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Police brutality: Let's get serious — training can't touch this

Police brutality: Let's get serious — training can't touch this
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When the anguish, tears and smoke begin to clear from the current outpouring of rage and resentment in cities across our country — sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers in the streets of Minneapolis — it will be time for us to get serious on police reform. 

In Chicago, the police department is calling for mandatory training — specifically on what is called “positional asphyxiation.” Calls for training are not only too little, too late, but they are a common institutional response to crises around racism, discrimination, harassment and abuse. Even former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge MORE is advocating for much the same

But is that the answer? 

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In a large study assessing data from 708 private sector establishments between 1971 to 2002, researchers found that of the three most common approaches to addressing bias and discrimination within institutions (training, promoting inclusion and establishing institutional responsibility), efforts to mitigate discrimination through diversity trainings were found to be the least effective.

The power of education and training does have an impact on students' beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, but change of the magnitude needed to transform deep-seated cultures of bias, discrimination, profiling and abuse at institutions like large urban police departments, is barely nudged.

In 2017, my colleagues and I at Columbia published a paper on why enduring forms of bias and discrimination are so pervasive in so many organizations and why changes in these dynamics are often painfully slow and riddled with setbacks. 

The research suggests that there is typically a constellation of individual, group, organizational and societal-level elements that drive these cultures — which differ in different places — that feed and reinforce one another, resulting in cultural patterns that are highly resistant to change. 

This includes elements beyond the departments themselves, such as powerful police unions, ineffective prosecutors, compromised politicians and toothless complaint boards.

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Add to this the often traumatizing consequences of working in American police departments, and one can see why reforming the way police forces operate may not come through simply training.

Nevertheless, governments and administrations continue to turn to training at times like these. In 2017, McKinsey found that about $8 billion are spent annually on diversity training in the U.S. Why? Because it feels like something that we can do that might make a difference, is not too expensive or disruptive and provides some cover in the community and protection from liability in the courts. 

So, what does work? 

Destabilization through major shocks. Because most institutions doggedly resist transformative change, it often requires something called punctuated equilibrium — brief periods of revolutionary upheaval that are brought on by dramatic events. These are usually the result of big external shocks — such as market crashes, major violence or legal scandals — or catastrophic internal failures — like a severe collapse in functioning of an organization. These jolts to the system can rattle the most basic assumptions, rules, norms, procedures and incentives — the deep structure of an institution — which, over time, can result in profound change. Perhaps the current street protests over the failures of police departments to implement real reforms – particularly in the context of a pandemic and ensuing economic crisis — is the shock that provides fertile ground for genuine change.

Complexity of thought, action and social organization. There are no simple sources of or solutions to institutionalized patterns of intolerance and abuse of power. Research on effective decision making in such environments stresses the importance of addressing these problems with a wide-variety of actions. This means that training only works when combined with other structural initiatives, like instituting effective, transparent systems of accountability and oversight, carefully reviewing formal and informal incentives and establishing joint community-police opportunities for meaningful contact and relationship building.

Building-up from what is already working locally. Imposing well-intentioned, externally-designed change initiatives to realize much-needed reforms often backfires or proves unsustainable. This is because tightly-coupled systems are built to resist external influence. Fortunately, most of our police departments/communities — even the more problematic ones — often have pockets of what is known as positive deviance: individuals, groups and initiatives that are already working within the system at reducing bias and abuse. Finding, supporting and building on what is already functioning in the community should therefore be the first step to mobilizing real change. 

Breaking-down the main drivers of the problem. Even when new actors, ideas and methods are ascendant in an organization’s culture, the old attitudes, habits and norms are usually still lurking and can regain favor when the pressures to change dissipate. So, it is critical that reformers gain an understanding of the main drivers of these patterns — the most key individuals, structures and incentives that encourage them — and then work actively to mitigate or dismantle them. For example, identifying policies and practices that continue to incentivize discriminatory actions in each precinct. Early warning systems for intervening with the small percent of police officers that instigate most of the problems are one example. 

Adaptation to changing circumstances. One thing we are certain of is that the natures of law enforcement and police-community relations are always in flux. It is also true that the well-intentioned reforms implemented today often generate a new set of problems tomorrow. Research on effective change in these types of situations finds that they require more adaptive types of decision making. Rather than conducting a thorough analysis, setting a plan and then sticking with it, the best change-agents tend to make more decisions over time. This means that every police chief and superintendent must remain vigilant, survey and adjust their policies as needed — particularly when things seem to be going well.

The recent disturbances are presenting us with clear feedback on how our law enforcement systems are functioning — or malfunctioning — and with a new window of opportunity for substantive change. It’s time to take it seriously.

Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace.