Empathy will be key for improving relations with police officers

Empathy will be key for improving relations with police officers

By Burke Brownfeld, Alexandria (File photo)

I am a former cop, but I am also an advocate for progressive criminal justice reform. This puts me in a unique position with the recent high profile cases in Ferguson and New York. Many social activists have used these cases as poster-children for racial inequality, police brutality, and all that is wrong with our justice system.

There have been plenty of snazzy one-liners and hashtags like “#icantbreath” or “black lives matter.” I have heard people yelling and screaming at protests, and news pundits make sweeping claims about “indicting the justice system.” This gets people angry, but is it helpful? Are the complaints about use of force and police training based on fact or emotion?

On the other side of things, I have seen people from the police community say things like, “Well, next time, don’t resist the police.” Is that a comprehensive analysis of an entire police encounter that resulted in death? If these bouts of spewing out inflammatory one-liners, and road-blocking protests are our version of conflict resolution, then I would say we are failing.

Where is the constructive dialogue? Where is the path to progress? At this point, the details of each case do not matter. What matters is how do we move on from here?

We can talk about body cameras, and special prosecutors, but will those ideas actually save the lives of citizens or police officers? At 3 a.m. in a dark alley, when a police officer confronts the suspect of a crime alone, what is going to actually keep this encounter from getting violent? Much of that outcome is going to be based on each person’s life experience, training, perspectives, opinions, words, and actions.

What if we stopped yelling and screaming at each other, and decided to proactively learn from each other? What if we seek out opportunities for dialogue between police officers and the citizens that they serve, outside of these confrontational moments? What if officers could explain what an encounter feels like for them, how use of force works, how they perceive threats to their safety (e.g. a person who won’t take his hands out of his pockets)?

And what if community members had a forum where they could explain to police officers what has gone through their minds when an officer approached their car during a traffic stop, or when an officer told them they had been stopped because they fit the description of a suspect?

What if both groups started to be able to empathize with each other? What if citizens started to respect police officers as members of the community, with families, feelings, and identities beyond the uniform? And what if police officers gained a better understanding of how citizens experience life, crime, and police interaction within their communities?

People can continue to be angry, but until they turn their anger into positive action, we are only making things worse, not better.