We expect more from our law enforcement officers than we do from ordinary citizens. And for good reason: they wield significant power of the sword and the pen. We empower officers to use force—when appropriate—against fellow community members and empower them to seize our property through citations and asset forfeiture. While we should expect equal and fair treatment from the officers that serve our communities, research suggests that, in the absence of proper training and policy, we may be holding them to near-impossible standards.
For example, a 2018 study found that individuals asserted that the average human’s perceptions and memory were susceptible to bias while also believing police officers were less susceptible to bias. Another study found that the general public believes police should be able to detect deception by a suspect, and that it trusts officers less when they fail to do so.
These beliefs may be well-founded—police officers are professionals, after all. As exposing deception and using one’s power of enforcement without bias are critical components of the job, one would hope police officers are more adept at this than the local plumber.
But the reality is that police are more like us than we think. Indeed, the 2018 study noted that our “bias blind spot” ignores the reality of human memory: “people’s goals, past experiences, and emotions can distort encoding, bias interpretations, and affect recollections.” Put simply, our interpretation of events—even those caught on camera—are influenced by the perspective from which we view them. And that’s just as true for members of law enforcement as it is for the rest of us.
Other studies clearly show that police officers are prone to the same cognitive biases, mistakes and psychological triggers as everyone else. They show that bias may impact suspect interviews, opinions of forensic experts, evaluations of future evidence and witness evaluation. Other research shows that police and the general public both hold implicit racist biases, and that these biases may even start as young as childhood.
Recognizing that police share the same natural human proclivity toward bias does not excuse systematic discrimination or mistreatment by police. Officers should always be held accountable for any injustice committed. It instead exhumes the importance of crafting training and policies to mitigate such tendencies.
Yet all too often we leave police under-equipped for combating these psychological tendencies while asking them to undertake duties beyond their traditional role. Police today are expected to be quasi-paramedics in the face of the opioid epidemic. They are called on as mental health professionals during mental health crises. And they have assumed disciplinary roles in schools, addressing situations that should be handled by teachers and principals. These tasks are better suited for other professionals trained to handle them. For example, those contemplating suicide are better off when served first by mental health counselors in a 911 Crisis Call Diversion (CCD) program instead of a police officer at their door.
Moreover, despite evidence that the presence of a weapon may increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors among those present and that police use of military equipment has been associated with increases in the number of casualties during interactions with community members, we’ve given them access to military-grade equipment and asked police to defuse volatile civilian protests. We’ve changed the mission of policing by adding a military component to their role and have made a critical part of their job—working with civilians—more difficult.
Asking the police to assume some of these additional duties and roles is necessary in certain situations. But we must remember that police face the same natural and social constraints as we do. Expecting them to act as medical professionals, counselors, school disciplinarians, enforcers of the law and militarized soldiers is simply unreasonable. It stretches them too thin and conflicts with their mission to preserve and protect.
Continuing to push police beyond the roles they were trained for while holding them to unachievable standards with inadequate support will inevitably result in failure and may reduce their desire to serve. We are already seeing symptoms of this as departments across the country struggle to find recruits.
What should be done? We should start by seeking to understand and address our cognitive and social constraints and biases and put officers neither on a pedestal nor a footstool. Department training and policies should recognize the fact of bias and misperception and protect against the potential harm. Police officers and community members should be encouraged to maintain an open dialogue, which can build empathy between officers and the people they serve.
We must also equip police departments to handle the problems they were originally intended to handle and encourage them to collaborate with other entities to address dilemmas outside their areas of expertise. We are seeing this happen in the development of Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs), on which officers are trained to divert mentally ill individuals from the criminal justice system and into proper treatment facilities. Research demonstrates such interagency partnerships can bring better outcomes for community residents and state budgets.
Our local police are often heroes, but they’re also human. Where cognition and social biases fail us, smart policy and training can help correct. It’s time both policymakers and the public recognize this fact, and that policies are implemented to ensure that the expectations we’ve placed on officers bring more good than harm.
Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a policy associate on the R Street Institute’s justice team. Arthur Rizer (@arthurrizer) is the director for criminal justice policy and civil liberties at R Street. Arthur is also a DPhil candidate at the Centre of Criminology, University of Oxford.