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Talking Coffee: Building trust and empathy between communities and police

October 3, 2017

Tomorrow is National “Coffee with a Cop” day. For those, like me, concerned about policing in our country, I invite you to order a large hot coffee and start talking. Starbucks and McDonalds are sponsoring events. Of course, small talk in the corner café will not address the larger structural problems of policing: militarization, a culture of aggression and defensiveness, and the lack of racial, economic and geographic proximity to the communities police serve. Still, structured and on-going communication between police officers and citizens could begin to settle the swirling cycle of violence.

 

I have spoken to veteran police officers, raging activists, civil rights lawyers, and frustrated policy makers.  One police officer told me, “Black Lives Matter is based on a lie.” And I’ve heard police called “racist murderers” more than a few times.  But name-calling and polarization only incite more violence. Firearms-related deaths of police officers are on the rise. As of August, 28 cops had been killed by gunfire, up 18 percent from the previous year. Police have killed 737 people this year, about the same rate that we’ve seen the past two years. And I’m discouraged to see that a disproportionately large number of black males continue to be the victims. They account for about a quarter of the deaths, yet are only 6 percent of the nation’s population. Criminal prosecutions of officers and body worn cameras – two popular approaches to reducing deaths– have proven ineffective, even as the funds spent on cameras have exploded. Los Angeles alone plans to spend over $57 million on body-worn cameras over five years. A medium coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts costs $1.89.

 

A conversation over coffee between a police officer and a community member can promote empathy and therefore reduce violence. Social science research has shown that empathy significantly contributes to a reduction in various forms of violence. The emotional component of empathy-- the response of the same or similar emotions in relation to the emotional experiences of another—is especially important.[1] Of course, empathy does not necessarily come naturally to all of us.  Studies show that people with a higher sense of power exhibit less empathy and our ability to empathize is reduced when it comes to people of different races or nationalities. Still, “empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others.” [2] Whatever limits our ability to empathize can be changed, as long as we want to change it.  Also, when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved and not a fixed personality trait, they experienced greater empathy for racial groups other than their own.[3]

 

Bias against stigmatized groups will also be reduced over the cup of coffee, even if the officers and citizens don’t discuss solutions to increasing violence or rehash traumatic events highlighted in the media. Purposefully individuating stigmatized group members in terms other than race can reduce implicit bias against that group.[4] For instance, by learning that a young black man named Sean grew up with a single mom who just retired from the Postal Service, he loved playing the clarinet as a kid, or he is enrolled in school to become a phlebotomist, a police officer will begin to disconnect his unconscious association between the group (young African American males) and the concept (criminality).

 

I witnessed the magic of individuating during a recent training on implicit bias.  A police officer[5], middle-aged, and thick around the middle, admitted that he once used the term “wetback” to refer to a person from Latin America.  He had no clue the term was derogatory or that he had any bias toward Hispanics.  After talking to a Colombian woman in the training--also middle-aged, a mother of two and accomplished poet--the officer saw her as a unique individual, hurt by the term wetback, yet compassionate.  She learned that he became a police officer later in life, had three kids, and knew the pain of exclusion from being the only non-white family at the Catholic Church he attended as a kid. They had more in common that either once believed.

 

If police officers could invite their community to coffee--open themselves to hearing the stories from their community members of fear and harassment and family—and if Black Lives Matter members, supporters and the rest of us exasperated or utterly broken by the sustained violence, could go to the coffee--listen to a police officer and his story of fear and stress and family and safety--we could start to fix this.  It’s not a magic potion--it won’t dissolve the structural problems that must be transformed--but it’s a start and it’s $1.89.

 

 

 

[1] A. Dojai, et al. “The Effect of Empathy on Involving in Bullying Behavior,” Paedeatrics Today, 2013.

 

[2] “Empathy is Actually a Choice,” Camercon, Inzlicht and Cunningham, New York Times, July 10, 2015.

 

[3] Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck

 

[4] Djikic, Langer, & Stapleton, 2008; Lebrecht, Pierce, Tarr, & Tanaka, 2009; Corcoran, Hundhammer, & Mussweiler, 2009. 

 

[5] Details have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

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