Reading stories of police brutality, I struggle with a few things. (Only some of which I mention here.)
First, the obvious, empathizing with the struggle and suffering that comes with being part of a group that is oppressed and the injustice of being attacked when seen as a vulnerable member of a society.
The groups change based on where the brutality, aggression or indifference takes place. Examples from recent news stories are members of the Native, black and gay communities, as well as women and children.
Second, the absurdity of statements justifying and supporting the actions of aggression.
It’s absurd to me because I truly see every person as being of equal worth. I’m like the organ donor decision board.
I do not judge the value of a life based on what s/he looks like, what s/he has accomplished or contributed to the world, where s/he grew up, went to school, or any of these things. Each life, in my belief, is as valuable as the next.
I believe we’ve only ever tried to prioritize and judge the worthiness of people because of impossible situations where we have felt, on some level, that it was up to us to make a choice. Who gets to live or die. And whether we believe that to be a choice between me and that guy over there.
Or, when we are heavy with grief and guilt when our lives have been spared while a loved one has died. Put in a situation where we grapple with our own worthiness.
From my perspective, it’s absurd that any police union boss or commissioner or media liaison person would publicly and undeniably condone the obvious aggressive actions of any officer.
To be fair, officers have a job that requires him/her to assess danger levels all the time. And working a job where you have to be alert to the possibility of being attacked most of the time has a way of warping a brain, skewing a perception of society as a whole.
It’s easier, I think, to lose faith in the intrinsic goodness of humanity when your job is to face people who might want to kill you, and certainly are not happy to see you, want to hide everything from you, disrespect you, want to taunt you or humiliate you.
Whether this attitude is a main aspect of your job or not, the presence of it can haunt you.
Our view of the world is shaped by what surrounds us and by our past experiences. And if we aren’t conscious of this, we have no sense of agency in shaping our perceptions. So, we float along, believing that the entirety of the human race, the world, the universe, is exactly what we’ve seen from our narrow experience.
If the weight of believing horrible things about the entire world is too much to carry, it might be easier to see some specific groups as “The Bad Guys”. Compartmentalizing is a perfectly human psychological defense.
This is not fair or healthy. It just is.
And it stems from a need to believe in our own worthiness when we are only able to outsource the assignment of the ‘title’ of Worthy.
I doubt there’s a big push in policing budgets for programs that support widening perspectives. And this may stem from a fear that doing so will soften officers. Throw him/her off his/her game. Put him/her or the communities served in danger.
This fear is driven by the fact that there is community outrage when those deemed innocent or worthy are “allowed” to be harmed.
What is the cost of that fear?
Lives. Lots of lives.
Can there be an effective police force that assesses danger without preconceived ideas? Can there be questions asked before tackling a guy standing by the front entrance of a hotel?
Are some police officers caught up in their role as protector? Is this a main identity?
If protecting the world is seen as an identity, and that perception is supported by many surrounding people and factors, and protecting the world is seen solely as taking down The Bad Guys, and there is a preconceived idea of who The Bad Guys are, what does it take to see a possible bad guy as someone who can be handled with ease, grace, compassion, fairness?
It takes a huge shift. And that kind of shift, while it does have to be an individual process, will never happen on a large scale until the supporting people and structures stop justifying aggressive behavior.
It could be seen as the job of a police union boss to protect the protector. To help save the job of a guy who is just doing his best given the tools he’s learned. A guy who could have been him.
The good news is that people who support unacceptable actions empathize with the person who took the action. Compassion, no matter who it serves, is a wonderful thing to see. It reinforces my belief that our capacity is alive.
Sideways is easier to address than extinction.
Evidence of empathy from a person living within a constricted perspective inspires me to believe that no matter how bleak things may seem sometimes, we are capable of heading in a better direction.
But, again, the aforementioned compassion is coming from a limited perspective. A dismissal of the greater problem, or a disbelief that a person in that position can do anything to contribute to the solution.
Unfortunately, supporting aggressive action while trying to support the human who made the decision, makes it seem like it’s okay to randomly charge and then take down any person standing near a hotel entrance.
Here’s what I would have done:
I would have said that while I do not condone the aggression used by the officer, s/he was doing his/her best with the information known at the time to make a quick decision about how to handle a person who was believed at the time to be involved in criminal activity. We apologize on behalf of the officer for the harm caused by this act.
It’s not okay to take out aggression on someone because s/he appears to be a vulnerable member of the community, and is, therefore, judged as less likely to result in negative consequences.
Individual officers who have a history of aggression need to be supported with anger management programs or counseling. It would be best to start this process after the first or second incident of aggression.
I think it’s important for police management and policy makers to give officers opportunities to keep his/her personal perspectives balanced.
Policing isn’t all about hunting criminals. It’s about teaching school children safety. It’s about helping people in distress. It’s about directing traffic. It’s about preventative measures in communities to increase and maintain safety levels. It’s about creating a positive relationship with the members of those communities.
There’s a way to involve every officer in these low stress, high reward activities.
If those in charge of decisions like this fail to see the cost benefit, it could be beneficial to weigh the cost of lawsuits against the cost of bringing job balance to the officers who spend much of his/her time in the high anxiety state of fight or flight.
It will also reduce the cost of sick leave and turnover, as well as any cost associated with job-related burnout.
Take a risk. Make a change. Use the evidence to support the decision to do so. Assess the results after a predetermined amount of time. Make adjustments. Keep going.