Sandra Bland: Could training Police in Conflict Resolution instead of Force have Saved Her?

By Megan Price | (The Conversation) | – –

The disturbing video released earlier this week of the stop and arrest of Sandra Bland highlights once again the excessive and inexcusable use of force by police officers in this country. The 28-year-old’s death in police custody after a routine traffic stop is currently being investigated as a murder.

Both ordinary citizens and experts have been calling for police departments to ramp up efforts to stop these kinds of abuses, but tragically, they continue.

Why they continue is perplexing and complicated – from history and power to the role of implicit bias. But one answer, as a Memphis cop put it to me in an interview for the Retaliatory Violence Insight Project, is what police officers call the “tricky part”: maintaining trust with citizens while enforcing the law.

The tricky part

Part of what is tricky, I found talking with police officers, is that traditional policing practice uses deterrence methods – force and the threat of punishment – to motivate compliance.

Most of us are familiar with these methods. Perhaps we have gotten a speeding ticket, or been subject to stop and frisk. The principle is the same – obey the law or face consequences.

Deterrence policies may stop crime in some cases, but they are counter to most people’s conception of trust, which depends on the belief that another person will not cause harm.

Because of this trust deficit, deterrence methods can fail to produce compliance; and instead, produce conflict between the public and the police. Just watch Sandra Bland’s arrest video, or the public reaction to the high-force police response during last year’s Ferguson protests.

Research from the Retaliatory Violence Insight Project into the challenges police departments face curtailing retaliatory violence in high crime communities has produced an alternative: Insight Policing.

Insight Policing is a community-oriented, problem-solving policing practice designed to help officers take control of situations with the public before conflict escalates. By doing so, the police maintain trust and enhance the probability of cooperation in difficult situations of enforcement.

The role of Insight Policing

Insight Policing helps officers recognize and defuse conflict behavior when they see it – both their own and the public’s. Often, conflict behavior resembles such stress-based behaviors as fight, flight and freeze; these are the actions people take when they feel threatened.

The thing about conflict behavior, and what Insight Policing pays particular attention to, is that when we feel threatened, we are reactive, not reflective, in how we respond. We do not take time to think about what we are doing, we simply do, in hopes that we will successfully stop the threat.

Sandra Bland refused to get out of her car (conflict behavor), responding to the threat the officer posed when he ordered her to. The officer pulled a taser on Bland (conflict behavior) in response to the threat her refusal posed to him as an agent of the law.

While clearly there are more dramatic instances of conflict behavior in police–citizen encounters – the high speed chase, the standoff – the more mundane conflict interactions are what are undermining police legitimacy.

When conflict behavior manifests as noncompliance, when citizens refuse to cooperate, as was the case with Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray and most recently Sandra Bland, what begins as mundane can become lethal when conflict behavior escalates.

Insight Policing, which has been piloted in two American police departments, Memphis, Tennessee, and Lowell, Massachusetts, is a promising tool for helping officers get a handle on the “tricky part.” Eighty percent of officers trained agreed that Insight Policing enhanced their ability to defuse the feelings of threat citizens have about their encounters with police officers.

An example of Insight Policing

Take an example from Memphis. Three Memphis officers trained in Insight Policing responded to a call for shots fired. They arrived on the scene to find a crowd of young men behind a house. They asked them the kinds of questions they always ask at the scene of a crime: “What happened?” “What did you see?” “Who did this?” The young men refused to cooperate: “We didn’t see anything.” “Leave us alone.” “We don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The officers suspected otherwise. And ordinarily, they reported, they would have arrested the young men on gang-related charges and questioned them down at the station – to delay any retaliation that might have been brewing as well as to get the information they were after. Instead, having been trained in Insight Policing, they recognized the young men’s resistance as conflict behavior. They dropped, for the moment, their crime investigator hats, and put on their conflict investigator hats. They used Insight Policing techniques to become curious about what was motivating the young men’s resistance.

What the officers found was not that the young men were protecting somebody or hiding something or breaking the law in some way, but that they had had trouble with police in the past. They did not want to speak because they were afraid of incriminating themselves.

Getting this information allowed the officers to delink the threat they posed by assuring the young men that they were not after them, they were after the shooter. They were able to build enough trust in the moment that the young men gave them the information they needed to catch the shooter later that night.

Had the officers used their power to arrest the young men, just for hanging out together, they would have played into the young men’s fear of incrimination. They would have escalated a situation, and who knows how it would have turned out.

By engaging the men in terms of their conflict behavior, the officers were able to build trust, garner cooperation and effectively enforce the law.

