The nation’s heart is heavy after learning of two new deaths of black men killed by police officers. Alton Sterling was killed this past Tuesday after being shot point-blank while held stationary by four police officers and a video of the encounter has spread like wildfire. In the same week, Philando Castile was shot during a routine traffic stop where he reached to get his license; the movement was interpreted as reaching for a gun, and so he was killed.
While these incidents may not happen every day (136 black people have been killed this year so far), they represent the reality that black Americans are policed at a higher rate (2.5x more than white neighbourhoods), are arrested at a higher rate, have longer sentences, and are killed by police at a much higher rate. This is not confined to any part of America; it happens from coast to coast and reflects a theme for policing across the country.
Further deepening the debate over police force change was the incident in Dallas that took the lives of 5 police officers. The suspect targeted white police officers, and claims to have been influenced by the ideas of Black Lives Matter movement, but was not affiliated. The irony is that Dallas was one of the most progressive police departments against police brutality and had worked hard to combat it.
What happened in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and St Paul was tragic and shouldn’t have happened, both for the Black community and the police community. Now is a time to grieve. But we can also look forward and try and change what we have so that these incidents don’t occur in the future. This is where I/O psychologists can help; wherever there is a systematic change that needs to be made to a group’s culture, organizational psychology can do the trick.
- Change police recruitment, selection, and training.
Police recruitment has often relied on its image of “being tough” to attract candidates, and because of this, it may attract people who are more likely to use force as a first means of defence. Recruiters and hiring managers need to be aware of this, and testing could be used to identify areas for concern in discrimination. In order to cut costs, a situational judgement test may be an option (Ruggs et al., 2015) and be used to create a national standard for recruitment across the country.
Training should continue to emphasize alternate non-violent options for de-escalation. More importantly, the use of this training should be emphasized on the streets; champions can be assigned from the police force to encourage others to use their training. Higher level police officers also need to stand behind the changes and make sure that officers understand why the changes are being made (Balogun & Johnson, 2004; Maitlis, 2005; Ruggs, Martinez, & Hebl, 2011); communication is essential. Demonstrate and train law enforcement on a regular basis to make sure that skills are up to date.
Training to identify bias is also essential. Studies have shown that perceptions of crime are higher where there is a larger percentage of black men, regardless of the actual rate of crime in the area (Quillian & Pager, 2001). Other studies demonstrate that in a virtual simulation where the player has to decide whether the suspect is armed or not, police officers are more likely to shoot the suspect when he is black than white. However, there is hope; after multiple practice rounds, this bias was reduced (Plant and Peruche, 2005), indicating that training and awareness can decrease unnecessary shots at innocent black victims.
- Community policing should be a part of the job requirement.
Community policing is a style of policing where police work alongside community members to understand their needs and has been proven effective in increasing the sense that police are serving their communities instead of working against them (Greene, 2000). In this style of policing, officers interact with those they serve both when things are going well and when they need assistance. For example, in the UK there are dedicated members of every police force who go around to local businesses and homes and just check to see if things are ok. They aim to build relationships with people, and this solves two of the biggest problems with police in the United States: police being viewed as separate from the rest of the population, and police being linked to negative events. Increased contact can break down the barriers of stereotypes, and encourage both police and the community to see each other as human beings with families, friends, struggles, and complexities. It also breaks down the perception that police are trying to find a way to punish members of the community if they see them in a peaceful context, and can also encourage cooperation to keep the community safe. It also helps police members to see that their community is not full of criminals or lawbreakers, but everyday people who are good.
- Communication is key throughout the changes to come.
The police officers who died in the Dallas shootings were killed despite the Dallas Police Department’s commitment to reducing the use of force and low record of violence. Police Departments should make an effort to let people know that they are trying to change and adjusting policies to protect their communities better.
Perhaps even more important than spreading awareness of changes is to let people voice their opinions about how policing should change. Hold town hall forums where people can talk about what may be good ways to decrease the use of force or to design training around implicit biases. Have a committee made up of a diverse group of subject matter experts to discuss potential changes. Hold an open house day to demonstrate how the police force is changing its approaches. Under no circumstance should changes be made behind closed doors; remember that the black community is a major stakeholder in any changes to come, and as such should be involved in the process.
- Improve support services for police officers.
Police officers go through a lot and find themselves in tense situations that the average citizen may never encounter. Therefore, specialty services need to be offered to help them handle the situations they face. While it may be common for police officers to have access to counselling or psychological assistance, other job-related policies should be enacted to protect them. A period of time off after life-threatening situations may allow officers to process and handle them. Management should be trained to understand mental illness, particularly PTSD, and refer subordinates to the proper assistance.
Assistance can be made in other small ways that may not cost a lot of money; proper scheduling so that officers switch difficult shifts like the night shift or special events may be necessary. Offering additional time off or making sure that officers use all their time off may be necessary as well.
This is not a comprehensive list, and different departments may have different needs to serve their community. Regardless, using an I/O psychologist to help develop changes may be the answer that police departments need to change their image, respect the communities they serve, and ultimately protect their citizens more effectively.
Balogun, J., & Johnson, G. (2004). Organizational restructuring and middle manager sensemaking. Academy of Management Journal, 47(4), 523–549. doi:10.2307/20159600
Greene, J. (2000). Community Policing in America: Changing the Nature, Structure, and Function of the Police. Policies, Process, and Decisions of the Criminal Justice System. 3, 299-370.
Maitlis, S. (2005). The social processes of organizational sensemaking. Academy of Management Journal, 48, 21– 49. doi:10.5465/AMJ.2005.15993111
Plant, E. A., & Peruche, B. M. (2005). The consequences of race for police officers’ responses to criminal suspects. Psychological Science, 16(3), 180-183. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00800.x
Quillian, L., & Pager, D. (2001). Black neighbors, higher crime? The role of racial stereotypes in evaluations of neighborhood crime. American Journal of Sociology, 107(3), 717-767. doi:10.1086/338938
Ruggs, E. N., Martinez, L. R., & Hebl, M. R. (2011). How individuals and organizations can reduce interpersonal discrimination. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5, 29-42. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00332.x
Ruggs, E. N., Hebl, M., Rabelo, V., Weaver, K., Kovacs, J., Kemp, A. (2015). Baltimore is burning: Can I/O psychologists help extinguish the flames? Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice.