Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

When cops choose empathy

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A very interesting New Yorker article by Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University:

About four years ago, in a city park in western Washington State, Joe Winters encountered a woman in the throes of a psychotic episode. As he sat down next to her, she told him that she had purchased the bench that they now shared and that it was her home. “I didn’t buy the hallucinations, but I tried to validate the feelings underneath them,” Winters told me. His strategy resembled Rogerian psychotherapy—unconditionally accepting a patient’s experience, even when it is untethered from reality. But Winters is not a roving psychologist; he is a deputy in the King County Sheriff’s Office. He had been called to the scene in response to the woman’s behavior, which nearby residents deemed disruptive. After talking with Winters for several minutes, the woman left of her own volition, without Winters having to arrest her or resort to physical force.

Policing can seem like barren ground for empathy, the experience of understanding, sharing in, and caring about another’s emotions. According to the Web site Fatal Encounters, cops were involved in the deaths of twelve hundred and sixty-one people in the United States last year, an average of about three and a half each day. A recent string of brutal arrests by officers in Missouri, New York, Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, and elsewhere has helped to drive the public’s faith in law enforcement to a twenty-two-year low. National confidence in police officers’ racial impartiality has also fallen. But, for communities of color, incidents like these are nothing new; they often confirm a longstanding perception of police as antagonists.

Many theories, both old and new, hold that empathy is inevitable and automatic. When you witness someone suffer a severe bone fracture, it doesn’t take mental gymnastics to figure out how you feel; a wave of discomfort might wash over you, the emotional equivalent of a knee-jerk reflex. In fact, though, empathy is a fragile reaction, one that often fails when it is most needed. Conflicts between groups (racial, social, or competitive) can reduce its potency. So can stress, which limits the psychological space that people have for others, and power, which can numb those who possess it to the plight of those who don’t.

Each of these factors is common in policing. From their earliest days of training, many recruits are steeped in a so-called warrior mentality, in which routine patrols resemble combat and citizens pose a potentially mortal threat. Last year, the Santa Fe New Mexican obtained a draft of instructional materials from the state law-enforcement academy that offer a striking example of this philosophy. According to the proposed curriculum, cadets would be taught that, during traffic stops, they should “assume that … all the occupants in the vehicle are armed.” Expectations like these encourage a volatile mindset, and they play directly into the tendency to see weapons where there are none, especially in the hands of black men. The warrior mentality also instills chronic anxiety. Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer, told me that such fear colors the way that cops treat civilians. “If I’m worried about never making it home again, I don’t really give a damn if I offend someone,” he said. “Whatever emotional toll my actions take on them, it will feel less important than my survival.”

If you wanted to decrease recruits’ empathy, you could scarcely do better than to enshrine a warrior mentality. Recently, however, recruits in several cities—among them Cincinnati, Las Vegas, and Memphis—have begun to learn a different approach: command less, listen more. A strong example of such a program comes from Sue Rahr, the executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Rahr’s curriculum, which has produced about seven hundred and fifty graduates in the past two years, is designed to do away with the warrior mentality and encourage recruits to view themselves not as combatants within a community but as guardians of it. (President Obama’s Task Force on Twenty-First-Century Policing, whose final report Rahr helped shape, aims to do the same.)

One strategy that flows from Rahr’s philosophy is known as . . .

Continue reading. Later in the article:

. . . Another way to bolster caring is to emphasize empathy-positive norms, as the British psychologist Mark Tarrant found in a study in 2009. Tarrant and his colleagues told a group of college students about another student whose parents had died in a car accident. Participants felt more empathy when they believed that this victim attended their own university, as opposed to another school. Tarrant then ran his study again, but first told half the group that their own university was an unusually empathic place, high in “compassion, tenderness, and sympathy.” This simple prompt erased the empathy gap; students now expressed equal empathy for victims from their own and other schools. In the world of law enforcement, the city police department in Decatur, Georgia, seems to have adopted a similar empathic norm, as can be seen in the first seconds of its recruitment video—a stark contrast with more warrior-oriented messages offered elsewhere. . .

The difference between the two recruitment videos is astonishing.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2015 at 11:28 am

Posted in Law Enforcement

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