Ignoring the Weight of the Badge

Ignoring the Weight of the Badge
Posted on August 3, 2016 | Valarie Findlay | Written on August 3, 2016
Letter type:

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

Recent incidents concerning police use of force is a grave concern for all Canadian communities. As much as the temptation to paint all with the same brush or to find immediate answers in our anger and hurt, this article serves to ask several questions related to possible underlying causes. This was echoed in my previous article on the changes and issues in policing oversight and restructuring in Ottawa. Valarie Findlay is a cybersecurity research fellow for the Police Foundation (USA) and holds a Masters in Terrorism Studies from the University of St. Andrew's based on her  dissertation, "The Impact of Terrorism on the Transformation of Law Enforcement". Currently, she is preparing her doctoral thesis on terrorism as a social phenomenon. She can be contacted at: vfindlay@humanled.com

The Weight of the Badge

The disturbing images and boiling anger in the US, charging that police use of force and interactions are increasingly racially-biased, has resulted in a palpable tension has a profound affect on Canadians as we wrestle with our own concerns over policing. While the values and societal features of the US and Canada appear to be similar, our current challenges in Canadian policing, and their causality, are distinct. Although the point of this commentary is not to determine whether racism is prevalent in policing, but to examine the broader consequences of organizational and human resource stresses of policing, the term has emerged with cries for justice and its only fair to address it briefly.

While generalized and institutionalized racism exists in Canada, it has not proliferated to the extent as experienced in the US. Although archaic and unsophisticated as an ideology, racism does require societal context to be understood and addressed. Watering it down or simplifying it by arbitrarily associating it with abject behaviours towards people of minority, without a foundation nor evidence, does little but entrench an already difficult social issue. Perceived racism must be viewed in its historical context in the society or organization it has manifested in, in order to validate (identify based on its characteristics) and differentiate it from racial and situational bias - all requiring very different responses.

In the aftermath of any negative incident involving the police, what inflames the tempers of the public and propels accusations are the unanswered questions and diplomatic rhetoric from police organizations bound to due process, impartiality and examination of the facts prior to commenting. In practical terms, there are many questions from the public in these contexts that police cannot, and will not speak to, especially where an incident is under investigation. Clearly, this is when answers to these questions are most urgently needed and the window of opportunity that would quell anger and foster a rapport, appears but remains unopened.

The public is left exasperated and still demanding answers to square the circle. The police, as an organization, are mostly silent or cautiously picking their words, well aware of the lack of trust, confidence and opportunists who will manipulate their words. Officers in the field continue to show up for their shift and go about their job with an added weight to their duties. As much as the images seen in recent weeks have jarred the public, can we be so far off center that we fail to recognize the commitment and level of stress experienced by those who have chosen to police our communities? In the same context, can police be so detached from the public that they are unable to empathize with their fears? Maybe this refusal to recognize and acknowledge has less to do with empathy and more to do with the inability to correct it, on both sides.

Bridging the communications between the public and police to facilitate an understanding of policing - why police do what they do, specifically in their interactions - is difficult and requires a process that builds trust that allows honest dialogue before not after a serious incident. Truthfully, police explaining policing is tenuous at best - the most articulate officer with most exemplary soft skills will still generate a perceived bias. Further to that, the inherent language of authority is loaded with pejorative that evokes deep emotional reactions and the policing ethos encourages shouldering - not sharing - the weight, creating an impervious barrier. The public is unlikely to hear about the horrors of the job, 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 there is nothing they'd rather do. Moreover, you wouldn't hear about the tremendous difficulty in reconciling the policing dichotomy; that is, the person they arrested today was the same person they served and protected yesterday.

Truly progressive police organizations have come to recognize the concerns of the public and strive to find innovative ways to educate, to communicate answers and explain processes to the extent that they are able. And societies need to be educated on the operational challenges of policing and their methods, as we continue to demand super-human capabilities of officers - to exhibit self-control in disturbing conflicts, to act as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and mediators, to absorb the operational stress of shift work, resource constraints and to carry with them the psychological impacts of the worst of calls. Likewise, the media has to respect public policy and report within those parameters without conflating incidents.

A comparison of an recent incident in Toronto to that of James Forcillo's handling of his interaction with Sammy Yatim's, by writer Andrew Mitrovica in a Toronto Star article, underscores this:  

"The cops kept their cool, working together – as they’ve no doubt been trained – to disarm a kid who was wielding a knife not that much different from the one Yatim was flashing on the streetcar on that fateful morning. They resolved the tense situation without firing a shot despite the fact that, arguably, this kid posed more of a danger to the police and public than Yatim did. In the end, I can’t help but think that if this group of police officers – who, like Forcillo, swore an oath to serve and protect the public, but, unlike Forcillo, responded so differently, wisely, calmly and professionally to another disturbed young man in distress – had been there when Sammy Yatim needed help, he might be alive today, getting the help he so desperately needed."[1]

The expectation that these incidents are all alike, can be equally compared and can be assessed by an untrained bystander, is common but ignores the reality. It goes without saying, the most valued officer is the one who is able to achieve the desired result with the least risk or injury to all parties, while maintaining the confidence of the public. But in a job where stress is insurmountable and there is little reciprocity for kindness, how realistic is this? Yes, they chose this job but its important to consider that without that individual in that job, the job still remains - and it is a job that only a human can do.

