Law Enforcement That Wins Respect for Law
RODNEY KING is not the only victim of the beating that so unnerved this country. The four police officers are also victims, as are all young police officers who get thrown onto the streets without appropriate or adequate training for enforcing and representing the law.
Police training must make officers aware that the way they portray the "system" is the key to their ability to maintain social order. Police officers create the first and most pervasive impressions of the law, and are the only part of the justice system many people will ever see.
The violent reaction to the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King is a dramatic example of what happens daily in poor urban neighborhoods nationwide: Insensitive police behavior fosters anger, resentment, and distrust of the system; lawlessness results. The problem is especially acute in poor minority neighborhoods, where our country's history of racism has conditioned people to expect that the system will not work for them. Rather than promote social order, police behavior too often disr upts the peace by inciting hostility.
Before we place all blame on the police, however, we must try to understand their perspective. Police officers often are thrust into inhospitable environments without proper preparation. The paramilitary socialization process they experience as cadets, emphasizing a macho approach to problem-solving and failing to provide an understanding of human behavior, does not teach cadets to act in a just manner.
Police officers' training emphasizes order, discipline, and strict adherence to rules. A military atmosphere is created through inspections, a hierarchical chain of command, and demand by superior officers for unquestioning respect. Police officers are trained to be troops always ready to battle the enemy.
But who is the enemy? Racism and stereotyping causes officers to see entire neighborhoods as hostile territory. Yet these are the very people the police are supposed to protect. Furthermore, police officers are representatives of a government that is supposed to serve the people, not fight them.
The macho, militaristic approach is particularly counterproductive when an officer must become involved in emotional issues such as domestic disputes, interviews with nervous potential witnesses, or control of charged public events. Although it is natural for patrol officers to desire respect from the public, they are unlikely to receive much deference, particularly in the depressed neighborhoods where police services are so often needed.
Although constant vigilance is a vital component of police work, assuming that the public is the enemy is not compatible with serving the community. While police officers' job is to keep the peace, their training prepares them for war.
Police training must be tempered with tolerance and understanding. Officers must learn to appreciate individual and cultural differences to foster mutual respect. They need to understand the frustration of poor urban neighborhoods, tormented by oppression and lack of opportunity, and to realize that the hostility they see is not personal, but reflects years of negative encounters between the public and police. They also must see that their own behavior can cause crime when it generates disrespect for the
Police cadets will only learn to understand human behavior - their own as well as the public's - by thoughtful study of basic psychological and sociological principles. Current training only includes minimal coverage of these issues. Concentrated study of human behavior and integration of the human element into traditional course work would make police officers more conscious of their impact on the community.
If police officers are trained in this way, instead of the traditional paramilitary style, they will be less likely to brutalize individuals who incense them.
Perhaps more important, through their more tolerant attitudes, they will be able to cultivate respect for the law and reduce antagonism. A police officer who works with the people instead of against them will maintain social order by showing the community that the law serves its interests and deserves its respect.