- - Tuesday, November 3, 2020

We don’t yet have a vaccine for COVID-19, but there is an antidote for mistrust and misunderstandings in the justice system. What if we could improve the quality of communications between police officers and others in positions of authority — and those over whom they exercise it? 

Progress requires a communications paradigm that is courteous and reinforces trust, thereby achieving the desired result through motivation rather than force. Evidence suggests this will translate into positive outcomes, whether it is greater cooperation with police or reduced criminal activity. 

Communications between those in authority and those they speak with occur both in the context of initial and serial encounters. When police come upon suspects or a probation officer first meets the person they will be supervising, it is usually a conversation between two strangers. This is the focus of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Talking to Strangers.” 

The book was inspired by the tragic case of Sandra Bland, a Black woman arrested after being pulled over for a broken taillight; she later committed suicide while in jail. Mr. Gladwell unpacks the interaction that was caught on video, demonstrating how the tone and substance of the officer’s words escalated the situation unnecessarily. This led to Bland becoming agitated and being arrested. 

This interaction shows officers must have the disposition and training to communicate in a way that does not turn a routine stop into a disaster. 



A theme of Mr. Gladwell’s book is that it is costly to assume the worst about people you meet for the first time. Such distrust increases the friction or transaction costs for both parties. In business, this translates into lost opportunities for making a sale or deal. Could anyone imagine trying to independently verify the accuracy of every label on a product before making a purchase?

In justice system encounters, communications in which there is not underlying trust can contribute to graver consequences than wasted time or a lost sale. This can take the form of an arrest that goes off the rails or the 150,000 cases every year in which a person on community supervision is revoked to prison for violating conditions, though not charged with a new offense.

Both people interacting for the first time can allay fears in their counterpart, contributing to actions based on vigilance but not mistrust. A driver who is pulled over is not legally required to share information beyond identifying themselves, but might bear in mind that an officer who never met them will act based partly on their initial observations absent the time to fully investigate their background in the same way as reading all the ingredients in a product.

Just as there is value in an officer often giving a stranger a heads up on their next move, the driver can signpost by saying “do you mind if I reach into the glove compartment to get my proof of insurance” or volunteer information to explain anything that could seem suspicious. 

Not all interactions with authority figures are with strangers. When it comes to probation where the same officer and individual meet regularly, many agencies have implemented evidence-based practices such as motivational interviewing. 

Instead of a conversation limited to written questions such as whether the person being supervised is still at the same address, the probation officer should ask questions that inspire motivation. These include: How can I help you with ___? Help me understand ___?” These inquiries recognize the person’s dignity and elicit areas of weakness as well as strengths that can be built on. Research has found motivational interviewing both reduces recidivism and increases the odds of positive outcomes such as employment.

Similarly, a study found that when police officers were trained to incorporate procedural justice in their communications, general complaints and excessive use of force incidents decreased. Through the training, officers learned to “provide opportunities for civilians to state and explain their case before making a decision, apply consistent and explicable rules-based decision-making, treat civilians with dignity and respect their status as community members … .” While no one enjoys being arrested or penalized, there is value to processes that instill legitimacy in that individual and the community. 

Speaking down to someone over whom authority is being exercised can, due to a skills deficit, eclipse the fundamental truth that all people are of equal worth and thus entitled to dignity. Yet, the solution is not to abolish authority roles, as without police we would be in a Hobbesian state of nature where might makes right and without probation more people would be sentenced to prison. 

Regrettably, there will always be emergencies that limit communication opportunities and encounters that were doomed from the start where force is the only option. But agencies can maximize positive outcomes by ensuring their personnel were better equipped to communicate with those over whom they exercise authority.

• Marc Levin, a lawyer, is chief of policy and innovation for Right on Crime (www.rightoncrime.com), an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Follow @RightonCrime and @MarcALevin.

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