Police, Protests, and the Killing of George Floyd

Jun 20, 2020

A police psychologist’s 9 ideas for change in these turbulent times.

This has been a tough week for me personally. I’ve been fielding calls from friends, relatives, and news outlets. They want to know if I can explain police behavior. They point to the egregious, appalling death of Mr. George Floyd and others. Their questions feel like barely disguised accusations, as if I should be ashamed of being a police psychologist for the past 40 years. I rarely walk away from these conversations feeling happy with my responses.

To my recollection, no one has ever asked me to explain why thousands of cops risk their safety every day performing acts of kindness, generosity, and bravery to help perfect strangers.

One of the reasons these conversations are uncomfortable is that the current public discourse about race and policing appears to have boiled down to “Are you with me or against me?” It’s as though I can’t be anti-racism and support law enforcement. Or support the protests without being labeled as turning against all cops. Modifying words like “some,” “most,” “much,” and “many” have been replaced by “always” and “never.” It’s ironic that sentences using “always” and “never” are always wrong and never right.

To help sort my emotions and thoughts, I sought consultation in the works of two graduate school mentors, Dr. Verneice Thompson and Dr. Charles Hampden-Turner. Dr. Thompson, who died in 1993, was an African American. She devoted her career to the study of power, authority, and leadership in organizations as they relate to age, gender, and ethnicity. She was a great advocate for diversity, defining it as the ability of people to work together while maintaining rather than disguising or ignoring their differences.

She recognized how compelling it was to focus on individuals and individual acts, but insisted it was more important to concentrate on systemic issues. To her, the real question was “Why does this group need this individual to behave in this way at this point in time?” I think this is what people mean when they say police reform has to go beyond ridding law enforcement of the bad apples.

Dr. Charles Hampden-Turner, philosopher and psychologist, taught me that values must be balanced with their opposites. He’d stand in front of a flip chart, marker in hand, and draw lines and circles, creating a yin-yang map of contradictions and connections. “Courage,” he said, “without caution is recklessness. Caution without courage is cowardice.” His words ring true in this damned if you do, damned if you don’t moment in history, when a thoughtless disbanding of institutions could prove as disastrous as the failure to do anything at all.

So what, as someone who has spent almost four decades counseling cops and trying to humanize their organizations, do I think needs changing?

  1. Increase the psychological support we give officers. Cops are twice as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty. The job not only changes people, it traumatizes them. As many as 19 percent of the force may have diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder. Many more have symptoms at the less than clinical level.
  2. Require officers to undergo annual mandatory confidential psychological wellness checks.
  3. Allow officers to retire without financial penalty at 5, 10, or 15 years.
  4. Add resilience, self-care, emotional intelligence, and de-escalation tactics to basic training. Lower the emphasis on danger training without compromising officer safety.
  5. Change the warrior mindset to a guardian mindset.
  6. Relieve police from dealing with public health problems such as housing, mental illness, and drug addiction.
  7. Find new ways to measure productivity that emphasizes community interaction and crime prevention as much or more than arrests and traffic stops.
  8. Hire more women officers. Women are less likely to be involved in complaints of brutality.

As we are learning, racism has contaminated many of our institutions from health care to banking to education. The struggle to undo harm and strengthen equality falls to us all, not just law enforcement. This means we need to stop painting people and groups as all good, all bad, or all-knowing. We need to listen to each other. This is never easy. Humans are hard-wired to prefer the familiar over the unfamiliar. We resist accepting new information that challenges our long-held beliefs because it threatens our very identities.

I think we are at a tipping point in the fight against racism. Never before have I seen so many white people protesting, questioning their implicit biases, and owning up to the advantages of white privilege. Never before have I seen law enforcement, a culture rarely known to choose change over tradition, respond to community protest with such speed by changing policies and firing bad cops.

There’s resistance, of course. Many officers and their families are fearful for their safety and their futures. Many feel unfairly maligned for social ills and betrayed by the communities they have served. Some may adapt, others will choose to leave the job. Some are seeking psychological support. Recruiting new officers in this anti-police environment will be a challenge.

Let’s not screw this moment up by demanding allegiance to any single point of view. Let’s brace ourselves for the discomfort that comes from confronting painful truths. Let’s not take the easy way out by rejecting people and ideas that don’t conform to what we believe. Human behavior is far too complex. Let us work to solve our problems as Dr. Thompson and Dr. Hampden-Turner have taught, with balance in our values and tolerance and respect for our differences.


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