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Policing with Empathy

There are numerous compelling reasons for officers of the law to be more empathetic. However, though empathy is indeed necessary and can be improved, there is also a need to acknowledge that it is only one of many forms of emotional intelligence and social skills that can help improve the community's trust in the police. After years of research on empathy and its place in establishing a healthy contract between the police and society, it is evident that empathy does not exist in a psychological


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Raheem Lay, DSW, LICSW, BCD

2 years ago | 4 min read

Though crime rates have dropped in the United States, the number of police killings of unarmed black citizens is disheartening and makes one question the integrity of the police force.

According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans’ confidence in the police has dropped to the lowest point in 22 years. However, there appears to be some hope as social scientists work with the police to study how changing police training and communication protocols can help increase community trust in the police.

Most of the research studies suggest that empathy might play a vital role in achieving humanistic policing. Empathy is the ability to analyze interactions from another’s perspective and understand the emotions at play.

Therefore, training the police on how to slow down encounters with the public and how to practice empathetic communication could help reduce excessive force and unnecessary arrests.

The effects of such an approach would be more acceptance of and trust from the public. This is true because empathy tends to employ healthy physical contact between police and the community. The healthier the social contract, the fewer prejudices, and discrimination.

The Place of Empathy in Police-Community Relations

Empathy is often considered one of the primary ingredients for enhancing the relationship between police forces and the community, especially the black African-American community. Following the release of the Final Report of the 2015 Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the discussion around empathy-driven policing accelerated.

The growing demand for empathetic police officers is not surprising, not in the United States to say the least. It does not defy common sense that police officers can only address the needs of the community effectively if they are able to identify and understand those needs.

Whenever members of a given community begin to feel that the police are addressing their needs the right way, their trust, confidence, and general attitude towards the police are improved.

Due to the recommendation of the 2015 Presidential report on 21st century policing and from leaders across criminal justice and law enforcement, a wide majority of peacekeeping organizations have begun factoring empathy into police training and practices.

The Benefits of Evidence-Based Empathy Certification Courses

The Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien, Washington, which serves as the police academy for most law enforcement officers in Washington, has already incorporated empathy education in basic police training programs. Training programs such as Axon’s VR Training and Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity (LEED) are doing a stellar job to help police officers engage in more empathetic communication.

Cognitive and Affective Empathy

Empathy entails two major components: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. On the one hand, cognitive empathy is the ability to accurately identify what other people are feeling or thinking while acknowledging that it might differ from our own feelings and thoughts. On the other hand, affective empathy is the ability to emotionally share and express the feelings of others with the understanding that they might differ from our own feelings.

Affective and cognitive therapy are not interchangeable because they do not allude to the same thing. Knowing and understanding how a partner is feeling and thinking is different from sharing the excitement of your partner’s achievements. However, both elements of empathy are equally vital for fundamental empathy.

One antisocial behavioral research revealed that bullies might know what their victims fear (an indication of cognitive empathy) but due to the absence of affective empathy, they do not refrain from vicariously experiencing the fear they induce in their victims. The same is true for rogue police officers who harass members of the African-American community.

If enrolled in an evidence-based empathy certification course, officers of the law can learn how to employ both cognitive and affective empathy when dealing with all members of the American society in a non-discriminatory manner.

Empathy Serves as a Guide

Having an understanding of other people’s mental states can help steer an individual’s interaction in the most appropriate direction. This is what makes empathy such a critical part of social interactions between police officers and black African-American communities.

Empathy offers guidance on the best course of action in any given situation. The guidance is a blend of one’s perspectives and others people’s perspectives. As such, empathy in healthy social contracts becomes adaptive.

By learning how to assess and analyze other people’s mental states, police officers can learn how to better predict their behaviors and hence identify mutually beneficial solutions.

Empathy is a Social Cue

Learning and practicing empathy will help shape how the police treat members of the black community and how the latter perceives the former. By understanding how the community feels and thinks, officers of the law can effectively meet the community’s needs.

The goal is to make sure that police officers not only know the needs of the community but that they also understand and respect those needs. An evidence-based empathy certification course for police officers will help these social workers be more effective at doing their jobs. In turn, the community will gradually learn to trust the men in blue.

If members of the African-American community believe that the police can be trusted, they will be more likely to cooperate with law enforcement officers and develop a positive attitude towards them.

By receiving effective training on how to engage in empathy, police officers can begin to demonstrate via social cues their trustworthiness and that they have the community’s best interests at heart.

Conclusion

In summary, there are numerous compelling reasons for officers of the law to be more empathetic. However, though empathy is indeed necessary and can be improved, there is also a need to acknowledge that it is only one of many forms of emotional intelligence and social skills that can help improve the community’s trust in the police.

After years of research on empathy and its place in establishing a healthy contract between the police and society, it is evident that empathy does not exist in a psychological vacuum. It is a skill that needs to be cultivated alongside other vital skills to help maintain it. The ability to form accurate judgments about other people’s mental states can be translated into all forms of social interactions.

References

https://news.gallup.com/poll/183704/confidence-police-lowest-years.aspx

https://scholars.org/brief/role-empathy-crime-policing-and-justice

https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-p341-pub.pdf

https://www.axon.com/training/vr

https://kingcounty.gov/~/media/depts/executive/performance-strategy-budget/documents/pdf/RLSJC/2015/2015-03-26-WSCJTC-and-LEED-Handouts.ashx?la=en

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/358784010_The_Social_Cognitions_of_Victims_of_Bullying_A_Systematic_Review

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Raheem Lay, DSW, LICSW, BCD

I write for Tealfeed, CEO at Raheem Lay LLC, EQ & Empathy Coach.


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