Law in Contemporary Society
-- WardBenson - 04 Apr 2008

A Modest Proposal: Smile

A police officer I know once complained about animosity towards cops in the community. What especially bothered him were parents who warned their kids not to trust the police. “How can you teach your kids to hate cops,” he screamed. “That’s fucking retarded!” One reason for this distrust is the behavior of many police officers. Indeed, I have had the kind of experience that leads to this animosity. Two years ago, I was caught in a state police speed trap. A trooper stormed towards me in a manner more threatening than I have seen anyone walk since I attended the USMC’s Officer Candidate School. Every movement—from the chest puffed out and the shoulders hunched forward to even the way he cocked his elbow while pointing—were the kind used by drill instructors to intimidate candidates and establish “command presence.” What followed was a far from courteous interrogation about, among other things, how I could possibly work for a law firm given my shoddy clothes. After OCS I was not only used to such treatment, but also could understand why he acted that way and why he felt justified in doing so. Still, all I could think as I drove away was “what a total dickhead!”

Many officers act like him due to their training. Many begin their careers in the military, and, since police academies are modeled on military boot camps, those who do not have similar basic training. Fundamental to this experience is the adversarial approach employed by drill instructors, in which they use behavior like the trooper’s to physically and mentally intimidate recruits. This style of training has many benefits for the military. It desensitizes soldiers from hatred and physical violence coming from another human being, which is the greatest source of psychiatric trauma in warfare.[1] It presents a model of behavior that may help soldiers to motivate others on the battlefield when fear and exhaustion preclude gentler methods of persuasion. Finally, physical actions associated with certain emotions often cause the actor to experience those emotions—here, teaching recruits to outwardly evince confidence and aggression in stressful situations will cause them to feel these emotions, which are very useful in battle. Thus, it is not surprising that police academy graduates adopt aspects of the adversarial method—the ability to increase one’s confidence and to establish control over others is useful in policing.

Nonetheless, the adversarial method sets a bad example for how police should interact with civilians. As with recruits, such behavior serves only to scare, anger, and intimidate civilians. However, it is far worse because unlike recruits who consent to such treatment, civilians are not expecting or prepared for it. Moreover, it comes from authority figures most people are taught from a young age to respect, trust and even see as friends, and so it creates profound feelings of anger. In many stressful and dangerous situations in which police officers find themselves, however, this lesson is easily forgotten. What results is not only animosity towards individual officers, but a general lack of support for the police among the community which can prevent cooperation and, indeed, lead to further confrontations. More seriously, it can lead to a lack of respect for the law and police officers which may lead to even more crime.

There are solutions to this problem. First, learning to deal with people in a non-adversarial manner should be as important a part of police academy training as learning to tolerate physical and mental stress and to maintain one’s composure during confrontations. Many recruits and instructors will resist anything that sounds like “sensitivity training.” However, it is not foreign to policing. Recruiting and training undercover officers requires identifying and enhancing the ability to deal with civilians in a trusting manner. Second, a major problem may be awareness of what causes the animosity. A common trait among servicemen who have trouble reintegrating into society is difficulty recognizing why civilian life is different from the military, with its emphasis on discipline, tough treatment, and complete deference to authority. My commander at OCS frequently reminded us that the exigencies in combat that make the military lifestyle necessary are not present in civilian life and so are justifiably not appreciated by civilians. Recruits leaving police academies should be similarly counseled. Finally, officers should be reminded that establishing authority through intimidation may create threats, to both their bodies and their careers. Police departments have found that training officers to respond to threats by constantly pulling back, reassessing their situation, and avoiding direct confrontation leads to less violence against officers and less police brutality—something beneficial to both civilians and police.[2]

Many officers will disagree and argue that they need military-style command presence to be taken seriously, and that, given the threats they face, they need to be aggressive and heavily armed to defend themselves. However, bars show that this is not always correct. Bar owners must maintain control of situations in which many people ingest a chemical that lowers their inhibitions and makes them more aggressive. However, bar employees generally avoid taking a confrontational approach even to highly disruptive patrons. Indeed, one explained to me that owners prefer female bartenders because, besides selling more drinks, they are better at cutting off drunken patrons in ways that do not end violently. According to her, this is because women are better at using persuasion rather than aggression and precisely the fact that they are less physically intimidating and less able to defend themselves makes even the drunkest patron feel unjustified in reacting violently. Similarly, a bouncer told me that despite being one of the strongest men on earth, his continued employment was based on not using his strength. He claimed that bar owners hire bouncers who are reluctant to use force because it makes well-behaved patrons feel uncomfortable and creates liability. Given that the police have similar goals to bar owners—maintaining the respect of those they serve and avoiding tort liability—police officers like my friend should heed their example.

[1] Grossman, Dave. On Killing. New York: Back Bay Books, 1996. Pp. 76-82.

[2] Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005. Pp. 225-228, 234-238.


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r4 - 22 Jan 2009 - 02:25:24 - IanSullivan
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