Respect Preserves Dignity





One thing I tried to do as a police officer was to preserve the dignity of people I stopped by respecting them — even when they didn’t deserve it. It is not acceptable for police to only respect persons if they first show respect. They key is respecting them when they don’t deserve it.

Good police officers understand that stopping a person prevents a person’s movement and frisking invades their body space. Each of these actions has the potential to strip away a person’s dignity.  Sometimes I shudder at the thought of the “stopping and frisking” of young men of color without showing them respect and the seething anger it can create towards our nation”s police.

Prof. Donna Hicks has done some excellent work surrounding the importance of dignity. It certainly applies to police work and how police, who have great authority, treat persons; especially those from racial minorities, the poor, and those mentally ill. All three of those groups have early in their lives experienced assaults to their dignity.

It makes great sense as to why persons who have ‘dignity wounds” from past police encounters may not be the most respectful or cooperative during a police encounter.

Every human person wants to be treated as if they were worthy of dignity. And dignity is best achieved by treating others with respect. What Hicks is teaching should give us important information about approaching persons who have these “dignity wounds.” The way to do that more effectively is to always — always — treat others with respect.

On his webpage, John McCann investigates Donna Hicks’ “Dignity Model” as to

The Dignity Model

  • Acceptance of other as neither inferior nor superior, but possessing the same inherent worth and value as your equal, and the first commitment is to do them no harm.
  • Acknowledgment: People like to feel that they matter. Acknowledgment can be as simple as smiling at others when they walk by to formally recognizing them for something they have done for which they deserve credit. It is especially important to acknowledge the impact of your actions on others when you violate their dignity, instead of trying to save face by diminishing or ignoring the harm you have caused.
  • Inclusion: No one likes to feel left out or that they don’t belong. When we are included, we feel good about who we are. When we are excluded from things that matter to us, we feel an instant reaction of self-doubt. What is it about me that I wasn’t included? This is an affront to our dignity at all levels of human interaction, from the political, when minority groups feel left out of the political process by the majority, to the interpersonal, when we’re not included in the decision-making that directly affects us.
  • Safety by assuring the environment is free from psychological threats like shaming, humiliation, diminishing or hurtful criticizing.
  • Fairness: We all have a particularly strong knee-jerk reaction to being treated unfairly. If we want to honor the dignity of others, we need to ensure that we are honoring agreed upon laws and rules of fairness—both implicit and explicit—when we interact with them.
  • Freedom: A major dignity violation occurs when we restrict people and try to control their lives. Honoring this element of dignity requires that people feel free from domination and that they are able to experience hope and a future that is filled with a sense of possibility.
  • Understanding through active listening is used for the sole purpose of understanding the perspective of the other, as there is nothing more frustrating than feeling misunderstood, especially when in conflict with others.
  • Benefit of the doubt: Treating people as though they were trustworthy—giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are acting with good intention—is honoring their dignity. This is, paradoxically, especially important when the cycle of mistrust is difficult to break. Treating others as though they were trustworthy often interrupts the negative expectations, creating opportunities for a change in the relationship.
  • Responsiveness is required as it an aspect of basic human dignity to have been seen and heard, and when the other is treated as invisible or is ignored it is a major diminishing of their dignity.
  • Righting the wrong: When we violate someone’s dignity, it is important to take responsibility and apologize for the hurt we have caused. It is a way for us to regain our own dignity as well as acknowledging the wrongdoing to the person you violated.


[Donna Hicks, is an Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. During nearly two decades in the field of international conflict resolution, she has facilitated dialogue between communities in conflict all over the world and has worked as a consultant to corporations and organizations, applying the dignity model. She lives in Watertown, MA. Website:]

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