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Policing with empathy


March 20, 2013
By Tom Wetzel

881 words – MR

Policing with empathy

by Tom Wetzel

A November 2012 police chase that ended with the shooting deaths of two people has hurt the reputation of the Cleveland Police Department (CPD) and is testing the leadership skills of chief Mike McGrath.

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The CPD is under the federal microscope as the US Department of Justice investigates the department’s use of force practices. McGrath can expect plenty of second guessing from investigators, politicians, rank and file cops and, most importantly, the citizens of Cleveland who look to him for protection and service.

Before a report is released finding fault, McGrath needs to transform his agency, nurturing a new image of service and culture of connectivity between the server and the served. It must be a comprehensive effort of trust building, include more transparency and embrace an empathetic model of policing.

People know cops risk their lives but also need to know they care about them, lest officers are viewed as an occupying army serving a different interest and mission. Simply put, the public needs to believe they and their public servants are on the same team in trying to keep Cleveland safe. If done right, McGrath’s efforts could be a standard for police agencies throughout North America.

In car video cameras are a great place to start. Within reason, residents deserve to see what their officers encounter, especially in dangerous incidents. A video can’t capture the pounding of an officer’s heart or gauge the effects of audio or visual exclusion when lives are at stake, but may present some contextual perspective of what happened. From the standpoint of trust, a video system says loud and clear that an agency values transparency.

It’s easy to suspect something is up, particularly after force is used, when police are reluctant to release even the smallest kernel of information. Clevelanders have the common sense to recognize that sensitive investigations preclude free access to information and no one is encouraging that. Some situations allow for no immediate information, which could compromise an investigation and endanger life – but providing reasonable amounts of information whenever possible, with cautions that findings are preliminary and subject to change, can go a long way, especially when people may be relying on inaccurate sources.

In most cases, police investigators have a pretty good handle on what happened. Unless new witnesses come forward, little may change but unreasonable delays in releasing honest information may cause community mistrust. Prompt information release and cases completed in a timely manner improves a police department’s image as a competent investigative unit committed to serving the public.

An empathetic model of service is essentially an enhancement of community policing in general and starts with the hiring process, is developed in training and continues throughout an officer’s career, encouraging a culture of professionalism and trust. Caring about those we serve makes going “above and beyond” the norm – that’s what the empathetic police model is all about. Think about the NYPD officer who bought a down trodden man a new pair of boots and you will get the idea.

Empathetic policing is the officer who drives down a street looking for bad guys but also contemplates crime prevention tactics to make the local playground safe for kids. It is a model where an officer arrest a juvenile for a crime and later follow ups with the parents to see how things are going for the kid. He/she actually cares and realizes that keeping at-risk children on the straight and narrow will pay dividends later for the entire neighborhood – and make their own job safer.

I noticed this style of policing in a peer who bought Hot Wheels cars to give to little boys police have to deal with who have done nothing wrong.

This model of policing is not akin to policies, mandates and standardization but instead flows from the Golden Rule, the Judeo-Christian ethic and an appreciation that all are created in the image and likeness of God. It allows officers to arrest prostitutes but not speak to them in a haughty manner or catch a burglar and later wonder how their own life would have turned out if without a father and a childhood mired in suffering, neglect and abuse.

Empathetic police work is doing a job that values justice and doesn’t make excuses for criminal behavior – but doesn’t forget that we’re all human and deserve clemency when appropriate.

This model of police work is not designed to make officers soft or drop their guard when dealing with people. Police work is dangerous and officers have to remain alert and firm. It is not a replacement for sound tactics and control measures. Empathetic policing is still applicable even when officers use force, even deadly force, because when the situation is over, they understand their actions saved lives and made the neighborhood safe.

When officers develop a relationship of trust with those they serve, they’re more likely to earn the community’s support because it is aware of the risks they take for them.

Changing the culture of agencies doesn’t happen overnight but, as we’ve heard, a thousand mile journey begins with one step. Chiefs need to press for more transparency and empathy to improve their agency. Their brave men and women – and the communities they serve – deserve nothing less.


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