Understanding Police Encounters

UnknownWhat is it that is missing in todays strained dialogue between blacks and police? Could it be empathy?

(See Washington, DC’s chief Kathy Lanier’s statement on this.)

Let me share a story from years ago when I was in graduate school studying sociology and trying to figure out whether I was going into academia or stay in policing. I heard the story from a professor in California who had a number of police in his class.

One of the ways to teach sociology in those days was through “participant observation.” The class was directed to dress in clothing similar to that worn by street people (homeless, drifters, hippies, addicts, etc.). They were instructed to simply to just “hang out” and observe what was happening as members of that street community. He had four or five police officers taking his class. He specifically told them that they were not to identify themselves as police officers should they be stopped and questioned. Their job was to observe and report.

That night, the shabbily dressed students were dropped off in the “bowery section” of the city. By the time the evening was over, every one of the students who were police officers had immediately blown their cover when stopped by police.

When the professor debriefed his students on their evening experiences, he was very interested as to why the police officers in his class had not remained “in character” for the evening. What happened? What he heard from each one of the officers, who were at separate locations during the evening, was that they were afraid they might be harmed by the police who stopped and were questioning them; that is, they experienced fear. So they did the one thing that could protect them, they immediately told the officers they were cops!

What does this story tell us about police interactions with citizens? If white officers felt this way, what about poor people and people of color?  (I think we could expect the same results today if the experiment was repeated.)  How might young blacks feel who have had past negative experiences with police or, if not, have heard stories in their families or neighborhoods about police, react? Would it be with fear?

Donna Hicks’ Dignity Model is the discovery she made that at the core of every reconciliation effort is the need for one or more parties to tell about when they had their dignity stripped away. For when dignity is lost, seething anger often replaces it. And encountering seething anger can lead to fear on the part of police. Even fear for one’s life. Could this be a factor which is driving these shootings across America?

When police come to fully understand that in any encounter (especially with young blacks) dignity is at stake. And the only way to preserve a person’s dignity in any police encounter is by police showing authentic respect to the person.

  • Is this so strange to understand?
  • And understanding it, that changes need to be made today in police training, working attitudes, and leadership?


  1. I heard Chief Lanier speak last Tuesday, and she expounded on the points contained in the linked column. She made a lot of sense.


    1. We need more leaders to stand up and speak out. While Lanier mentions the importance of empathy I am reminded of the difference between it and compassion. Compassion is empathy + action!


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