By Susan H. McDaniel, PhD
Longstanding tensions between police and communities of color have reached a boiling point in the United States. The horrifying cellphone videos of two shooting deaths of African-American men by police officers this month, and the subsequent killing of five police officers by an African-American man in Dallas and three police in Baton Rouge, have reinforced a deadly cycle of fear, mistrust and violence. If we are to heal as nation, we must first acknowledge and move beyond entrenched societal stereotypes that reduce people of color, particularly black men, to suspected criminals who should be feared.
Equally important, communities must recognize the challenges facing police and the stress and dangers they encounter daily.
Social science research has shown that blacks are perceived as more violent and are more likely to be associated with objects such as guns. These associations are often so automatic that they may occur unconsciously, a phenomenon researchers have termed implicit bias.
In late June, the Department of Justice announced that it will train all its law enforcement agents and prosecutors to recognize and address implicit bias as part of its regular training curriculum. The new training, based on best practices in law enforcement, is to begin “in the next few weeks,” according to the announcement — which is none too soon. While this training already occurs in some police departments, it needs to spread to police departments everywhere.
A key factor shaping whether people obey the law is trust in legal authorities, according to research by psychologists. A number of studies have shown that the most important factors related to public trust of the police are whether people believe that the police are exercising their authority fairly. This means that police are not making decisions about whom to stop based upon race or ethnicity; that they are willing to listen when they stop people; that they apply the law consistently and without prejudice; and that they take time to explain the reasons for their actions. Most important, all police need to treat people in the community with respect and courtesy. Increasing trust helps the police as well, as distrust makes controlling crime more difficult by lowering the willingness of community members to help the police solve crimes or identify criminals.
Going forward, psychological research indicates that effective strategies to prevent events such as those that occurred in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights and elsewhere include collaborative police-community partnerships; procedurally fair applications of the law; community outreach and education; recruitment strategies to ensure that the police department reflects the demographics of the community; and training to reduce police and community stereotyping.
These practices are embodied in community-oriented policing. This approach stresses law enforcement that embraces community outreach and emphasizes police and community partnerships and dialogue.
Beginning with selection and training for officers, and continuing through in-service, roll-call, and supervisor and management training, it is important to incorporate behavioral health concepts and information about coping methods, responding to stress, and support (e.g., family and friends) and resiliency within the police community. It is useful to have the psychologists who provide services to police departments involved in the trainings, so that they are familiar to the employees and knowledgeable about the workings of the agency. The more police are educated about psychology and behavioral issues, the more they are prepared to deal with these difficult encounters in a productive way.
One success story comes from the late Lorraine Greene, PhD, a police psychologist who served as the first manager of the Nashville police department’s behavioral health services division. With her involvement and the support of the department leaders, a variety of initiatives were launched to improve police-community relations. These included surveying community members and holding focus groups of police officers, local residents and researchers. The data collected were then used to create training for police and citizens, which led to greater mutual understanding. More recently, social psychologist Phillip A. Goff, PhD, and his colleagues at the Center for Policing Equity have worked to develop collaborative relationships with law enforcement, communities and political stakeholders, to identify ways to strengthen relationships between local law enforcement departments and the communities they serve.
Increasing the psychological training and emotional supports available to police officers, improving morale and reducing burnout can lead to better policing and potentially reduce violent police-community encounters. As a society, we have the behavioral tools to help heal police-community relations. We now need to ensure that we apply them – fast.
Dr. McDaniel is president of the American Psychological Association.