How Police can Regain the Trust of Their Communities

We can build relationships with people so they want to cooperate with us, or we can bully them into compliance.

Broadly speaking, these are the two basic approaches authority figures can take to elicit the people’s compliance with rules and expectations: Authoritative or authoritarian.

As the father of a small child, a teacher with experience in troubled schools, and a private citizen who doesn’t want to have to fear the local police, I looked for and found similarities between the careers of police officer and teacher:

  • Each involves working with citizens, many of whom resent your presence.
  • Each is consistently attacked from several different segments of society.
  • Each is woefully underpaid, given the level of stress and responsibility involved.

Behavior compliance is not the end goal in teaching, yet it is required in some measure to facilitate education. Behavior compliance is the end goal of police work. Behavior management is an essential component of success in each of the two careers, as it is in parenting. All three roles can be informed by a reflection on what’s effective and what isn’t effective, to then encourage appropriate behavior in others. That said, what works, and what doesn’t work?


Bullying – The Authoritarian Approach

At the parenting level, bullying can appear in the form of spanking and yelling. In education, it appears in the form of suspensions—and spanking, in some states. In society at large, bullying is demonstrated in an overly militarized police force and their shoot-first attitudes. One question often asked in cases like Anton Sterling’s and Eric Garner’s is “Why didn’t they just comply with the police officer’s request?”

Research has shown that bullying people into compliance is not effective. The American Psychological Association is strongly opposed to parents spanking their children: Yale’s Alan Kazdin, for instance, says, “There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work”.

In school, suspension generally leads to more suspension, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. And we are now seeing the effects of the continued belligerence of the police towards citizens, most recently in cases like Anton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s. There is another option.


Building Relationships – The Authoritative Approach

The distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative” behavior management is also present in parenting. An authoritarian parent controls behavior by setting and applying firm rules without child input. “They value obedience to higher authority as a virtue unto itself,” asserts Dr. Darling at Psychology Today. In short, they expect compliance first and foremost. Meanwhile, authoritative parents still have clear rules and expectations, but these rules are developed with input from the child, and the rules are explained clearly. And while authoritarian parents are focused on punishment and compliance, authoritative parents are focused on resolution and positive reinforcement. The belief is that children are more willing to follow rules if they understand that the rules are rational and fair, and are developed with the child’s best interests at heart.

This model also appears throughout education. One manifestation is in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS); another is peer counseling and juries. Schools that commit to these models, invoking strong disciplinary consequences only in the extreme cases, are finding more success overall than schools that just suspend students over the most minor of infractions.

Increasingly, police forces are also exploring community-based and outreach methods with success. In Aarhus, Denmark, for instance, police responded to a spate of young people going to Syrian recruitment camps by offering returnees the opportunity to work back into society through education, job location, and mental health programs. This is not about rewarding terrorists with a gold star and a hug; it’s about breaking down the barriers between police and citizens.

Closer to home, deadly force by police in Richmond, Virginia dropped drastically after police worked with citizens, supporting the persistent message of the Black Lives Matter movement, that police need to build better bridges with communities. The authoritarian model reinforces an “us vs them” model, with the rules-makers being above the rules-followers. Compliance is the goal, at all costs: Punishing some people, in this view, gets the others to follow the rules. It’s a very simple approach: Spank the child when he swears at grandma, suspend the student for throwing a paper ball, kill a suspect for failing to raise both hands. The next time, people will think twice.

But if the beatings continue until morale improves, morale will never improve.

The authoritative model still relies on a rules-enforcer who has to monitor obeisance to a set of rules, but the rules-followers are seen as sentient, reasonable persons who may have input in those rules or, at the very least, see the rules as being separate from the people enforcing them.

For policing, as well as for teaching and parenting, consistent reliance on an authoritative model is better for both sides of the relationship: The citizen sees the police as compassionate but fair, and the police see citizens as human, not as automatons who “must respect mah authoritay,” as South Park’s Cartman would say.


So, if building bridges is clearly much more effective, why don’t we see more of the authoritative model?

For one thing, it’s more difficult to implement fairly. In the case of parenting, for instance, children might have “different rules” based on their development, leading to resentment between children. Teachers and police have less liberty for differentiating rules on a case-by-case basis than parents do. Authoritarian models are easy: Spank, suspend, imprison.

Secondly, social inertia is difficult to overcome. The internet is full of people who insist that spanking is harmless because “I was spanked and I came out fine.” For many of these people, criticisms of spanking are indictments of their parents. Change is difficult.

Institutional change is even more difficult: While PBIS and related approaches are more effective than zero-tolerance suspensions, this is only true at the school and district level. Teachers who try to implement these sorts of policies in a classroom struggle because students are still getting mistreated elsewhere in the school. Further, individual police officers who try community outreach when the rest of their force is in the “shoot-first” militarized mode (as in Baton Rouge’s arrest of citizens peaceably assembled on private property) are asking to be targeted by the natural rage of the oppressed.

Even so, the contrast is stark and compelling, and well worth the struggle of overcoming that inertia.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.