How Can We Best Train Police—and Ourselves?

Last week I had a silly, yet disturbing, thing happen to me. I was relaxingly strolling on a hot afternoon from a coffee shop, where I had just purchased my daily two-shot skim milk iced latte. This is a mid-day routine during workdays, and a great one to have in the SoHo, NY, neighborhood where my office is located. It’s super high-end, filled with haute couture and lesser-known, though equally cool, fashion boutiques. And great coffee shops—no need to bother with Starbucks here.

When I was about four blocks from my office, I noticed a tallish (5’7 or so) older white woman, perhaps in her 60s, walking in a haggard way toward me. It was nearly 90 degrees, yet she wore black shearling boots. Winter wear in hot weather is a signature here in New York City of a disturbed person, I’ve learned. I remember eyeing her wearily, and then looking away. As I got about a foot away from her, she came toward me aggressively. “Gimme that,” she said, looking toward my coffee. “I’m starving. I haven’t had a thing all day, and you’re ruining the neighborhood anyway.”

I backed away from her a couple of times, but she kept coming near. I shouted, “Help!” There were people all around me, but nobody bothered to help. She grabbed the coffee right out of my hand! I thought for a split second about fighting back, but we’ve had stories in the news here about belligerent homeless, and mentally ill, people attacking bystanders, sometimes slashing them on the face.

I definitely didn’t care about my ice coffee enough to risk disfigurement, or any kind of physical assault. After she walked calmly away, my coffee in hand, one woman who passed mentioned there was a police car down the street where I could report the disturbance (or crime?) if I wanted. I didn’t think there was any officer in the car, and even if there were, I wanted to let it go. I didn’t have time to file a report, and would have felt silly, and uncharitable, reporting the theft of my double-shot, skim milk iced latte by a hungry woman. It sounded like a ridiculously privileged thing to do.

The incident was comical, though disturbing. Nothing of high commercial value had been taken from me, but I had been aggressively approached by a stranger, who swiped something I had just purchased for $5, right out of my hand. When I moved to NYC 11 years ago, the city was already in the process of the gentrification movement that my coffee bandit referred to when she complained I was ruining the neighborhood. It’s felt safe for a while for middle- and upper-class people used to soft living to live in nearly any part of Manhattan, and many parts of the other boroughs. Nevertheless, as a neurotic person, I often would wonder whether I eventually would be attacked. I have to admit that in imagining my attacker, I did not foresee an older white woman. I didn’t necessarily picture a person of any particular race attacking me, but I did picture a rough-looking man (rather than an older woman). For that reason, I sometimes would cross the street when I saw a rough-looking, or otherwise scary-looking, man walking toward me, especially if there weren’t many people around. It was shocking to be accosted and stolen from by a woman, and one who belonged to a demographic I associate more with kindly aunts and grandmothers than bandits.

When my attention was brought to the issue of police training last week, in a column by James Densley, about how police should best be trained in Minnesota, I wondered how we can train police and ourselves out of racial profiling—and whether we should. I believe we should, but I know those who disagree with me say we have to profile because we don’t have the resources to scrutinize everyone closely, so we have to focus on more closely watching those who we have reason to believe are more likely to commit crimes. The problem with that, of course, is it’s often wrong, as my own minor experience shows. An older white woman complaining of gentrification is not what almost anyone would have in mind when guessing who is most likely to accost and steal from them.

On a much more serious scale, how can we prepare police to interact with the community they serve in an even-handed way? The question has a lot in common with the challenge any company faces in ensuring its employees are treated with equality. The difference is when it’s the police, the result of getting it wrong can be life or death—an innocent person getting mislabeled as a danger and shot dead, or a police officer giving a dangerous person the benefit of the doubt and getting killed him or herself.

How can you prepare your workforce to treat employees, and the public you serve, in a culturally broad way, rather than playing to particular perspectives? You don’t want to find years from now that your executive board is almost (or all) white and male, and you don’t want to find that while you were ignoring the question, your products and services were only targeting a fraction of the population you could have served.

The best way to neutralize bias so people are aware of it, and are hopefully able to make an effort to not let it influence their professional decisions, is exposure to those they otherwise wouldn’t interact with. For police, that means organizing what I’ve heard referred to as “community policing,” in which officers approach their work in an old-school kind of way. Rather than just quickly driving through minority neighborhoods and making snap judgments based on surface impressions, they are tasked with “walking the beat,” as officers must have routinely done a long time ago before cars were invented. They’re encouraged to stop and introduce themselves to the people of the neighborhood, to inquire about people’s concerns, and make sure the people they serve have their professional contact information so they know how they can be proactive when they notice something awry on their block. That kind of exposure and interaction with people helps neutralize bias because the officers then have person-to-person experiences to inform their feelings about those they protect, rather than just the stereotypes they may have grown up with.

In your own company, how can you neutralize executive and managerial bias? I think it’s the same approach that is used in community policing. It’s community employee management in which those who are in a decision-making role are given assignments that bring them into contact, maybe through mentoring or quarterly one-on-one meetings, with a diverse selection of entry- and mid-level employees. It could take the form of in-house focus groups, or it could be randomly selected one-on-one meetings between a member of the executive board and an entry- or mid-level employee selected at random. So much the better if that person happens to be of a racial or ethnic group different from that of the executive.

Another important facet of educating the bias and stereotyping out of your workforce is to have those same decision-makers out in the community you sell to meeting potential customers. That means having them sit in and greet focus groups composed of a hopefully diverse set of possible consumers of your products or services. It also can mean having the executives and managers participate a few times a year in a charity that serves under-privileged and/or minority populations. It’s not really charity, though. There’s a selfish dimension to having a workforce that’s culturally diverse and open-minded in its thinking. That kind of workforce is better equipped to create products that sell to the widest possible group of people—more buyers, more money coming in, right?

In the case of preparing police officers to serve the needs of the whole community, including minorities, while also protecting themselves, there also is a pragmatic benefit. If you’re inaccurately targeting innocent people you’re missing where the real crime and danger is occurring. A police force that’s trained to think more deeply than snap judgments that sometimes result in snap, tragic decisions such as unjust shootings, is one that can better protect the public.

How does your company educate employees so they are able to fairly manage a diverse workforce, and are able to develop products and services that appeal to as wide a swath of potential customers as possible?

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