The death of Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times, unarmed, by New York City Police, and the resulting community protest, prompted me to write this.
Police officers have one of the most important of all jobs in our society, but it is a job fraught with frustration. And it is that frustration that can lead to lapses in respect for law and order by officers.
The frustration is partially a product of the way police officers are trained.
Officers' training emphasizes order, discipline and strict adherence to rules. A hierarchical chain of command creates a military atmosphere and police officers are trained to be troops always ready to battle the enemy.
But who is the enemy?
Racism and stereotyping can cause officers to see entire neighborhoods as hostile territory. Yet these are the very people the police are supposed to protect.
The macho, militaristic approach is particularly counterproductive when an officer must become involved in emotional issues such as domestic disputes, interviews with nervous potential witnesses or charged public events.
While police officers' mission is to keep the peace, their training prepares them for war.
I believe police training requires an additional component: teaching compassion, tolerance and understanding.
More than 25 years of consulting and conducting workshops on diversity for police officers throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C., have convinced me that if police had a deeper understanding of their values and of human behavior, they would better avoid the frustration that can lead to lapses in respect for law and order.
Officers must learn to appreciate individual and cultural differences in order to foster mutual respect. They need to recognize the frustration of people in poor urban neighborhoods, tormented by oppression and lack of opportunity. Indeed, the ultimate professional skill is to realize that the hostility of some citizens reflects years of negative encounters between the public and police.
Officers must see that their own behavior can cause crime when it generates disrespect for law.
Police cadets will only learn to understand human behavior - their own as well as the public's - by thoughtful study of basic psychological and sociological principles. Current training includes only minimal coverage of these issues. Concentrated study of human behavior and integration of the human element into traditional course work would make police officers more conscious of their impact on the community.
As with all professionals, police officers bring to their professions socialization and personal values certain to conflict with professional values and expectations.
One problem for police officers, and indeed, for many of us, is viewing "difference" as something negative, but difference is a natural phenomenon to be celebrated. It is the inability to accept ourselves and others as unique in all our differences that contributes significantly to negative behavior and social deviance.
Moreover, it is the professional difference inherent in being a policeman that facilitates peaceful coexistence.
While we cannot change our negative experiences of the past, we can change how we feel about that experience in the present. The "verbal abuse" police officers frequently experience in relation to an offender are no more than a projection of self-hate and vulnerability of the moment.
An arrest made with compassion is the antidote and is a prerequisite for respect for law and order by both police officers and civilians.
Louis H. Carter is an associate professor in the School of Social Work.
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Originally published on April 29, 1999