Jameca Falconer, Ph.D., Director of Counseling and Psychological Services | Logan University
Darren Wilson’s account of what happened on the evening of August 9, 2014 has been in question from the very beginning. He has said that he was in his police SUV on Aug. 9 when Michael Brown Jr., standing outside, struggled with him through the vehicle window and caused Wilson’s gun to fire twice. Brown was struck at least once in the hand, and ran. Wilson gave chase, and Brown turned back. Wilson then shot him multiple times, explaining later that he feared for his life.
Had Wilson been trained in a different manner, both he and Michael Brown Jr. would have escaped the situation alive. Wilson could have been trained to do something different to allow him to apprehend Michael Brown without putting himself in a situation that made him feel deadly force was the only safe response. The type of police training that involves officers exercising multiple strategies of problem solving and retreat is called “tactical retreat.” One of the options for Darren Wilson on that day could have been to step on the gas and drive away from the encounter, while keeping Brown in sight and waiting for backup. If we can train police officers to avoid putting themselves in danger, you will see them use less force to get themselves out of danger.
A Justice Department investigation opened after Brown’s shooting has found routine patterns and practices of racism in Ferguson, including the excessive use of force and unjustified arrests. Ferguson, Missouri is one of the municipalities that surround the city of Saint Louis, Missouri. Many of the patterns of excessive force and discrimination are reflected in neighboring municipalities and across the Saint Louis metropolitan area.
Most of the “shoot first and ask questions later” police behavior can be traced back to police training in the academy. In the academy, the concept of officer safety is heavily emphasized. Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s main goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. But cops live in a hostile world. They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat. It is how they react to the potential threats that have caused uproar in urban communities.
Police Training in the academy and beyond needs to compensate for the unconscious racial biases that lead officers to perceive a greater threat from Black and Brown men than from others. Officers are not unique in that regard; implicit racial bias is depressingly common in society. But it is of special concern in the context of policing. Because officers use more force when they perceive a greater threat, unconscious bias can lead officers to react more aggressively when confronting Black and Brown men than they would when confronting others in otherwise identical situations. As we’ve seen too many times, the results are beyond tragic. Although it may be impossible to completely eliminate every aspect of unconscious bias, more sophisticated training could lead to more precise threat identifications, correcting for racial bias that officers may not even be aware of.
The Ferguson Commission, formed after the shooting death of Michael Brown, released recommendations for training police officers to avoid deadly confrontations. The commission called for training in tactics, anti-bias and officer wellness. Part of their recommendations directly relate to services typically provided by psychologists. Training that would include dealing with those with behavioral or mental issues, how to give verbal commands, implicit bias and stereotypes, officer wellness, stress indicators, and coping techniques are all areas that we as psychologists are skilled in. This is an opportunity for psychologists to be a part of the solution as it relates to violence toward Black and Brown individuals.
Police reform requires more than changes to training, of course. The policing mission needs to be focused on keeping communities safe and free from fear—including fear of officers themselves. There are profound racial tensions in law enforcement that will only be healed through a long-term, sustained commitment to cooperative policing and community engagement. I urge psychologists-especially those in close proximity to urban communities- to become involved in these types of efforts.