Law Enforcement: Guardians or Warriors? Understanding Violence as a Transmitted Behavior

Ron Serpas, Ph.D., a member of the Cure Violence National Advisory Board, was formerly the police superintendent in New Orleans and the police chief in Nashville.  The Wall Street Journal published Mr. Serpas’ thoughts in an Op-Ed column in its April 6, 2015 edition.

The science of DNA revolutionized our understanding of crime and wrongful convictions. Now, in order to deal with the contagion of violence in our cities and to build stronger relationships and trust between police and the community, we need to revolutionize the training of police officers and communities.

In communities where violence and crime are endemic, law enforcement sometimes adopts a warrior mentality—as police officers we are taught to “fight” crime and to lead the “war on drugs.” We have, at times, treated our communities as combat zones; therefore it should be no surprise that the relationship between law enforcement and far too many communities in America is fractured.

To mitigate the fractures between law enforcement and high-risk communities, we often turn to community-policing strategies. I believe it makes perfect sense that building stronger relationships and trust between police and the community requires that we adopt a health perspective in regard to violence prevention and train our officers and the community in this approach.

A health perspective offers an understanding of the causes of violent behavior based on the latest scientific research in the fields of neuroscience, behavioral science and epidemiology. This science tells us violent behavior is transmitted between individuals—this includes child abuse, community violence and intimate-partner violence– and is detailed in a 2013 Institute of Medicine report “The Contagion of Violence.”  We unconsciously learn violent behavior, as we do all behaviors, from those around us. Violent behavior has the added effect of being a traumatic experience, which can have a profound mental-health impact – resulting in impulsivity, depression, stress and exaggerated startle responses that cause an individual to act behaviorally at even a small threat.  Exposure to violence also creates physiological effects such as changes in our neurochemistry and actual brainstructure, such as the hippocampal volume, as shown through MRI studies.

Understanding violence as a transmitted behavior is essential to moving law enforcement to a more equitable and effective approach. This perspective moves us away from an adversarial relationship where community and law enforcement blame each other and think of each other as the “bad guy.” It moves us toward a comprehension of why some human beings—in the community and in law enforcement—exhibit violent behavior.

The health perspective is not in any way contrary to society’s need for accountability for crimes committed. The rule of law is fundamental to a civilized society. Rather, this approach rests on acknowledging that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem of violence. The health approach can help us move from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality. Fundamentally, it’s about preventing future violence by understanding what is perpetuating it. It’s about recognizing that the experience of living in a violent community is creating more violence, and the only way to stop violence is to address its underlying causes.

Law enforcement in the U.S. should implement training in the health approach to violence for all police officers. Further, we need to make this training available to community members too. Health training increases officers’ and communities’ understanding of how violent behaviors are formed, including the dynamics in the community, the experiences of individuals in the community, and the traumatic effects of exposure to violence. Having a more complete shared understanding between the community and law enforcement will help each side humanize the other and is a fundamental step to building a relationship.

Furthermore, this training will help law-enforcement officers learn to de-escalate violence, address high-risk individuals, and join with the community to change behaviors and norms that perpetuate violence. If we want our officers to succeed, we must provide them with the tools to be effective.

Most police officers sought out the field of law enforcement and criminal justice because of a desire to make communities safer and better places. As we have sought solutions, despite our best intentions, our strategies have sometimes perpetuated the problem of violence.  The most obvious examples are those in Ferguson, New York City and many other cities, where people on both sides are dying, trust in the police is fractured and encounters between law enforcement and members of communities escalate to lethal violence.

We are guardians, not warriors. We who are in law enforcement must learn and be trained to understand the science underpinning the contagion of violence. Only then will we truly be able to eradicate this insidious disease.