THE BLOG
07/29/2015 03:34 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

Police Should Intervene When Other Officers Use Unlawful Force

Now that the media and the country pay attention, after shocking instances, almost everyday there are more reports of police officers having used unnecessary force, needlessly harming people. Some of these reports are of new events, which I will discuss later. Others are about events a year or two ago that now receive attention.

For example, on June 20, a small item in the New York Times said that a retired judge has released dashboard camera video from a Chicago police car that shows that a white officer repeatedly fired his handgun into a car full of black youth who had been pulled over for speeding and posed no apparent threat (page A 11).

This took place a couple years earlier. Another example is a video released this month of the 2013 shooting of an unarmed African-American, Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, in Gardena, California. The city paid his family 4.7 million. In addition to the horror of unnecessary deaths, and its impact on police -community relations, they also cost tax payers a great deal.

The police provide essential service, often at great danger to themselves. But violence by police officers whose job is to protect is corrosive, affect police culture, change both the officers who act violently and those who remain passive as they witness it. They affect communities, and community police elations. Why do some officers, sometimes, use unnecessary force, especially against minorities, and how can this be changed? Police training, oversight and changing policies and practices that foster unlawful police behavior are all essential.

After the notorious Rodney King incident, when King's failure to obey an officer who ordered him to stop his car triggered a car chase, followed by several officers beating King with batons as he was lying on the ground, while others stood by and watched, the organization responsible for police training in California, POST (Peace Officers Standards and Training) invited me to develop a course in effective intervention.

I call it active bystandership, training officers to engage when they see a fellow officer begin to respond with inappropriate intensity, redirecting interactions, stopping harmful actions, and, if necessary, report unlawful force and thereby change the culture that surrounds it. At times a single word by a fellow officer on the scene, or a hand on the shoulder, may stop an officer who is beginning to act in an abusive way.

On the other hand passivity encourages violent actors; there is much evidence that they interpret passivity as acceptance of or support for what they do. Superior officers, whose supervision can either stop or whose passivity can reinforce the use of unnecessary force, also need such training. The training can lead members of the police to shift from seeing acceptance of and support for anything a fellow officer does as good team work, to seeing active bystandership that way.

To do all that is necessary to create good policing and good police community relations we must also understand the roots of harsh policing and police violence. The continuing racism in our society is certainly one cause. David Kennedy in his book Don't Shoot suggests that police behavior in poor minority communities is the result of officers' frustration and belief that "the community likes what is going on there, or at least doesn't care enough to stop it" (p.150)--the drug sales, the shootings, the disorder.

But this is certainly intermixed with racism, as indicated by radio communications among police offices in Los Angeles in the period before the Rodney Kind incident, and many other examples. Police antagonism, expressed not only in violence but actions such as telling people who stand on the street to leave the area, or to empty pockets and take off shoes, is then reciprocated, at the very least by people withholding information and other support for the police. Mutual mistrust and hostility comes to characterize community police relations, reinforcing each other.

A more specific cause of the use of unnecessary force by police officers is that by training and responsibilities, and many probably by personality, demand respect for their authority and expect people to obey them. These attitudes are appropriate in the face of danger or significant lawbreaking. But they cause great harm when they lead to the use of force in response to verbal challenges or limited non-cooperation that presents no threat.

This was the case in the Rodney King incident, and many others. Eric Garner, stopped for selling cigarettes on a Staten Island street, died from a choke hold after briefly expressing his frustration at once again being hassled and arrested. Bullets in his back killed Walter Scott in a park in South Carolina as he ran away from a routine traffic stop, presumably because he feared the officer would discover a warrant for his arrest for failure to pay child support. A very recent case is that of Sandra Bland, who was stopped because she did not have her turn signal on. The officer responded with increasing anger to her insufficiently respectful demenour, tried to drag her out of her car, threatened her and arrested her. She was jailed and was found dead a couple of days later, her death described as suicide. But she was about to assume a new job.

Police encounter all kinds of human beings, with all kinds of states of mind. Like the rest of us, they have a legal responsibility to refrain from using force unless the people they encounter present an immediate threat. One can understand occasional over-reactions in the face of ambiguous circumstances, but not in the kind of situations I have listed.

The work of the police includes the legitimate and necessary use of their authority--and of force. But people change by their own actions. Even the legitimate use of force, and more its unnecessary use when that is tolerated, when essential constraints are absent, leads to greater violence. It is then justified by claims of the victim's bad intentions, alleged misdeeds or bad character. Or by the ideals of law and order, which such actions actually undermine.

In addition to training, effective supervision by superior officers, city administrators and community agencies with real supervisory power is needed. Rules, regulations and laws all have to change. This is especially so because unnecessary force is encouraged by some widespread harmful or even unlawful policies and practices of municipalities and the attitude toward minorities they develop. Some prosecutors, city administrators, courts and even state and federal laws are partly responsible or complicit.

The widespread use of civil forfeiture laws in some communities, most often against minorities--confiscating the property even of people who have not been indicted and sometimes not even charged--is one ongoing example of government complicity in mistreatment. A substantial percentage of the monetary gain goes to the police, for equipment, but also overtime pay and bonuses. Sometimes police confiscate cars or other property they want to have.

Another example is the overuse of "broken windows" policing focused on impoverished neighborhoods and the minorities who live there. Eric Garner, the cigarette-seller, died as the result of one such overzealous response. Charging people for court appearances, and then charging poor people interest when they pay in installments, which as their debt grows lands many in prison, is another way municipalities disrupt lives.

On a larger, national scale, harsh mandatory sentencing laws with long prison terms for non-violent crimes such as drug possession destroy minority communities, as men, and to a lesser extent also women disappear from their homes and communities. People are working on changing some of these practices, but change is slow. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans have found common cause in addressing the overuse of prisons, and long sentences as punishment for nonviolent, often minor crimes. Some laws about mandatory sentencing have already been changed, but not retroactively, so that many people continue to remain in prison after many years for relatively minor drug offenses. And more changes in laws are needed.

Human relations also need to change. Both extensive psychological research, and my own experience, strongly indicate that engagement across lines of conflict can change people. I've worked in Rwanda since 1999 in the wake of the genocide there, helping people to understand the influences that lead to such horrific violence and consider avenues to reconciliation. As Rwandan have applied information to their own lives, listened to each other's experiences and engaged in dialogue, they came to see each other's humanity. Their commitment to and engagement in building a better future grew. The same can happen with members of the police and communities, and administrators, sitting together and talking to each other.

Engagement by all relevant parties within municipalities in the U.S. would have positive effects. Beyond dialogue aimed at establishing workable relationships and addressing problematic issues, active bystanders, individuals, especially as they join in groups, have great potential influence on policies, practices, and standards of behavior.

Ervin Staub is professor emeritus and founding director of the program in the psychology of peace and violence at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His most recent book, published this March, is The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil: Inclusive caring, moral courage, altruism born of suffering, active bystandeership and heroism (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-roots-of-goodness-and-resistance-to-evil-9780195382037?cc=us&lang=en&). It includes a chapter on police behavior and active bystandership. See also www.ervinstaub.com