28 Dec 2016

Congressional Briefing Explores Issue of Police–Community Relations

Aggressive policing tactics are associated with racial trauma and poor mental health outcomes, and communities and police need to work together to coproduce public safety. Those were two of the main takeaways of a November 15, 2016 APA congressional briefing, Improving Police–Community Relations: Psychological Perspectives, where the audience heard from two expert psychologists and a member of Congress.  

The year 2016 was marred by tragic violence between law enforcement and communities of color. In just one week during the month prior to the APA Convention in Denver, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling lost their lives in police shootings, and an assassin gunned down five Dallas law enforcement officers. It was hardly surprising, then, that the APA Convention included a Black Lives Matter protest and a listening session with prominent police psychologists.

This diversity within the field of psychology situates it perfectly to serve the cause of improving police–community relations. Psychologists work with parties on all sides of these issues, and the lenses of psychological science and practice can help unravel the mutual mistrust and skepticism that have led to the tragic and too-frequent officer-involved shootings and attacks on law enforcement. Psychology’s contributions in the areas of implicit bias, police–community relations, and law enforcement training are critical to implementing legislative and programmatic solutions.

From this framework, APA engaged federal policymakers on the issue and held a briefing for congressional staff on November 15, 2016 (YouTube recording). Three House sponsors of the event, Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), and Robin Kelly (D-IL) serve on the bipartisan Working Group on Policing Strategies, and the fourth House sponsor, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) has worked extensively on issues related to deaths in custody and other civil and human rights issues.

Executive Director for APA’s Public Interest Directorate, Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD, opened the briefing by calling attention to the need for understanding on all sides. “APA is committed to policies that ensure all Americans are treated fairly under the law,” she said, “and psychological research can provide direction for law enforcement efforts to reduce crime and increase community trust.”

Despite the far-reaching implications of research in the realm of police psychology on federal policy, Congress too infrequently uses scientific literature to inform criminal justice legislation. In his opening remarks, Rep. Scott praised psychology and APA for holding a briefing to highlight an academic approach to these issues. “I want to thank you for having this discussion. We look forward to your findings, but most of all, I want to thank you for having a research, evidence-based approach to a criminal justice issue,” said Scott.

From left: Earl Turner, PhD, Ellen Scrivner, PhD, and Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD, with Congressman Bobby Scott.

Providing that perspective were psychologists Ellen Scrivner, PhD, and Earl Turner, PhD.

Turner, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown, discussed the psychological implications of policies that may disproportionately target people of color, such stop-and-frisk. “One of the possible results of aggressive policies such as stop-and-frisk is what scholars and psychologists refer to as racial trauma or race-based stress,” Dr. Turner explained. “Racial trauma may result from racial harassment, witnessing racial violence, or experiencing institutional racism. The trauma may result in experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, feelings of humiliation, poor concentration, and irritability.” In the process of analyzing police–community relations, Turner explained, public policy is a key component of implementing fair practices and avoiding abusive ones

Scrivner, a psychologist consultant who specializes in public safety innovations and transformative police reform, spoke from her experience as a senior administrator in the Chicago Police Department and Director of the Justice Department’s Offices of Community Oriented Policing (COPS Office). From that perspective, she described the historical context of police violence and stressed the importance of allowing communities affected by police misconduct to express their frustration and coproduce public safety with law enforcement.

“We need to find ways that will create a national dialogue on race and policing that will include all who are involved in collaborative community–police partnerships--so that this dialogue will be much more than talk,” stated Scrivner. “It is within that context that the groundwork will be laid for establishing new strategies that are based on learning from our past - and now recent history - and that will strengthen efforts to ensure that constitutional policing prevails.”

Addressing psychology’s unique role in redressing conflicts between law enforcement and the community, she said, “It is here that professional psychology can be very helpful. In fact, APA leadership met with representatives of police and public safety psychology at the most recent APA convention in Denver to discuss just what it is that psychology can do. That’s a very positive step.”

APA and partners will continue their work on police–community relations into 2017 and beyond. This includes working with Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division (CRD) and COPS Office, to ensure gains made through consent decrees and other mechanisms are sustained. Additionally, APA will urge Congress to use its critical oversight role, should it appear that recent reforms are faltering.

-- By Micah Haskell-Hoehl and Sarah Gioia of the APA Public Interest Directorate

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