Homicide and the Compassionate Cop

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crime scene

Photo by DanGutierrez via Flickr

Soon after her son was shot, his mother was called by an Oakland, Ca., police officer offering a ride in his patrol car.

He wanted “to make sure I was OK,” the woman recalled.

But the words of comfort quickly turned into an interrogation.

“He drove me around the neighborhood and asked if I knew what happened…probably because I have other sons and he probably thought they would know,” she said.

crime scene

Photo by booturtle via Flickr

The incident, described in a series of Urban Institute studies of how police respond to shooting events, was an example of how a focus on solving crimes without taking into account the emotions of survivors or community fears can perpetuate distrust, and fuel a climate that leads to more violence, researchers said.

The studies, conducted in partnership with the Urban Peace Institute, concluded that law enforcement was more effective when investigations were conducted with compassion, respect and transparency.

This was true even under the high-stakes pressure of a murder investigation, researchers said.

Going “beyond the yellow tape” at police crime scenes to apply the principles of procedural justice in dealing with shooting victims and relatives can even save lives, the researchers suggested.

“Police play a critical role in reducing community violence, but their legitimacy can be undermined by lack of community trust, particularly in high-crime communities where intervention is needed most,” the study authors said.

“Along with enabling community trust, procedurally just policing has the potential to address the needs of homicide victims and their families as well as prevent the spread of gun violence.”

The studies, undertaken to advise the Oakland Police Department on applying procedural justice to its policies and practices, were based on interviews with police, local community groups, crime victims, and family members.

The recommendations come as tensions and mistrust continue to undermine police-community relations in many U.S. cities.

Last week, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to 81 months in prison for the 2014 killing of unarmed youth Laquan McDonald—a sentence that angered McDonald’s relatives and that activists called little more than a slap on the wrist. 

And a federal monitor appointed to oversee the Baltimore Police Department concluded that it would take years to reverse the corruption and racism that plagued the force.

Principles of Procedural Justice

The Urban Institute studies identified four approaches associated with procedural justice that were critical for improving police-community relations when law enforcement responded to a shooting scene, and during the subsequent investigation:

  • Treating victims and eyewitnesses with dignity and respect;
  • Taking the time to hear their accounts and answering questions even under the pressure of a live investigation;
  • Avoiding judgement and being transparent about what officers are doing in the scene;
  • Sharing as much information as possible within the limits of an ongoing investigation;

One study looked specifically at how survivors and family members of Oakland shooting incidents between 2011 and 2017 perceived contrasting police responses, making clear that empathy and compassion made a big difference.

One victim recalled his pleasure when a police officer visiting him at the hospital treated him with respect.

“He didn’t treat me like a criminal,” he said. “I was legitimately a victim and I felt that way even when he left. He left me use his phone. He was solid.”

But many other examples, like the police officer who turned giving a lift to the mother of a shooting victim into an interrogation, left a bad taste.

When police interviewed victims of one incident, a survivor remembered, “it wasn’t about ‘are you OK?’ or ‘Are you going to make it?’ It was just like who did it?”

Eyewitness told stories of police joking or laughing at a murder scene and being rude or brusque—even though such behavior might have been the police officers’ own way of dealing with stress.

The studies noted that many officers were themselves beginning to realize the importance of balancing the priorities of a crime-scene investigation with the needs and sensitivities of affected communities.

“We were brought up in a time that (sic) it didn’t matter what the public thinks,” one veteran officer admitted to the researchers. “Now, we understand public perceptions play an important role in our success.”

Innovative Strategies

In one of the studies, researchers reviewed innovative approaches in nine U.S. communities that were successfully applying procedural justice principles to their investigations.

Examples included:

  • The chief of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Police Department placed the office of the coordinator of victim services next to his own office to underline his department’s commitment to victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches to police work;
  • Milwaukee police are partnering with local churches to ensure chaplains or other community religious leaders are present at crime scenes to provide emotional and spiritual care to victims;
  • The San Diego Police Department sends seven-person teams to every homicide scene in order to have sufficient staff on hand to both investigate the event and engage community members;
  • Within 48 hours of every homicide, the Richmond, Va., police department initializes a program called Community RESET (Rapid Engagement of Support in the Event of Trauma), under which officers accompanied by counselors conduct door-to-door interviews with residents in the neighborhood—with the aim of identifying and addressing community trauma.

While the net effect of many of these efforts remains to be studied, the researchers said they demonstrate a growing consensus that traditional forms of police interaction with crime victims and survivors had to change.

“Treating people as individuals is an important form of giving them dignity and respect,” the study said, noting that interviews with Oakland shooting victims and families showed that a “perceived lack of compassion was often related to the sense of being treated as though the shooting situation was routine.

“Compassionate interactions affirm the humanity and value of a person.”

The most poignant statement about the Oakland Police Department (OPD) came from the residents themselves.

The researchers wrote: “Many simply said, ‘Can OPD just be human at the scene?’”

The three studies can be downloaded here.

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