As Steven R. Covey said “Policing is one of America’s most noble professions. The actions of any officer, in an instant, can impact an individual for life and even a community for generations. Given this realization, every police officer must be centered on what is important. Service, Justice, Fundamental Fairness. These are the foundational principles in which every police action must be grounded. The nobility of policing demands the noblest of character.” (Covey, 2006)
I would also like to thank my good friend John Moore for his valuable insights into this piece. John is a peace and security consultant and also son of a police officer with 35 years of service.
Coram, R. (2002). Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War [Kindle Edition]. New York NY: Little, Brown and Company .
Covey, S. M. (2006). The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything [Kindle Edition]. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc .
Hanh, T. N. (2001). Anger . New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Humphrey, R. J. (1992, 2012). Values for a New Millennium. Spring Lake NJ: The Life Values Press.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow . New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Osinga, F. P. (2007). Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Strategy and History) [Kindle Edition]. Routledge.