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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Root Causes and Police Behaviour

In the video, two other officers and another man stand idly by while the seemingly irate constable moves closer to the man, forcing him to step back. The constable appears to frisk the man for drugs, lays a gloved hand on his shoulder and shakes it which prompts the other officers to move in closer.

The man remains calm and doesn’t say much. But as the berating continues, the man asks the constable why he is acting that way.

There's clearly much more to this story than we get from the recorded incident itself.  As with the case of George Zimmerman or even the Boston Marathon bombing, reacting to what one audience wants us to see isn't enough - not if we are truly interested in solutions.

The first point worth noting - the guy who is being bullied by the Durham officer remains calm throughout, even utters phrases that support a one-sided interpretation of the incident.  He also knew it was being filmed, which gave him an advantage.

That's why I'm such a strong advocate of always acting as though you're under public scrutiny, whatever the context; with social media and hand-cams, you never know what's going to be used against you down the road.

Who was the man? Why were the police there?  What's the history? What are the strengths and dispositions of both parties involved?  What the officer did was clearly inappropriate, but what led him to act that way?  Does he have a history of aggressive behaviour? Was there something in his personal or professional life that led him to have a bad day?  If there were three officers present - why was he the one at the door? Why was he there on his own?

We can focus on punishment, but without a clear understanding of what's at play in this situation we can't provide justice.  It's as simple as that.

Back to the officer himself for a minute; I find it interesting the Star chose to do a mini-profile on him, emphasizing his commitment to supporting fallen soldiers and driving a big car.  What they're attempting to do is portray a fellow with limbic-motivated behaviour; wants to look tough, be strong for his community and has the back of fellow front-line security forces.

This is the kind of person we want serving on the front lines; tough, focused, unafraid to tackle threatening situations on behalf of the public good.  But what's the flipside of that profile?  Toronto Mayor Ford is that kind of guy, but he's also a bully.  Can a direct correlation be made between the profiles we hire for and the behaviour that results?

Then, there's the nature of police work itself.  Police are like teachers - we can bitch all we want about excesses, demands or whatever, but the fact remains very few of us have any interest in doing that job.  It's hard, draining, rarely understood or appreciated by the general public and in the case of police (and sometimes, teachers) life-threatening.

If we don't understand the intricate nature of the work, how can we be sure we're supporting it appropriately?  The truth is we can't - and we don't.

One case in point - mental health.  Front-line police officers are all too often first and last point of contact between people with mental illness and the justice system (though if the right services).  Yet, they get next to no training on the nature of mental illness, how it manifests itself and best practices for managing down behaviour under specific contexts.

Police get NO training on how to monitor their own mental health and techniques to better monitor and course-correct their own mental health, or seek support/help peers get support as needed.  That comes down to outdated notions of strength - the idea is that only weak people deal with depression or anxiety, and you can't be weak if you want to be a cop.  No, it's far better to save it all up until you have PTSD - which can result in the sorts of behaviour displayed in this scenario.

With all that in mind, let's go back and re-visit this incident and determine how it could have played out differently:

When the officer approaches the man, first thing he does is let him know the encounter is being recorded.  All such encounters should be recorded; this protects the officers and citizens from he said/she said controversies, but also provides a measure of encouragement for all parties to act as though the world is watching.

The officer employs self-regulation techniques (such as those learned through positive psychology) to keep his own emotional engagement in check.  The officer also employs empathy/sympathy generation techniques as are often used by master interrogators to elicit the desired response.

The officer doesn’t approach the door individually – there is a pair of officers who make a point of introducing and humanizing themselves to the person first; this fact, combined with the video recording, makes it harder for the person on the receiving end to suggest he felt intimidated or bullied by the officers.

If officer A becomes agitated despite his internal training – he is, after all, human – then his colleague will step in to provide social-emotional support; not to corner the person being spoken to but to empower his partner who takes the lead.

These officers would have started their day with an equivalent to the Talking Circle, which would allow their supervisor to gauge the team’s emotional temperature, see if there were any personal concerns that could impact performance and support/assign duties to his team as necessary. 

This isn’t about coddling, enabling or pandering.  It’s about ensuring we have a Justice system that functions the way it’s supposed to and front-line service providers who have the training, support and accommodations they need to do their very difficult job effectively.

But this only happens if we’re interested in solutions.  If instead, we want to take the Stephen Harper approach to Justice, we can keep on heavily penalizing people for their actions without an understanding of the root causes that lead to them.  That’s an inefficient use of resources and has contributed to the massive justice challenges and mental health crisis we face today.

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