The Weight of the Badge

Sep 19, 2016

The boiling anger in the U.S. over police ‘use of force’, and charges of racism and racial-bias can’t help but spill over into Canada, and its affect has been profound as we wrestle with our own issues. True, the challenges in policing can vary distinctly between the U.S. and Canada, but the public reacts with the same mistrust when things go awry. In the aftermath of any negative incident involving the police, public ­sentiment drops and accusations fly in a vacuum of unanswered questions or rhetoric from police chiefs. Respecting due process, impartiality and examination of the facts prior to commenting, police cannot and will not speak to many of the questions posed by the public and the media, especially when an incident is under investigation. However, this is when answers are most needed – without them, the window of opportunity to quell the anger starts to close.

If left in a vacuum, the public becomes exasperated and demanding to understand the events leading up to the incident. Policing organizations are often silent, but are well aware of the lack of trust and confidence expressed by the public.

In the field, the rank and file show up for their shifts and go about their job with an added weight to their duties. Is the public failing to recognize the commitment by those who police our communities? In the same context, can police be so detached that they cannot empathize with the public’s fears? Or does the divide have less to do with empathy and more to do with what feels like a stale-mate (no one knows how to fix it or where to start)?

In the wake of recent jarring headlines, the public is recognizing there is a weak link in the system, be it in the selection criteria for new recruits, or a lack of sensitivity training, or a need to identify bias of officers within the ranks.

Bridging the communications between the public and police is difficult for many reasons, but it must start with trust-building and honest dialogue before, not after, a serious incident.

Truthfully, police explantations of policing activity is tenuous at best – you can select the most articulate officer with most exemplary soft skills, and a perceived bias will still emerge. It doesn’t help that the inherent language of authority is loaded with negative connotations and that the policing ethos encourages shouldering – not sharing – the weight. What results is an impervious barrier.

Even if the communications were fluid, the public is unlikely to hear the truth: the horrors of policing, the struggle with stress and depression, the burden it has placed on their families and how their chosen career is not what they thought it would be, but still there is nothing they would rather do. Moreover, they wouldn’t hear about irreconcilable policing dichotomy; the person they arrested today is the same person they served and protected yesterday.

However, truly progressive police organizations are recognizing the importance of the confidence of the public, and do strive to find innovative ways to educate, communicate and explain processes to the public. But it’s not only up to the policing organizations.

Communities need to accept the reality of operational challenges of policing and abandon the role of arm-chair judge and jury while demanding super-human capabilities of officers – to act as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and mediators, to absorb the operational stress and resource constraints and the psychological impacts of the worst of calls.

Its easy to critique and replay a video over and over, but the expectation of police perfection is real, and results in allegations of hyper-masculine aggression and insufficient police training – that it’s either lacking, out-dated, militarized or deficient.

While training criticisms may have merit, there are functional aspects of human behaviour that no amount of training can mitigate. Training is scenario-based, controlled, and with managed consequences; it is therefore impossible to recreate all environmental and emotional variables, physiological reactions, and human behaviours. Woven into this, are increasingly common behaviours, such as excited delirium, mental health disabilities and narcotic-induced states, and these present a massive challenge in crisis intervention.

Both the 2014 Ontario Human Rights Commission report on Police Use of Force and Mental Health disabilities and ‘use of force’, and the 2016 Ontario Ombudsman’s report, A Matter of Life and Death, on improved crisis intervention in policing, recommend a revised ‘use of force’ model, with an emphasis on de-escalation and improved training.

Shifting from behaviour causality to a generic ‘people in crisis’ profile, and de-escalation as core training, makes sense. However, the theoretical obscures the practical, which is often the case in reports that are conducted without the collaboration of subject matter experts and those who operationalize these methods.

In the Ombudsman’s report, there were no recommendations to maintain program-specific capabilities and resources in crisis intervention. Recommendations on dealing with community-level calls for service (or whether specialized units should remain as such) to preserve valuable knowledge, intelligence and relationships, would have been welcome. Instead, the report hones in on the simplification of the ‘use of force’ model and adoption of a linear model (even though it is represented as a circle) rather than a continuum of options.

