Changing the Future of Human Relations

From Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City, Americans have been protesting in the streets and chanting, “Hands up. Don’t shoot,” and posting on media outlets “#ICantBreathe.” These images and expressions of fear have become synonymous with a movement to end police brutality and the killing of African American people by police nationwide. Although citizens are exercising their right to protest, as officers stand guard to protect communities from mass riots and chaos, both sides are missing an opportunity to use these incidents as a valuable teachable moment. The lessons learned from these situations point to aspects of “miseducation” in human relations. Contrary to handling human problems peacefully from an organizational and interpersonal relationship perspective, this miseducation process is the way in which society uses social bias to hinder the development of interpersonal and intergroup skills. 

 A Simple Solution – Respect & Education These barriers are most common in urban communities where the demographic is comprised mainly of African American residents, and the proverbial “us versus them” mentality between law enforcement officers and citizens has proven to be the catalyst for strained relationships. Determining what is needed to change this mentality and forge a new and sustainable relationship between law enforcement agencies and communities is simple: the active presence of mutual respect. Law enforcement officers should respect the communities they serve as much as they respect the ones in which they live. In turn, citizens should respect each officer’s position of authority within the community. The solution may be simple, but implementing it is not.

Respect must be built on a foundation that educates both sides on how to interact properly. For law enforcement, this requires that officers appropriately and fairly enforce laws, without demeaning or degrading citizens for any reason. Citizens have the responsibility to educate themselves on current laws, and make conscious efforts to obey them. By doing this, citizens gain a better understanding of when law enforcement officials are, and are not, working within the prescribed scope of their lawful authority. This valid “education” will begin to help remedy negative interactions by creating an understanding of roles and responsibilities.

“The Stop” – Responsibilities of Citizens & Officers On 17 July 2014, citizen Eric Garner died after being stopped by police officers on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, which is a violation of law in New York City. The Garner case is a teachable moment with valuable lessons that need to be learned in an effort to prevent other such tragedies. “The stop” is typically the initial interaction between a citizen and a law enforcement officer. Stops occur whenever, in the course of their duties, officers conduct investigations into violations of criminal, civil, and traffic laws. How this interaction begins generally sets the tempo for how the encounter plays out.

Some citizens have publicly asked, “What gives police the authority to stop any person in the United States of America?” The Supreme Court case that defines this authority is Terry vs. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Often referred to as the “Terry Stop,” this case gives police officers the right to use a brief detention of a person to investigate crimes. This investigation is built on an officer’s reasonable and articulatable suspicion that the person stopped is committing a crime, has committed a crime, or is about to commit a crime.

The question that rises from the Garner and similar cases is: “What must be done in order to reduce the risk of a minor situation turning into a tragedy?” Law enforcement officers must:

  • Approach citizens in a professional and respectful manner;

  • Recognize that it is their responsibility to explain to each citizen the reason for the stop in a polite and courteous way; and 

  • Clarify their actions by answering questions regarding the stop when citizens ask.

Citizens on the other hand must:

  • Recognize an officer’s authority to stop them;

  • Not become defensive or irritated, as these reactions will aggravate the encounter;

  • Allow the officer to explain the reason for the stop; and

  • Give the officer the opportunity to investigate the perceived reason for the stop.

Once the investigation is concluded, officers should explain their findings and the outcome of their investigations to the citizen. It is incumbent upon officers to explain the findings of their investigation to every citizen stopped to reassure them that officers are operating within the scope of their authority. This requires that officers are familiar with the laws they are enforcing and are able to articulate the usage of these laws, both orally and in writing.

Abandoning Myths & Building Relationships A fundamental part of being a good police officer is not just being able toentify the “bad people,” but alsoentifying who the “good people” are in the community, and not subjecting them to the same aggressive enforcement as those who are committing criminal acts. Officers should abandon subjective “myths” and unproven theories regarding the people they serve. Building relationships with people in the community begins when police officers suspend judgment, and law-abiding members of the community make officers feel welcome within their neighborhoods. Minor pleasantries, good manners, and common sense lead to conversations and mutual learning about others. Such experience builds commonalities and relationships. Just as citizens do not want officers to view them as “criminals,” officers do not want to be viewed as “enemies.” When mutual respect exists between citizens and law enforcement officers, communities can begin to eliminate social bias and move in the direction of sustainable adaptive change for the better.

Samuel Johnson Jr.

Samuel Johnson Jr. is the training and exercise coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management in Baltimore City (Maryland). In this role, he is responsible for providing emergency preparedness training for over 5,000 public safety professionals. He has served within the city of Baltimore for over 6 years in various capacities, which include the Baltimore Police Department and Baltimore Housing. In 2015, he was recognized by Forbes magazine as one of the country’s top 30 law and policy professionals under the age of 30. He completed his master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins University, Public Safety Executive Leadership Program.



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