Police training routinely emerges as the marquis criticism following a police incident that results in injury or death of a member of the public. Training is either infrequent/lacking, out-dated, militarized or a host of other deficiencies and while the criticisms have merit, there are functional aspects of human behaviour that no amount or type of training can mitigate. Since scenario-based, police training is controlled and the consequences managed, it is impossible to reliably invoke all environmental variables, physiological reactions and human behaviours. Woven into this complexity are increasingly common behaviours associated with various personal states, such as excited delirium, mental health disabilities and narcotic-induced states. The management of these behaviours in crisis intervention present a massive operational challenge.

In the 2014 Ontario Human Rights Commission[2] report on mental health disabilities and use of force and the 2016 Ontario Ombudsman's report, A Matter of Life and Death[3], on improved crisis intervention in policing both focus on a revised use of force model, improved training and an emphasis on de-escalation. While shifting from behaviour causality to a generic 'people in crisis' profile and an de-escalation as core training, the initial interpretation of these reports make perfectly acceptable recommendations. 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. (Surprisingly, in the Ombudsman's report there were no recommendations to account for the value of program-specific skills and capabilities in crisis intervention: community-level police and area patrol officers should deal with community-level calls for service and that specialized units remain as such, preserving valuable knowledge, intelligence and relationships).

Simplifying the use of force model to a analogue model, rather than a continuum, would be a step backward; analogue models only work well with repeatable processes, such as event and selection-based actions. Further to that, the simplification of complex concepts is rarely effective, except in the instance of communicating to non-experts; important details are omitted and success measurement is impossible. Incorporating the fluidity of human behaviours in conflict scenarios and reflecting the complexities of societal interactions in the use of force model is crucial for operationalization.

While de-escalation is favoured by all involved, introducing a subjective standard can increase the risk as person's intent from compliance to combatant can shift rapidly, actualizing their capabilities and opportunities. For this reason, use of force models should not dictate the least or minimal amount of force, but what is objective reasonableness based on a dynamic assessment. The assessed and perceived risk to public safety - including the subject and the officers - should be the low watermark that drives responses and degree of force. Creating subjective standards in scenario-based training and inserting them in operationalized scenarios removes the observation and response capabilities the first-person - the officer - and creates the conundrum of negotiation versus authority and liability and judgment of decisions made under stress.

The dynamics of a police interaction are elastic so shortening the more volatile interactions limits and reduces risk, especially when certain combinations of behaviours emerge (delusions, incoherence, sporadic violence, etc.). Clearly many calls for service originate from a report of suspected criminal activity; this sets an anticipation of possible resistance. Upon contact the level of risk, resistance and compliance of the person is evaluated, as well as their intent, capabilities and opportunities, or means. Contributing to the assessment are 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.) that formulate responses ranging from strategic (diffusion and de-escalation) to tactical and defensive (less-than-lethal and counter force). All of these factors have the ability, and often do, change moment by moment requiring response adjustment.

How this reads and what this looks like - from a distance and up close - are vastly different. The demonstration of a person's intent (reaching for their pocket, verbalizations, body posture or rigidity, etc.) can be obvious or subtle and are responded to with the goal to suppress the intent before it is actioned. One analogy that has been used to describe the demand and stress of these interactions is: take four differently coloured balls, throw them in the air and keep track of which one hits the ground first, second, third and fourth. Then do it again, but this time in a wind storm. For these reasons, the context of police training can't help but be flawed; there is no way to temporarily disconnect human behaviours or physiological responses, nor is there a countering mechanism of preparation for police in every encounter. This account does not take into consideration the cumulative stress experienced by many operationalized officers, where as a result of organizational stress, multiple-trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder or other physical impacts, such as fatigue. 

While training scenarios are designed to mitigate some this by simplifying the steps and actions for rapid enactment and enabling assessment that establishes control in the safest manner, the functional reality of human physiology remains: under stress that is either pre-existing or situational, humans lose the ability to utilize certain capacities, such as fine motor skills. With police interactions routinely recorded and widely spread to be scrutinized by the public and sensationalized by the media on social media, it is viewed from a safe distance and after the fact with the opportunity to play-back and analyze, leaving out necessary information. The importance of that notion is that an officer responding to interaction has no pause or play-back - their response relies on the immediate access and retrieval of training and experience to formulate situation-specific tactics.

Most Canadians will have few direct interactions with police in their lifetime and 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; it feeds the negative perception of police from hundreds of miles away and it forms as a impenetrable composite image if not countered. Therefore, the perception of 'abuse of authority' and 'excessive us 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 are contrasted by glaring media images, fuelled by the absence of communication and information.

To this end, the public's anticipation of unfairness, bias or authoritarianism of the police presets their disposition and in what we consider to be a free society, police become the inconvenient and intrusive authoritarian; the same authority that is essential in the protection and preservation of our free societies. And in a society where we are, arguably, more assertive and confrontational than ever, the 'perfect storm' for conflict may be created.

Without the public considering the realities of policing and police organizations refusing to address concerns of the public and step up their game with innovative public relations and communications, the divide will widen. The public will hold firm to their expectations, expressing anger and dismay when they are not met. Police will continue to operate below capacity, frustrated and under the compounding stress from the super-human expectations placed on them. And the badge will only get heavier.

Photo Credit:
Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_arindambanerjee'>arindambanerjee / 123RF Stock Photo</a>


[1] Toronto Star, Apr 19, 2016: Police show the right way to defuse a dangerous situation https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2016/04/19/police-show-the-ri...

[2] OHRC Use of Force and Mental Health Report: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/report-ontario-human-rights-commission-police-u...

[3] Ontario Ombudsman Report on De-Escalation: A matter of Life and Death: https://www.ombudsman.on.ca/Files/sitemedia/Documents/OntarioOmbudsmanDe...

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