Tag Archives: Gun Violence

227. Fears Affect Police Actions

18 Apr
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Fear is a powerful emotion that can affect behavior. The police often deal with violent criminals and as a consequence, their fears can reach a high level and officers can be unjustly harsh. Understanding this, is not an endorsement. But understanding can lead to: better training, better applicant selection, and better procedures. Like most other people, I am angry with bad policing, but my anger does not help. What helps is acknowledgement and new rules. Also very important is really good support for responsible and professional policing. Let’s honor the many that serve well.


There are many recent contentious police actions, maybe due to the effects of covid-19 restrictions. Perhaps the most important fear is that of being attacked during an arrest. Such fears can easily lead to excessive and/or prolonged force. When a vehicle is stopped and an officer is preparing to engage, he must first deal with anger and fear. It is important to develop an interaction procedure that is unassuming, polite, and constructive. The first goal, is to carefully open a dialog dealing with the reasons for the stop. For example, in a recent case, a car was stopped for a missing license plate. A polite dialog could have revealed that this new car had a temporary plate in the back window (not all that visible with window tinting).

A second fear is that their peers will think they are weak. Once an officer gives a command, he/she must have complete compliance or they will lose the respect of other officers and the suspects. Also involved are rigidity and pride. There are times when backing down would be better for all involved, but this rarely happens. For example, if the person has a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) or mild psychosis, a specific command could trigger high anxiety or hysteria. At this point, some discussion or alternate procedures could bring about a better outcome. I have not read police manuals on this, but I suspect that there is a lot of emphasis on exactly conforming to rules. Many rules should be rigid, others should have some situational flexibility. I fully recognize the difficulty of reaching a proper balance.

Here is another thought about the dilemma of police-motorist interactions. Clearly, if every motorist were treated politely and with kindness, there would be great improvements. But the problem is that a small but significant number of motorists could be dangerous criminals. So the police must give up some kindness for their safety. And, I would agree that the interactions between a white policeman and a black motorist can be worsened by racism. Perhaps what is needed is the development, for everyone, of polite police methods that also involve sufficient safety.

Let’s look at the case of the Army lieutenant stopped for not having a license plate. The policemen took out their guns and harshly demanded that he get out of the car. A better alternative would have been to politely ask him to put his hands on the steering wheel, while the policeman approached the car for an initial dialog. A quick discussion would have clarified the situation. Maybe policemen assume that they are safer if they scare the suspect?

The most difficult decision that an officer must make is when to fire at a suspect. Often it is made in less than a second and is entirely based on current emotions, courage, past training, and experience — no time for thinking. Consider the case of 13 y.o. Adam Toledo. According to many accounts, Adam had a gun, was chased down a dark alley, threw the gun away, raised his empty hands, and then was shot dead by the officer. The instinctive shot was based very much on emotion and the effects of emotion on vision. In a very fearful and excited state you might see dangers that do not exist. How someone reacts in this situation may be mostly determined by his general emotional control, and “courage” — traits that our movie heroes always have, but are rare in actual people. Maybe after certain testing, there should be more limitations on who can carry lethal weapons, and where they are used.

Conclusion. It is fair to say that: it is easy to make suggestions, but actual changes can be almost impossible. For example, finding police applicants that have the right temperament, character, and intelligence may be problematic. I guess we can at least try to make the best rules, and hope that they are followed. The development of better, non-lethal weapons would also be of benefit, as well as exploring the best way to diminish fears.