Baltimore City recently reached an agreement with the Department of Justice to reform the Baltimore City Police Department. The decree comes after a yearlong civil rights investigation revealed “widespread racial bias, use of excessive force, repeated patterns of unconstitutional arrests and hostility towards women and LGBT civilians, as well as other civil rights violations.”
Under the decree, federal authorities will monitor police and ensure “police use de-escalation tactics before resorting to violence.” We think that’s a positive step towards relational policing, but we ask- what would it look like if Baltimore police really committed to nonviolence in performing its role to “protect and serve?” What would it look like if violence was viewed as unacceptable and to be avoided at all costs? What would the interaction between citizens and police look like if we stopped the violence?
The police are armed with guns, but what if we armed them with kindness instead?
Some studies have shown that empathy is highly effective in improving police encounters. A 2013 a study found that “when police used procedural justice techniques [e.g, treating people with dignity and giving citizens ‘voice’ during encounters, being neutral in decision making, and conveying trustworthy motives] versus standard protocol, during a roadside encounter involving a breath –analyzer, drivers felt more satisfied with the interaction, were more cooperative, and rated police legitimacy higher than people did in more conventional traffic stops.” That’s a lot of improvement for a relatively small change in interaction. All the officer did was act with kindness, and everyone’s safety improved.
Sure, you might be saying, acting with kindness might help to improve the interaction when it’s something as routine as a traffic stop. An interaction like that shouldn’t end in violence anyway, right?
Ideally, yes. But that’s not the reality. Emily Owens, criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that “potential problematic incidents that have occurred and drawn Department of Justice attention and, really, national attention- like Michael Brown or Eric Garner- they started out as relatively mundane situations that escalated out of control.” It is not enough for the police to stop violence when guns are already firing; police should be armed with the skills to make sure guns never have to be fired in the first place.
Being kind means you don’t believe that alternatives to the use of force are impractical and ineffective. Resorting to violence and force is a failure to use your imagination and creativity to explore fully and be serious about using alternative sources of power.
We need to go back to basics here. Being kind and committing to nonviolence is not as radical as it might seem. The challenge is in getting people- in this case, the police- to see the options that lie outside of violence. Considering the context of police work can help us to understand why it may be more difficult for police officers to choose kindness (and all the options that come with that choice).
Jamil Zaki, writing for the New Yorker, writes about the role empathy plays in police work, noting that “conflicts between groups (racial, social, or competitive) can reduce [the potency of empathy]. 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.” If we want to boost empathy, then we need to train police officers to appropriately deal with the emotional challenges of the job and encourage them to commit to nonviolence with a rigorous approach to the use of nonviolence to deal with and prevent escalating conflict.
Another effective way to encourage more peaceful peacekeeping is shifting the way the police relate to the community they serve. We should advocate for a system “in which officers serve and have accountability primarily to the public they work with and protect.” This would require the police to create bonds with the people they serve. It would require common ground to be built. It would require both police and citizens to see each other more clearly. Perhaps some police “officers” might look different. Instead of strapping military men and women armed and ready to meet threats with overwhelming force, maybe we could deploy more unarmed neighborhood elders, pastors, community activists and grandmother? People of moral authority.
When we think about issues like these we often try to figure out how best to reduce danger. This is a fear based approach that encourages nervous and perhaps forceful action. What would it look like if we focused on promoting safety instead? What role does violence play within that conversation? What role does kindness play?
As we aim to take steps to increase safety rather than reduce danger, we can use our collective creativity to deal with and prevent escalating conflict. We hope the consent decree helps the Baltimore Police Department to take needed steps towards committing to nonviolence and acting with kindness within our communities. When there are a million different ways to approach a conflict, violence is almost always a bad option, right? If you agree, please join ORANS!