Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On confrontation

One of the things police do is confrontation, but they do many other things. This essay examines just the confrontation part, which I suspect is the core aspect beneath the calls to “defund” the police.

When I was a teacher and youth retreat leader, I noticed a near-universal truth about confrontation: it does not work. When the kids were being disorderly and chaotic and it was my job to bring focus and order to the situation, I found there are several ways to approach that:

  1. My favorite approach was to notice if they were having fun in the chaos or not, and if so, join it rather than contradict it. I got looked at warily by the actual grown-ups in these situations because they would say I was letting them run amok. But with children and anyone who is emotionally free, laughing and engaging energetically is usually a sign of growth and health, so if they are already doing the most important thing, why would I intervene?
  2. A second approach is one-on-one relational. I discovered how this works in groups when a sunday school class defiantly said they would never leave the park to go back to their parents, and I just wasn’t authoritative enough to fix that the usual way. So I went around to each one and talked individually until they understood why it was important to go back; then they complied as a whole.
  3. A third approach I’ve seen work very well is to give clear expectations, then only talk to the youth after the violation has occurred, rather than during it. At the later time, both parties can ask questions and reflect on it with the needed attention, and some kind of restoration or retribution can be determined then.

The practice of confrontation during the infraction is one that a lot of teachers use, but it doesn’t work most of the time. There are cases where a school fight in progress should be broken up to prevent injury, but usually there is not an immediate danger. Confronting kids in the act of not following rules takes away their agency, which takes away their opportunity to make a decision to follow the rule or not. It results in a context of no buy-in: The youth’s choice in those situations is between (a) retaining their freedom of choice and agency by continuing to try to break the rule, or (b) follow the rule out of fear without internalizing the moral or practical imperative of the rule.

With that in mind, I started considering what police do. Here is a breakdown of five areas of police activity that I’m most aware of:

  1. Responding to crimes that were reported after the incident. Basically this is the legal/prosecution system (DAs and investigators).
  2. Pro-active public safety. Setting up surveillance, visual and other communication systems, trainings and such.
  3. Armed defense and raids and other things that respond to crimes in progress – hostages, active shooters and such.
  4. All the things that have nothing to do with public safety or crime that the police get assigned to because we lack other systems of support.
  5. Patrolling and checking out suspicious activity, and confronting people involved to try to determine if a crime might have been committed or if there might be intent, or if there is any danger; then also following up with trying to prevent danger or chaos based on the situation at hand.

Policing area #1 (investigating and prosecuting) corresponds to teaching approach C (non-confrontational resolution after the fact). There are deep problems with how we are doing this – two of the main ones are that it is full of bias about race and wealth (rich white people can afford bail and attorneys and get off much more often than others), and that it is mainly punitive (based in vengeance rather than restorative solutions). Despite that, the concept of doing investigation and prosecutions in some improved way does not seem to be questioned. This is something we need to do. It’s adversarial by nature, but does not need to be confrontational.

Policing area #2 (pro-active safety) gets little news attention but seems like it could improve safety much more than other areas for the investment, if we focused more on it. Again, no confrontation here.

Policing area #3 (raids/active shooters) is confrontational but it does not seem to be defined as the core problem by news or the activist leaders. I’m thinking about this area as including only definite crimes in progress, not raids based on suspicion. In those situations, everyone seems to want the police around, even those who say they never want them around. While the need for this is much more rare than the TV crime shows suggest, it does seem like there is a need for it – not daily but occasionally. Perhaps this should be composed partly of a reserve force instead of full time officers, and only called into action in those extreme circumstances.

Policing area #4 (non-safety-related) has been in the news a lot and reasonable people seem to agree that money should be diverted to properly funded services that are more suitable. But the discussion tends to be shallow so far – as if throwing money at mental health magically yields mental health. The broader truth is that an equitable and educated society with layers of socialist-style support is going to be safer and healthier than what we have now. The way we approach “mental health” appears pretty diseased because people are said to be sick as individuals rather than in systems, but that is not the subject of this essay. In this whole realm there does not need to be confrontation; every one of those services can be on-demand by the person seeking help. As a side note, there is confrontation and brutality in the mental health system too.

Policing area #5 (patrolling) is where most of the daily confrontation is, and the subject of the rest of this.

We really have to ask why we think we need patrolling and confrontation as part of our system in the first place. People will say we need “order” but that word rarely is defined. There are at least two ways to look at “order” – the opposite of mob rule, and the opposite of diversity. The second definition is where things are all in place, in order, obedient, undifferentiated and maybe even un-free. People who feel safer with confrontational patrolling happening all around them are people who don’t expect to be the ones being confronted, and this indicates that the real desire is for those other people to be managed and controlled. The origin of some policing in the US is to keep this kind of “order” among freed slaves, thus the origin is in white supremacy and the reality today is a continuation of its origins.

The other definition of “order” is more about rule of law. Although the concept of the rule of law has long been obvious, it bears repeating in the current political climate that the idea is for all people to live under the same set of laws consistently applied rather than the president being the ruler. From what I know of history and the present, it seems that without the rule of law, mob rule always arises in the form of elite/corporate control, mafia and so on; there is no benign anarchy. This kind of order is not related to patrolling and confrontation though, so you cannot really argue that patrolling is necessary to create this kind of order.

Others will raise the point about someone in distress who is being threatened by a perpetrator, and say they should be able to call for help. But the prevention of a potential crime happens so rarely that it should not be in any kind of central position in policy. Most of the time, either you can get away from the situation and seek help non-confrontationally, or the crime will have been committed long before any help can arrive. If it’s really a drawn-out hostage situation where the police come and save the victim like on TV, that’s a rare case that falls into the active shooter category and is still not a basis for patrolling.

Others will raise the point about traffic patrolling for road safety. The argument is we need to pull over and ticket people who are not obeying traffic rules, as a safety incentive. Decades ago, maybe. But now we can capture video evidence and bill violators by mail, or use technology in other ways, such as automated transit, driverless cars, and speed control.

Others will raise the point about finding a criminal on the run, and say we need to pull over everyone who matches the profile so they don’t get away. If they are on a crime spree, yes (again that’s more in the active shooter category), but otherwise the crime has already been committed and rushing out to catch them confrontationally won’t retroactively stop the crime or help the victim, and therefore should not be the priority.

The myth of “being caught in the act” as the ultimate goal of confrontation is rare and not even that helpful, and cannot explain why we need confrontation as a daily policy of policing. Just like it doesn’t work with teachers in classrooms, I don’t think confrontation works with policing either, for mostly the same reasons. The main reason we seem to have this policy is white supremacy, and more generally the desire for conformity.

As a final point, each of the areas of policing other than confrontation can be set up with clear goals and oversight. We should be able to ask of public servants: what is the goal of your activities, and did you accomplish the goal? We should be able to collect data and know if the department is doing its job. Many government jobs are bound in red tape because we don’t want those public servants to be making personal decisions from their own bias. But with patrolling and confrontation, there is no specific outcome known in advance, no way to measure effectiveness, and it’s completely open to bias, putting way too much power in one person’s hands. When decisions have to be made quickly without enough time for consideration of the options, they tend to be made based on bias and not on logic. Corruption and discrimination fester in those conditions.

Conclusion: Let’s keep several areas of policing, but eliminate confrontation except in cases of active shooters and similar extremes.

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