Why Can’t Cops Communicate?

Police arrest protester in midtown NYC after grand jury decision not to indict over death of Eric Garner. (AP photo)
Police arrest protester in midtown NYC after grand jury decision not to indict over death of Eric Garner. (AP photo)

The video of Eric Garner being choked to death by a group of police officers on Staten Island is horrifying for lots of reasons. But one I haven’t heard talked about much is the fact that the police who confronted Garner didn’t seem to know how to communicate with him at all. Their approach seemed to be: follow orders, or we’ll call in our army and wrestle you to the ground.

Leaving aside for a moment the absurdity that this pile-on was only for the alleged infraction of selling loose cigarettes, another fundamental question is, why aren’t police officers trained to listen to, hear, and speak to people they encounter on the street more effectively? Surely Garner wasn’t the only one these cops have met who insisted he wasn’t doing anything wrong and didn’t want to be arrested. Before they jump the guy, do they make any real, meaningful effort to listen to, understand, reason and communicate with him? If so, we certainly didn’t see it on this video.

It’s not unlike the leadup to the tragic killing in Ferguson, Missouri of 18-year-old Michael Brown. As former Baltimore Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld commented to the New York Times, the officer, Darren Wilson, never bothered to get out of his police cruiser when he confronted Brown, instead barking commands at him through the car window.

“The notion of riding through neighborhoods yelling, ‘Get up on the curb’ or ‘Get out of the street,’ is not where you want your officers to be,” Bealefeld says. “You want them out of their cars, engaging the public and explaining to people what it is you are trying to do. Drive-by policing is not good for any community.”

St. Louis County police Lt. Jerry Lohr seems to have understood this. As this story describes it, the white 41-year-old police commander came to realize, as the conflict escalated in Ferguson after the grand jury’s decision not to charge Wilson, that to de-escalate the conflict, he had to get to know some of the protesters, and face them one-on-one — not as part of an army of riot gear-clad aliens issuing commands. In other words, he had to treat them as human beings deserving of attention and respect.

According to the story, at least, Lohr never wore riot gear, and instead would wade into a gathering of protesters “to answer questions, resolve disputes or listen to a stream of insults.” As a result, protesters trusted him, and sought him out by name if they wanted to make a complaint about abusive tactics by the police department.

“Allowing people to talk on a one-on-one level does a lot as far as building bridges,” Lieutenant Lohr said. “They may not agree with what I’m doing, but now they at least know my name and my face. I’m human again. They realize that I’m a person. I’m not just a uniform.”

It’s something everyone in positions of power over others should consider. If you simply expect people to follow your rules, without any explanation, and never reveal yourself as a human being making an honest effort, you won’t get much understanding in response; more likely, you’ll get an angry rebellion that will undermine whatever you’re trying to accomplish. If you approach others as human beings deserving of attention, respect and understanding, and reveal yourself to be the same, you’re far more likely to create a healthy environment and find enduring solutions to your problems – be it on the street, in the workplace or anywhere else.

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