This presents an issue as linear models only work well with repeatable processes, such as event and selection-based actions, and do not account for complex human behaviours in conflict scenarios – in fact, they are rarely effective (except in communicating to non-experts).

A by-product of this simplification is the inference of subjective standards – canned, acceptable responses of the least or minimal amounts of force. If expert observation and response capabilities of an officer are stifled, a conundrum of negotiation versus authority, and liability for judgment and decisions made under stress, quickly emerges. The more proactive approach is objective reasonableness that empowers and entrusts the officer’s capabilities and judgement in the elastic dynamic of crisis intervention. Considering this, has the ‘use of force’ model has seen its day?

Crisis Intervention Model
It may be time to re-scope the entire approach and evolve to a crisis intervention model that includes a ‘use of force’ component with other options around de-escalation and specialized skills support.

In a crisis intervention, assessing and response re-formulation is both iterative and cyclic – as the scenario can change at any time – with risk mitigation being the driving force.

When considering training improvements, conceptualizing the many fixed factors (perceived mental state, physical capabilities, weapons or their possible concealment, etc.) and fluid factors (emotional state, passive and active resistance, willingness to sustain injury, etc.) is impossible.

The formulation of responses ranging from strategic (diffusion and de-escalation) to tactical and defensive (less-than-lethal and counter force) must be agile and must respond to the factors related to capability, intent, means and opportunity. A person’s intent (reaching for their pocket, verbalizations, body posture or rigidity, etc.) can be obvious or subtle, but suppression before they are actioned is the goal in any case.

On June 29, 2016, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé released a report calling on the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to save lives by requiring police across the province to use de-escalation techniques in conflict situations before resorting to lethal force.
On June 29, 2016, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé released a report calling on the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to save lives by requiring police across the province to use de-escalation techniques in conflict situations before resorting to lethal force.

For these reasons, the context of police training can’t help but be flawed; there is no mechanism to prepare for every encounter, nor is there a means to temporarily disconnect human behaviours or physiological responses. On top of this, cumulative stress, multiple-trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other physical states, such as fatigue, have a tremendous impact.

While training scenarios are designed to mitigate some this by simplifying steps and actions for rapid enactment, and enabling assessment that establishes control in the safest manner, the functional reality of human physiology remains: under pre-existing or situational stress, humans lose the ability to utilize certain capacities, such as fine motor skills.

Clearly, there’s an educational component to the much needed communications strategy. Although most Canadians will have few interactions with police in their lifetime, it is confounding that while the majority of these interactions are not negative the growing sentiment towards police is. The power of news headlines and social media is formidable and it will feed the negative perception of police from hundreds of miles away. Because of this, the idea of abuse of authority and ‘excessive use of force’ by police exists both objectively and subjectively with the public, and must be dealt with as valid realities.

As much as there is a policing dichotomy, there is also a dichotomy to be reconciled by the public: a generational mythology and expectations of police that is contrasted by glaring media images, all fuelled by the absence of communication and information.

Policing (with the exception of the RCMP) is not federated for a reason, and its centralization has failed over and over in history; it must be treated as a core service that establishes and maintains the quality of our communities. These communities have unique needs and they form multitudes of societies across our country and those needs cannot be met through borrowed best practices - best practices work at the procedural level not at the strategic or legislative. If we allow the public to ignore the necessary authoritarian role and realities of policing and the police organizations refuse to adopt innovative community and public communications, the divide will widen. The public will hold firm to their expectations, expressing anger and dismay when they are not met and frontline officers will continue to operate below capacity but to super-human expectations placed upon them. And the badge will only get heavier.

Valarie Findlay is a research fellow for the Police Foundation (USA) and has worked for two decades in federal security. She holds a Masters in Terrorism Studies and examined the transformation and impacts to law enforcement in Western Nations and is currently engaged in doctoral research.