How people filter information helps us understand why some people believe that cops are indiscriminately killing black men and others believe just as strongly that we have declared war on cops.
The police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana, followed by the slaying of five Dallas police officers in Dallas, have rocked our nation.
At first it seemed like our country was being torn apart. But now, stories are emerging about heartwarming acts of kindness toward police in Dallas and all across the country. Spontaneous alliances have been reported between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” demonstrators. Rappers known for railing against police are meeting with the leadership of the Los Angeles Police Department.
What does this all mean?
Could it be that the cumulative grief from so much tragedy and suffering has finally pushed us onto a common ground — a desperate place where we will finally focus on solutions rather than blame?
I am hopeful that we are moving toward improvement and solutions. The groundwork has already been laid at the national level with President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing, yielding a set of concrete steps for building greater trust and cooperation between police and the people they serve.
The Washington state Legislature has provided support for the “Building Public Trust Initiative” and expanded funding for crisis intervention training to equip police officers to more effectively respond to people on the street who are suffering from a mental-health crisis. The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission is being held up as a national model because of our focus on building a guardian mindset in our recruits while simultaneously preparing them to fight with warrior skills to protect their communities.
Our job is made easier because most of our millennial recruits already have a guardian mindset when they enter the academy. They are deeply dedicated to making a positive difference in the communities they will serve. Our challenge is to teach them the skills to safely run toward danger and, within seconds, accurately identify the presence of a threat and take appropriate action to protect themselves and others — without violating others’ constitutional rights or losing their sense of humanity.
To meet this challenge, we rely on a large body of scientific research to teach recruits how to recognize actions that are dangerous. This is even harder than it sounds because the human brain does not operate like a video camera, objectively recording every bit of information available during a dangerous encounter to reach a “Spock-like” conclusion about the nature of a threat.
Rather, the brain is more like a movie critic scanning the film, drawing conclusions about meaning and intent, filtering in information that is consistent with existing expectations, and filtering out information that contradicts that. It is during this millisecond-filtering process that the officer’s brain judges the intent of a suspect’s actions to reach a conclusion about whether he or she poses an immediate threat.
Based on this research, we have infused our program with training about unconscious bias and the recognition of behaviors related to mental illness. We place extensive focus on actions rather than appearances and assumptions about intent.
Ironically, this same filter-in, filter-out process happens in the brains of people viewing videos of deadly police encounters. This understanding of the brain explains why intelligent people of goodwill, from different demographic perspectives, reach such diametrically opposed conclusions about controversial police shootings.
A viewer’s beliefs, whether they are a police officer or a person who distrusts police, will strongly affect his or her perception and conclusions about what he or she is seeing. The distortion of this filtering process is compounded when the media presents a deluge of inflammatory stories with a spin to appeal to people within their viewing demographic.
This knowledge has helped me understand why some people believe that cops are indiscriminately killing black men and others believe just as strongly that we have declared war on cops.
As a nation, a state, a community, we all need to take a breath and channel our collective grief to move forward with the positive initiatives that are already in motion and that will build stronger relationships between the police and people they serve. Leaders from law enforcement, government and the community need to come together and lead the charge.