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Gates and Crowley: The Need For Mandatory Conflict Resolution Skills For Police Officers

“What happened between a Harvard professor and a street cop from Cambridge was a Testosterone laden confrontation fueled by ego of, and misconceptions held by, both men.”
Christopher C. Cooper, 2009

In the police academy, we spend hours and hours learning how to fire a gun and then have to go back to the gun range on a regular basis, but not one class or even one hour is spent crafting the best way to talk with citizens. A famous criminologist (Muir) in his studies of American police used the phrase “Streetcorner” Politician to describe the uniformed police officer. What comes to mind of recent is the firestorm over what President Obama had to say about the actions of the Cambridge, MA police officer who arrested Harvard Scholar Henry Louis Gates. The racial issues are real and require the Nation’s attention. However, there is an issue as significant, namely the conflict prevention, engagement and management skills of the men and women assigned to police patrol duties throughout the United States. As a street cop in Washington, DC, I knew the power of my spoken word.

Any big city cop worth his salt knows that what he she says or omits saying when interacting with citizens determines whether the situation escalates or winds down. I worked with officers who came barreling, blindly and stupidly onto scenes shouting that someone was going to jail(!). I and other officers acted differently, we showed to scenes with a toolbox of conflict resolution and social interaction skills. By example, simply refraining from the use of word “You” would often avoid an argument and or the need to arrest anyone— since, human beings, when in crisis, may assume the word to be Accusatory. To insure resolution of a call-for-service, I and thousands of competent problem solvers in uniform say to citizens “We”: “How can we resolve the situation?” This is empowerment passed onto the citizen. The resulting resolution more likely to last since human beings typically do not destroy things that they have created. Furthermore, constant employment of good conflict resolution skills by cops reduces repeat calls-for-service; engenders officer-safety; dispels stereotypical notions; and knocks out mistrust and distrust between police and citizens.

What happened between a Harvard professor and a street cop from Cambridge was a Testosterone laden confrontation fueled by ego of, and misconceptions held by, both men. The Cambridge event can be characterized as a war between Academia/Science and street cop subculture, the latter filled with the unwritten rule that citizens who dare question our authority must, and will, go to jail merged with our erroneous colorful notions, that citizens are troublemakers. Consider this final point, the scientific research shows that the extent to which conflict resolution skills are used by police when dealing with Blacks are simply: “cut it out or you are going to jail.” Rather, when police interact with whites: “How can we work together to resolve this problem?” Now consider how, if we as a nation capitalize on the Cambridge event with an eye on causing our patrol officers to personify courtesy and problem solving skills, then arrests will decrease as will calls for service. Most important, respect by citizens for police in the U.S., and perhaps everywhere else as well, will increase.


Christopher C. Cooper

DR. Christopher C. Cooper is a New York City native, a former Washington D.C. (Metropolitan) Police Officer and United States Marine Sergeant (2nd Reconnaissance Battalion and Iraq War veteran).  Presently, he is a Civil Rights Attorney & Ph.D. based in Chicago. A 1987 Graduate of the City University of New… MORE >

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