Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Police Interactions with the Community
Hearkening back to the discussion on the crime fighter versus the public servant, current academy training with which I was inculcated, suggested the public was a threat rather than a group requiring service. I still, to this day, reference Cooper’s Colors as a way to describe how I am feeling in certain social situations. This reference, not to be confused with PTSD, describes varying states of awareness. Originally described in John Cooper’s Principles of Self Defense, the colors are white, yellow, orange, red, and sometimes black depending on context.
White: Unaware, relaxed
Yellow: Aware and able to detect potential threats
Orange: Aware and have recognized a potential threat
Red: Ready to fight
Black: In the fight
We were trained ad nauseam on the state of mind and awareness as law enforcement officers. We were trained to always be in condition yellow while off-duty and while on-duty, always be in condition orange verging on red. I am deeply conflicted with respect to the utility of this mindset and how it collides with the public servant model, with which I deeply agree. It would seem, understandably, that one cannot be actively viewing the public as potential threats while also interacting with them as a peacekeeping agent. I think of examples, however, of service members while deployed in Afghanistan, whose job it was to build relations with Afghani tribesmen in order to build anti-Taliban coalitions all while under condition red and black. Whether those efforts were effective is a topic for another day.
Additionally problematic is that as part of routine academy training, would-be officers are trained that every interaction with the public, however innocuous to begin with, could deteriorate into a fight for their lives. This is especially true for traffic stop training where video after video is shown of officers either being gunned down or fighting to the death as part of a benign traffic stop. Owing to the fact that traffic stops are probably one of the most routine responsibilities of a patrol officer, it becomes especially problematic to consider that the interaction, from the officer’s perspective, could be deadly when for the driver it is just an embarrassing inconvenience. This means that at the onset of a traffic stop, one party is hyper aware and possibly fearing for their lives, while the other is slightly annoyed. The ironic - or sad - part of traffic stop training and its apparent risk, is that traffic stops are deadly 1 in 10 million times (Balko, 2015).
Racial Disparities in Policing
Routine interactions with the community can be troubled depending on the race of the individual with whom the officer is interacting. It should be no secret that a disturbing and notable disparity exists between the way officers interact with blacks as opposed to whites, as well as other members of minority groups. Considering the aforementioned traffic stop example, in what would otherwise be a routine interaction, notwithstanding the officer’s pre-existing training-induced agitated state of mind, a black driver is 61 percent more likely than a white driver to be told to keep their hands on the wheel, along with other linguistically disrespectful language, whereas white drivers were 57% more likely to be treated with respectful language such as apologizing, gratitude, and formal titles (Voigt et al., 2017). It is worth punctuating the risk that simple interactions, such as a traffic stop, have for black drivers.
To reiterate, traffic stops are high-risk interactions in which the officer enters the interaction already in a heightened arousal state, and 61 percent of the time engages with a black driver using disrespectful language that may lead to confrontation. This dovetails nicely into another study that found over a 5-year period, African Americans were 8 times more likely to be cited for resisting arrest than whites (Green, 2015). The question then is does the way in which an officer interacts with an African American community member, namely with disrespectful language at the outset of an interaction, needlessly precipitate confrontation?
The existence of these disparities, whether institutionalized or individualized, is disappointing and evidence of the need for more research on the topic, as well as consideration for overhauling academy curriculum as it relates to race relations.
Traffic stops themselves are a form of proactive policing. Many would agree that “proactive” anything is good. We have a culture that seems to reward those that are proactive and it is not uncommon to hear in modern workplaces of being proactive instead of reactive. As it relates to law enforcement, I think of broken windows policing that was New York City’s gem in the 90s. In the end, broken windows was found to have mostly failed at its primary purpose, which was to remove violent offenders from the streets. Instead, like many other sweeping policing initiatives, it missed the mark and instead only had an effect on petty crime (Vedantam et al., 2016). Further research found broken windows to only be effective when certain strategies were employed but the final assessments of its efficacy were mixed (CEBCP). More broadly speaking, however, proactive policing, of which broken windows is a tactical strategy, does appear to have promising data. Of the strategies employed, including hot spot, broken windows, and stop and frisk, there is data to support each but as we have learned, each of these strategies has important negative consequences and their success is largely dependent on the tactical execution. Stop and frisk for example, was a notable violation of civil rights (Thompson, 2013). As I have stated elsewhere, objective efficacy and preservation of civil rights should be the test of these strategies. If a strategy is neither inefficacious nor preserves the civil rights as part of its execution, it is not a viable strategy for policing.
Balko, R. (2015, July 23). So much for the “Ferguson effect”: Killings of cops are down 25 percent for the first half of 2015. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2015/07/23/so-much-for-the-ferguson-effect-killings-of-cops-are-down-25-percent-for-the-first-half-of-2015/
Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. Broken Windows Policing. (n.d.). Retrieved December 23, 2020, from https://cebcp.org/evidence-based-policing/what-works-in-policing/research-evidence-review/broken-windows-policing/
Green, E. (2015, April 28). Afircan Americans cited for resisting arrest at high rate in S.F. SF Gate. https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/African-Americans-cited-for-resisting-arrest-at-6229946.php