THE BLOG

This Cop Used Empathy Instead of Force, and it Worked

05/21/2015 05:28 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Around 11:30 on Tuesday night I witnessed something incredible. A man was out of his mind screaming nonsense along the Seawall that extends from Vancouver, BC's West End neighborhood around the 4 sq. km. region known as Stanley Park. His angry rant was unnerving at best and borderline violent at worst, so I was not surprised when a patrol car drove down to where he was. I thought for sure there was going to be an arrest because the guy was either mentally unstable, on drugs, or both. In the United States this would be normal, and there would even be the possibility that he'd get shot if the officer felt in danger. I moved closer to be a witness.

The cop proceeded to talk with the man while I sat out of sight listening to everything. He encouraged him to talk openly by showing interest in his rambling statements while also interspersing questions about whether he had a place to stay that night and what drugs he had taken. "Meth? Crack? Powder?" I heard him ask. The man was mostly incoherent and his limbs flailed wildly, but he began relaying a painful story of abuse and homelessness as a child in Northern Ireland. He described his experience as living in a war zone, a war that was clearly not over in his damaged psyche. The officer listened and spoke with him in a friendly tone for at least 30 minutes. When the man suddenly jumped off his bench and approached the patrol car I feared the worst. But it was only to shake the officer's hand.

The cop then said something that floored me, "It seems you have a heavy heart tonight. Understand that I came here because I got a call of someone in distress. I didn't know whether it was someone being attacked or in need of help. I'm going to go now and let you pontificate." Before driving away he asked him if he needed anything and expressed concern about his safety. The man insisted that he would be okay and wasn't violent. Then he continued screaming at the sea and the painful memories in his head for some time afterwards.

This experience has made me ask myself, what is criminal justice? After living all of my adult life in the United States, I have witnessed the political discussion go from being "tough on crime" to the nearly complete militarization of the police force. The American Civil Liberties Union has reported that the total value of military hardware that is being used by American police has grown from $1 million in 1990 to nearly $450 million in 2013. Along with this transfer of equipment is an increasing attitude that would replace "serve and protect" with confronting enemy forces. On the streets of Ferguson, New York and Baltimore we have seen how this militarized mentality provokes more problems than it solves. Is this really how justice prevails? And are we any safer as a result?

Then I think of the philosophical approaches known as restorative and transformative justice. By viewing potential conflict situations with an emphasis on peacekeeping, rather than using force to punish wrongdoing, the goal is to find root causes for societal problems and seek alternatives to imprisonment as the solution. It is a cultural evolution as well as a tactic for restoring peace. What I witnessed on the western shores of Canada was a small event, but representative of a larger cultural difference in how criminal justice is understood. To cite just one dramatic statistic, there have been a total of 75 people killed by Canadian police since 1932. In contrast, U.S. police killed 111 people in March alone.

A change in our culture of criminal justice is something that requires concerted effort. The Vancouver Police Department has been engaged in training programs that address alternatives to imprisonment for many years, including restorative and transformative approaches to resolving problems. It is both a cost saving tactic and one that seeks to prevent crime by decriminalizing the minds of both officer and offender. I believe I witnessed that strategy in practice. Though President Obama has now banned the transfer of some military equipment to police departments throughout the domestic United States, the militarized mentality they relied on for decades will take longer to change. There remain many problems in Canada. But the cultural transformation of justice is one that we would do well to learn from.