- By Lawrence Borodkin
Last month the world watched a tragedy unfold in 8 ½ minutes as George Floyd took his last breath. This sparked protests around the country and has brought conversations around systemic racism to the forefront.
Yet many people are asking a more basic question: How could three officers and many fellow citizens stand by and watch this tragedy unfold? After all, we like to believe that people are generally good and can be counted on to do the right thing. However, psychology tells a different story, and while often people have the right intentions, there are multiple factors that prevent us from stepping in, even when we see something we know is wrong. In no way does this diminish the accountability of the officers involved, but we can learn what tangible steps we can all take to help prevent it from happening again. Relevant psychological principles include:
The Bystander Effect
Problem: The bystander effect occurs when the presence of other people discourages an individual from responding in some type of emergency situation. It has been found that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one person will take action. In fact, people are more likely to act in an emergency when there are fewer or no other individuals present.
Solution: Do not expect others to act first. Speak up to address the situation yourself. You also can give directions to other bystanders to get them involved. The officers who watched George Floyd being restrained with excessive force had a duty to intervene but did not. They may have been waiting for someone else to respond and sadly, no one did.
Obedience to Authority
Problem: Ordinary people are likely to show obedience when given an order by a person in higher authority. The famous Milgram experiment examined how far people would go in obeying an order if it involved harming another person. Subjects were told to “shock” another person if they did not recall a word paring correctly. When subjects were reminded that they had full responsibility for their actions, almost no one followed the order. However, if told the leader would take responsibility, they continued to ”shock” the person.
Solution: Remind yourself that you are responsible for your actions or lack of action. While you may report to a person in higher authority, blind obedience is not expected by any ethical organization or leader. Use your moral courage to do the right thing, realizing that your conscience should be determining your actions.
Problem: Implicit (or unconscious) bias occurs when people rely on social stereotypes about certain groups of people to make sense of a situation. Since this form of bias is unconscious, people are not even aware of how it is impacting their actions. Biases are much more prevalent when an individual is trying to multitask or working under stress.
Solution: While it is impossible to totally eliminate unconscious bias, you can reduce its impact by having greater exposure to people different from yourself. Even being aware of one’s own unconscious bias can limit its impact.
What Can Law Enforcement Agencies Do?
More progressive departments have begun to address these difficult issues and PRADCO has assisted them in assessing entry-level police officer candidates and current officers being considered for promotion. We have also partnered with agencies in developing their command staff, ensuring they are ready to lead the next generation of officers who will uphold the principles of procedural justice. Potential solutions include:
Comprehensive pre-hire and promotional assessments take an in-depth look into the strengths and weaknesses of the entry-level or promotional candidate. Personal responsibility, appreciation of cultural diversity, unconscious bias, strength of character, integrity, etc. can be emphasized in an assessment process. When an officer has a duty to intervene, the agency wants to know that the person has the necessary courage and integrity to respond.
Leadership development helps supervisors learn how to create a safe environment where officers feel it is not only permissible but necessary to speak up when they notice poor behavior. Supervisors learn to communicate that even in a paramilitary structure, officers have the responsibility to question their supervisor if they disagree with the action being taken.
Implicit bias training helps law enforcement personnel better understand its impact on their decision-making. When police personnel begin to realize how their decision-making effectiveness declines when they rely on stereotypes or pre-conceived notions about people, they are more likely to perform in a professional manner.
Change management training helps chiefs and safety directors implement positive, constructive change. If the leader of an agency does not drive and support meaningful change, reform will fail. Also, chiefs and safety directors must learn to hold people accountable for following departmental guidelines and not accept excuses for non-compliance.
Is there a simple solution to prevent a similar tragedy to the George Floyd death from recurring? No, there is not. However, there are numerous actions that an agency can take. It will require everyone to look at their own strength of character, their biases, as well as their sense of integrity in a very open and transparent way. It is time for all of us to look inward, take personal responsibility, and do our part to prevent future tragedies from happening going forward.