An Example of Police Learning

UnknownProfessionals value mistakes. Not that they like to make them, but because mistakes are how one learns. Whether or not you are a surgeon, military general, or a police officer — professionals know that reviewing one’s mistakes is how they learn and become better.

I was worried about this when I wrote Arrested Development, I believed it was one of the four obstacles preventing police from advancing — not being able to learn from their mistakes or what others have learned. I called it “anti-intellectualism.”

“The lack of a foundation of rigorous academic training makes it difficult for police leaders to digest any kind of research or case study. This is the continuing and oppressive effect of anti-intellectualism in the police field and why it remains a major obstacle.”

The cultures surrounding medicine, the military, and the police all resist confessing mistakes. As they say, doctors, generals, and police bury their mistakes. However, American policing has a long history of not “‘fessing up;” not admitting mistakes.

Unknown-2Nevertheless, when a work culture can rise up and not be defensive or secretive, a lot of learning and a lot of good can happen.

In 2009, the Cambridge, Mass. Police Department was in our nation’s news after they arrested a black Harvard professor going into his own home. Those of us who are police knew exactly what was going on here. The police were challenged, an argument ensued, and then someone went to jail using the familiar police ruse: “Sir, would just step outside so we can work this out?” And the result was the police are outside the home and now in a legal position to arrest the  protesting professor for disorderly conduct. This was before the advent of using video phones to record police behavior, but the written descriptions of the event were enough to get President Obama involved. After all, he knew Prof. Gates quite well — he was his teacher when he attended Harvard.

So thus became the famous “Beer Summit,” the cop, the professor, the Leader of the Free World just sitting down with a beer and talking about what happened. We don’t know, however, what happened afterwards. Did the police learn anything? Was it “worked out?”

imagesWell, it appears it was and the police learned something according to the following story from WBGH in Boston. And it looks like its all about something we have talked about on this blog in the past: implementing “procedural justice” which is:

  • Treating people with dignity and respect.
  • Giving individuals a “voice” during encounters.
  • Being neutral and transparent in decision making.
  • Conveying trustworthy motives.

Or, simply, unconditional respectto be given to all people at all times by police regardless of provocation.

Shift In Cambridge Policing Stems From the Arrest Of Henry Louis Gates

By Craig Lemoult

“In 2009, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was infamously arrested at his home by Cambridge police responding to a call about a break-in. The arrest attracted national media attention, and Gates and arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, were invited to the White House by President Obama the following month. {Police Commissioner] Robert Haas said the incident was a turning point.

“’It required us to really go through a process where we spent a lot of time with our officers, and we went through what I would consider a significant cultural shift within our department,’ Hass said. He says Sgt. Crowley was actually doing what he was trained to do (my emphasis).

“’We’re trained that you need to control a situation, you need to take command of the situation, otherwise it becomes unsafe for the officer,’ he said.

“And since they couldn’t take command, things escalated until they wound up making an arrest. Haas says they started looking for a better way, and found it when they learned about something called ‘procedural justice.’

“’The whole notion of procedural justice really challenges all our notions of traditional policing in terms of how we policed our communities,’ Haas said. ‘It really challenged the notion of authority, command and control. It really talked about managing situations, instead of controlling situations. It talked about treating people with dignity. It talked more about the process, as opposed to the outcome.’

“‘This is not just what departments usually call community policing, Haas says. That’s built on a law enforcement model, and he says procedural justice is a kind of social policing, and isn’t about enforcing laws’ (my emphasis).

“‘There’s been studies  that have shown that when law enforcement officers engage in procedurally just practice, people are more likely to obey the law generally, they’re more likely to trust the police department in their community,’ said Shea Cronin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Boston University.

“They’re also more likely to cooperate during interactions with police (my emphasis).

“Cambridge officers were trained specifically how to interact with teens by a nonprofit called Strategies for Youth. Lisa Thurau, the nonprofit’s director, says she’s seen how police sometimes resist changing from the old model of law enforcement. At two different presentations at state police academies, she says she had things thrown at her… ‘They seem to have difficulty accepting that authority is a nuanced thing…’

“For Cambridge eighth grader Tyriq Hall, the police culture in his city seems to work. ‘When we, like, talk to some of the police, we know them, because they’re like our coaches,’ Hall said. ‘So we, like, get along with them, and stuff like that. They’re my role models. I look up to them, and stuff like that.’

“It’s a response that other police departments would love to hear more, especially from young African Americans in their communities.”


  • Read the entire article HERE.
  • Find out more about procedural justice HERE and HERE.


  1. I would agree that police organizations are generally learning disabled. A friend of mine who is a former West Point department head commented to me that the police officers he has taught at a major university seemed to lack intellectual curiosity. Organizations attract people like those already in the organization. Until we change police organizations we will continue to face this problem.

    I disagree about the comparison of policing to the medical professions and the military. Both the military and the medical organizations are better at learning than are police organizations. Many hospitals utilize high reliability organizing principles that emphasize learning. I am most familiar with the Army’s system of organizational learning and it is very effective at the small unit level (through Battalion/Brigade level). No system is perfect but both the military and hospital learning systems are much more developed than those that may exist in police organizations.

    Police organizations would be well served by learning from hospitals and the military. Unfortunately it has become reflexively popular as of late to eschew anything related to the military, but that too is an outcome of our learning disability.


    1. Mark, thank you for this comment. I do agree with the lack of intellectual curiosity which I call “anti-intellectualism” in my book, “Arrested Development.” It is one of the “four obstacles” that keep police from improving (the other three are: violence, corruption and disrespect). The lack of intellectual curiosity results in not being able to assess a situation and looking “outside the boxes” for solutions. Therefore, some way, somehow we must encourage that intellectualism and future and advance those that have it!


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