With each new police deadly force encounter, regardless of the circumstances, the opposing sides are becoming more polarized, as if some critical mass is building in the space between.
One of the primary forces behind this mass is the concept of blame.
Stone, Patton and Heen explain in their book “Difficult Conversations” that blame accomplishes three things. First, it assigns the responsibility for the problem to one person or group. Second, it judges the actions of that one person or group to be wrong. Third, as the person or group who caused the problem was wrong, blame calls for that person or group to be punished.
The authors note that blame directs the focus backward, on the past, and consequently an emphasis on blame will never create a path forward to a solution.
Moving away from blame first requires that we acknowledge both sides have been engaged in its practice.
From a police perspective, the suspect is to blame. His actions led to the deadly force encounter. He was wrong not to comply with the officer’s lawful commands. He presented an imminent threat of death or serious injury to the officer, requiring the officer to use deadly force.
From a community activist perspective, the police officer is to blame. His actions led to the deadly force encounter. He was wrong to use deadly force rather than some de-escalation technique. He should be charged with a crime.
Focusing on blame in this situation only ensures that both sides will focus on blame in the next.
The solution to overcoming blame, according to “Difficult Conversations,” is focusing on the concept of contribution, as contribution involves understanding the problem and looking forward to a solution. Contribution seeks to identify the role all parties played in the situation and what each can do in the future to prevent it from happening again.
From a police perspective, the officer contributed to the problem by having too little distance between himself and the subject, reducing his ability to choose options other than deadly force.
Moving forward, the police will emphasize reality-based training, which teaches officers that distance equals time – the greater the distance from the subject, the more time the officer has in choosing options to act.
The police will also build accountability systems to ensure that officers who don’t follow the training guidelines receive remedial training until they are successful, or if they cannot or will not respond to training, they are released from employment.
From a community activist perspective, the subject refused to comply with the officer’s commands. Perhaps it was because he felt the officer’s actions were unlawful, or it could have been that he simply did not understand that his actions would lead to certain reactions by the officer.
Moving forward, the community activists will engage in a public awareness campaign, stressing that all citizens should comply with a police officer’s commands. They will work with the city government to create a legitimate system for citizens to lodge formal complaints about what they believe to be unlawful actions by the police.
Finally, they will partner with the police to create opportunities for citizens to learn how police officers are trained and how they might react in encounters with what appears to be an uncooperative or threatening subject.
If we honestly examine recent incidents, it is clear that in most cases, all parties have focused on blame, likely in the belief that assigning blame must be the first step in solving the problem. As “Difficult Conversations” points out, however, blame never leads to long-term solutions because it prevents true understanding of the problem in the first place.
On the other hand, focusing on contribution allows an understanding of each party’s role in the problem and leads each to examine means of preventing the same contributions in the future.
As IACP President Terrence Cunningham recently noted: “While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future. We must move forward together to build a shared understanding. We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.”
Tim Hegarty has served with the Riley County (KS) Police Department since 1995 and is currently a captain in command of his agency’s Support Services Division. Previous commands include the Riley County Police Department’s Administration, Patrol, and Investigations Divisions. He has served as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Kansas State University and as a subject matter expert and instructor for the Virginia Center for Policing Innovation. He is also a Level II Certified Instructor in Problem-Based Learning.