As a therapist for 50 years, I have learned the value of listening and understanding and of seeing the benefit of looking past my own biases. As a police psychologist and trainer for the last 39 years, I have come to appreciate the special pressures within a unique culture – pressures that are not readily apparent to outsiders. It is a principle in psychology that people, without more specific, actual knowledge, naturally assume other individuals, families, and cultures operate like themselves and their own groups. We need to move beyond this – to listen without prejudice – in order to reasonably appreciate and resolve the tension between police and our black community.
It is crucial for police officers and law enforcement administrators to understand, as much as possible, the daily and lifelong experience in our country of living while black. We non-blacks expect black Americans to do as we do – to generally trust the system, conduct their business, and feel safe. Our African American fellow citizens are assumed to do things like these, without fear and danger ever possible in their awareness: passing someone on the sidewalk, raising children, entering a bank or QuickTrip, applying for a job, jogging, opening their front door, deciding what to wear, driving across town, going to school, reporting a crime, getting a traffic ticket, and sitting in a park. This assumption could not be farther from the truth, and it represents a profound blind spot for non-blacks.
It is important too for us non-police to try to understand the experience of living while blue – the effects on health and relationships of shifting duty schedules, the chronic heightened alertness on duty and off, the inability to completely unwind or sleep a full night, the distrust and negative perceptions of the public, the burden of an ever-present weapon, the pressure to remain tough, the responsibility to be in control, and the constant possibility of sudden violence. Increasingly, police officers have been asked to perform the impossible. We expect officers to be more than human – to remain calm, to be fair, to take their time, to be brave, to protect all sides, to act immediately, and to shift quickly between important roles: enforcer, medic, counselor, protector, diplomat, mediator, investigator, educator, friend, and role model.
Though officers may be armed and in a position of authority, they may not feel confident, calm, powerful, and invulnerable. They can be oblivious to living while black, be under stress, feel threatened by the unpredictable, and feel fearful of things getting out of control -- because of their own past encounters as officers and because of the stories they have heard about police getting killed even in routine or benign, random situations. Further, police officers are selected for their ability to act, to engage, and to take charge of problem situations. For officers to hold back in stressful encounters – to not act – this can go against their instincts and even against their conception of the role we have asked them to play.
We who select and prepare police need to do better in our training, in our wellness services for officers, in facilitating officers’ engagement with the community, in increasing minority recruitment, and in proactively offering unsuitable officers an acceptable route out of law enforcement. We also need to do everything we can to help both citizens and police gain more respect for the humanness of each other – and a better understanding of the ways the world looks and feels from each person’s position. We especially need officers to see themselves as humans first, as embracing and protecting of differentness and community, and as valuing membership in the human family over their sense of solidarity with their law enforcement family.