What if the officers who stopped Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and Mike Brown and Eric Garner had been trained to recognize conflict behavior and defuse it? Perhaps history would be different.

The Conversation

Megan Price is Director, Insight Conflict Resolution Program Research and Training Specialist, Retaliatory Violence Insight Project at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Megan Price is Director, Insight Conflict Resolution Program Research and Training Specialist, Retaliatory Violence Insight Project at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University

Related video added by Juan Cole:

PBS: “Should Sandra Bland have been arrested?”

10 Responses

  1. Dag Inge Bøe

    “conflict handling”? The cop made the conflict! If she were white she’d be let off with a polite warning for a sloppy lane change.

    • I totally agree with you (and I’m a white woman, for what that’s worth). I watched the sickening video on CNN. It was an ordinary traffic stop. The cop gave her a warning about not using her signal when she changed lanes. That meant she was no threat. Then he goaded her, provoked her, upset her into reacting — and his behavior was horrible, yelling at her to get out of the car, threatening her, throwing her on the ground. Bland’s “mistake” was in talking to him about her rights, like the right to smoke in her own car. It’s safer to be afraid of all cops and keep your mouth shut, no matter what, because the bad ones will do whatever they want. My heart goes out to her family. I hope they are able to sue the police department.

  2. why did the officer demand that she put out her cigarette? It was not a threat to him nor prevented or made it more difficult for him to give her a ticket. Why order her out of her car if she is willing to answer his legitimate questions? Dag Inge is correct. If she was white, she would still be alive

  3. “Instead, having been trained in Insight Policing, they recognized the young men’s resistance as conflict behavior. They dropped, for the moment, their crime investigator hats, and put on their conflict investigator hats. They used Insight Policing techniques to become curious about what was motivating the young men’s resistance.”

    And those techniques were…..? If you don’t tell us how they switched from investigation to insight in relating to the young men, all we know is a phrase “Insight Policing.” What did they change? What kind of different responses and queries did they make?

    Interesting concept but this short article tells me only the name of the program not really anything about how it works.

  4. Like gmoke, I want to know what the police would say under “Insight Policing”. Instead of “What did you see?” and “Who did this?”, what was said?

    Did they start with statements, “A call came in that shots were fired at the corner of X and Y; we need your help to catch the shooter.” Or “I understand that people don’t want to get involved, but all these shootings will continue if no one speaks out. We’re looking for some tips to help us solve a report of shots fired that happened tonight at the corner of X and Y.” Or???

    I’d like to see a specific dialogue, line by line, that shows how officers can reduce intimidation and get legitimate feedback, helping everyone to be safer.

    • “In short, he has a chance to engage with Bland in a way that reduces antagonism and builds goodwill. It isn’t hard, and can be summed up in three words: Receive, respect, respond. Receive what someone is telling you, respect their position, and respond appropriately.”
      link to

      Perhaps it’s something like that.

    • I think that Sandra Bland was making the case that she CHANGED LANES in reponse to see a police car following her and presumably waiting for her to CHANGE LANES so she could stop safely. Because she had already been signaled by the cop following her, the police already knew she was following their orders to CHANGE LANES. The question is why did the police follow her and lead her to change lanes in the first place? The only charge against her was doing what the police summoned her to do AFTER the police began to follow her. Why was she followed in the first place. She CHANGED LANED in response to a police command and died a few days later. What was the crime they pulled her over for?

  5. The name of the current police technique should be called “incite policing.”

    The Sandra Bland case points out many flawed practices of law enforcement in this country:
    FIRST, an officer should find a way to extract himself from a situation when it has needlessly escalated.
    a) Officers should be trained to back off and turn a situation over to another officer when he is losing his cool. This point is presumably consistent with the point of this article.
    b) Officers should be trained how and when to avoid conflict, which is indeed contrary to what they are trained to do when going after “bad guys.”
    c) Officers need to be carefully screened as to temperament for the job of being a “cop.”

    SECOND, police need to look for alternatives to putting people into cages. This woman was caged for 3 days. Why? Probably to make money for the police department. (Does the PD get paid a per diem from the county for each day they have someone in prison?) Responsibility is huge in caging people. You have to feed them. You have to clothe them. You have to respond to their medical needs. You are the guardian. This is very costly. She should have been released “on her own recognizance.”

    THIRD, police need to monitor their caged subjects better. Here the PD claims that they already knew that she was suicidal! Why did they leave her in a cage unsupervised for 3 hours? What if someone has a heart attack? What if some prisoners decide to beat up another prisoner? What if a jailer decides to rape her (another frequent problem in jails)?

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