In this issue

Learning from history

Psychologists can have positive impact in 21st century policing.

By Ellen Scrivner, PhD, ABPP

As we witnessed crime increasing In the 1960s, we also saw extraordinary efforts to bring an end to civil rights abuses through federal legislation spurred on by extraordinary efforts of civil rights leadership. Then, in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s crime started spiraling out of control and racial divisiveness still remained a problem. In fact, it was during that time that incidents like the Rodney King episode in California brought police abuse of force and other misconduct into the national spotlight. Shortly thereafter, the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act was signed into law and an era of community policing began. Crime started to come down and police and community members began to work in collaborative problem solving partnerships to keep their communities safe. More importantly, race relations started to improve following years of distrust and racial inequalities throughout the criminal justice system.

Then, 9/11 occurred and the country became more focused on realistic concerns about threats to national security, fears of terrorist activities and actions that cities needed to take in order to protect their citizens. Community policing, the training that went with it and community collaboration between the police and community members were no longer prioritized. Hence, it seems easy to forget that we had been making progress in improving relationships between the police and communities. More importantly, it is very disappointing to see how quickly that progress could start to slip away and descend into events such as those that recently took place in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; and Cleveland, Ohio. These events accelerated strong emotional responses and have created political tensions with historical roots that go to the heart of mutual distrust between communities across the country and their local police.

If something good is coming from all of this, it is the opportunity for a new national dialogue about race and policing as evidenced by the President's Task Force on 21 st Century Policing. Further, two of the first individuals to present in front of the group were social psychologists, Tom Tyler, PhD, talking about the need for procedural justice and police legitimacy as based on his research; and Jennifer Eberhardt, PhD, discussing her unprecedented work on implicit bias. Also, the Department of Justice is leading an effort to institute collaborative reform projects in several police departments to help those departments change police tactics and build stronger relationships within their communities, as well as improve responses to those with mental illness or in other states of behavioral crises. These are very hopeful signs that we can make something positive happen as a result of the polarizing events that significantly highlighted distrust of the police.

We are now at a point where we need to make sure that history does not repeat itself, given the events in Paris and other parts of Europe as well as concerns about radicalization. We need to do all we can to see that nothing interferes with the forward movements supported by the task force and the collaborative reform efforts and that realistic fear of terrorist activities does not overshadow all that local municipalities are doing to improve police community relationships. In essence, we do not want to ignore some of the lessons learned related to changes following 9/11 or backslide into acceptance of excesses in policing behavior as well as those of other criminal justice activities. Psychology can be of real assistance here in that beyond our traditional clinical, consultation and research skills, we know how to help in building relationships and managing organizational change. We also know about implementing collaborative problem solving and improving communication. Further, Div. 18's public service mission can assist our colleagues in getting out of their clinical offices, research labs and academic classrooms in order to spend some time in their communities helping police and other agencies move forward to work with the community and not against them. Within that context, we all need to move forward to maintain constitutional policing while also focusing on community safety. We have a lot to offer in contributing to opportunities for healing and to ensuring a safer world for all.