What the Police Could Learn from Psychologists

If we are to end systemic, institutionalized racism in America and the racist attitudes that too many police officers hold toward the citizens they have sworn to protect and to serve, perhaps it would be wise to better understand how much of good policing really is just simple human psychology.

If we want police officers to set a better example in their behavior and attitudes, I think no better place to start is with a police officer is trained — the police academy. And while I’m sure academies teach a lot of people skills, I think they’re missing an opportunity. Maybe police academies could learn more from the training of psychologists.

Police Academies Today

Police academies today resemble paramilitary institutions where as much time is spent on learning how to take orders without question as it is on learning the basics of law enforcement in the classroom. As Rosa Brooks writes in The Atlantic, maybe it’s time we stopped training police like they’re joining the military:

It’s not hard to see the link between paramilitary police training and the abuses motivating the past several weeks’ protests. When police recruits are belittled by their instructors and ordered to refrain from responses other than “Yes, Sir!,” they may learn stoicism—but they may also learn that mocking and bellowing orders at those with less power are acceptable actions. When recruits are ordered to do push-ups to the point of exhaustion because their boots weren’t properly polished, they may learn the value of attention to detail—but they may also conclude that the infliction of pain is an appropriate response to even the most trivial infractions.

While it may seem innocuous, paramilitary training imbibes police officers with not only a sense of duty and honor, but also of fighting in a “war” — one waged against its own citizens. Is the military boot camp model — one where discipline and chain of command is strictly enforced, where officers are told to follow orders over thinking for themselves, where every person encountered may be seen as an “enemy combatant” — really for the best for police training?

Police hate rats, that’s why they (almost) never report a fellow officer for breaking the rules, or the law. This isn’t an oversight — it’s a part of their indoctrination during training:

[In] my police academy class, we had a clique of around six trainees who routinely bullied and harassed other students: intentionally scuffing another trainee’s shoes to get them in trouble during inspection, sexually harassing female trainees, cracking racist jokes, and so on. Every quarter, we were to write anonymous evaluations of our squadmates. I wrote scathing accounts of their behavior, thinking I was helping keep bad apples out of law enforcement and believing I would be protected. Instead, the academy staff read my complaints to them out loud and outed me to them and never punished them, causing me to get harassed for the rest of my academy class. That’s how I learned that even police leadership hates rats. That’s why no one is “changing things from the inside.” They can’t, the structure won’t allow it.

Clearly if officers are taught from day one not to report behavior or problems with their fellow officers, it’s a part of the ingrained culture of most police. Police learn that officers are above the law.

What About More Psychological Training?

A psychologist is trained in the background and science of human behavior long before they ever see their first therapy patient or collect a single data point of research. This gives them the solid foundation on which to build their understanding of human relationships, of power differentiation in relationships, of understanding how cultural background and upbringing is going to shape a person’s interactions with the world around them.

Imagine if officers got similar training and education, to help them build a better foundation of understanding about human behavior? Imagine if, besides teaching the basics about the law and a suspect’s rights, we also taught them social skills training, and how to talk to people to get information willingly rather than under duress?

Imagine if police officers were taught how to befriend as many people as possible in the neighborhoods they policed? If they were taught how to be a better role model rather than someone that is looked down-upon or feared?

Officers could learn to not simply de-escalate a situation — something they’re supposedly taught already, but seem to be in short supply of recently — but also to care and show compassion for the people they are interacting with, regardless of the crime. And more importantly, regardless of a person’s race or ethnic background.

Officers could be taught about the dozens of cognitive biases humans employ every day as brain shortcuts — and how that leads to all sorts of stereotypes and making poor judgment calls. They could be taught how to become more aware of these biases in themselves, and to employ tools to keep them interfering in their ability to be more fair.

There’s a Lot to Change

We’re at the very beginning stages of change in addressing the problems of policing in our country. For far too long, some police officers have used the power of their office (and the guaranteed silence of their fellow officers to go along with them) to indiscriminately harm — and even kill — those of a different race. Those without power. And Black Americans have suffered the most under this disparity.

Police need to be stripped of their generous pensions if they are involved in any misconduct. Even fired officers can qualify for a pension — even if they murdered someone and are serving time in prison. Today, police largely lack any kind of accountability. That needs to change.

It’s time for police forces to take a long, hard look at how they train their officers. Do they want a paramilitary organization that their community fears and distrusts? Or would they rather a professional policing organization that upholds the law, but does so with honor, integrity, and respect for not only the law, but their fellow citizens.

Police could learn a lot from psychology. If only they embrace the opportunity to be better professionals, and to do a better job at helping the human beings they’re tasked with helping in their community.


For further reading…

The Atlantic: Stop Training Police Like They’re Joining the Military

Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop

Officer charged with killing George Floyd still eligible for pension worth more than $1 million

Detroit police overtime up 136% over 5 years

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