The View from a Small Island: Policing in the U.S.A (2020)

In the recent spate of violent conflicts , an epidemic of civilian deaths at the hands of police forces has erupted across U.S. cities in 2020. Then compounded by angry violent ideological extremists, I felt as though I was limping through a continuing nightmare. Unable to overlook these frightening events and feeling a responsibility to address this violence, I called upon my network of colleagues to bring to the table their thinking about policing. This post is lengthy–the topic is difficult, consequently sound bytes would not do it justice.

Today, I am joined in a discussion about policing with author, consultant and teacher, Quanita Roberson and author and former police commander in New South Wales (Australia) Alan Leek. (Out of courtesy to Mr. Leek, the Australian (English) spelling remains and is not corrected by the infamous spellcheck!)

Our responses to three questions reflect our unique experiences, our unusual careers and our different paths to 2020. As I have assembled and in some cases edited our responses for clarity, I have benefitted greatly from my guests’ comments. I hope you, our readers will also. We would appreciate your comments and questions.

Read more about us:

Ms. Roberson brings to this Post, her experience as a facilitator dedicated to addressing embedded trauma. Her work over the past 20 years focuses upon leading organizations through initiation, grief leadership, diversity and inclusion. She holds a master’s degree in Organization Management & Development with a concentration in Integral Theory from Fielding Graduate University (Santa Barbara). Quanita has over ten years of coaching experience which includes: arts and diversity education, asset-based community development, youth development, and most importantly, building effective collaborations.

Her work has been with W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s: Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Program.  Her recent facilitation with People’s Actions Heartland Initiatives: A Listening Tour of Rural and Small Town America provide insights into our topic of policing.  Check out Quanita’s podcast:

Mr. Leek is a 34-year veteran of the New South Wales Police Force which is the only police force in the State—the most populous state in Australia. The New South Wales force has 19,000 officers at a ratio of 200 per 100,000 population.  (Texas, by comparison has 1,913 police force agencies with a combined ratio of 244 per 100,000 population.)

For much of his career, he was a Detective so he brings to this conversation ‘feet on the street’ and face to face experience. He was promoted to superintendent in 1994. He holds an Associate Diploma in Justice Administration, post-graduate Diploma in Police Management and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, Quantico, Va.  He was awarded the coveted Peter Mitchell Award for outstanding leadership performance of a particularly difficult homicide investigation.

After his retirement from the police force in NSW, he looked to the tangential love of his life – art—for his next professional adventure. He, along with his wife, Judith and another partner owned two galleries in regional New South Wales where they exhibited Australian and international fine art. Most recently, his career took a surprising turn. He is the author of Frederick Whirlpool VC published in Australia in 2018 and the UK & USA in 2019, The Killing Chronicle – Police, Service and Shattered Lives, 2019, and in May 2021 will release Rat in the Ranks  – bookies, gangsters, pimps, police, perjury and a Man.   

Dr. Salgado contributes to this conversation pulling from her 2017 post doc research on the links and connections between bias and biology when she was a Fellow of Fielding Graduate University. In addition to coaching corporate and nonprofit clients, her experience as the CEO of the largest U.S. outdoor drama, The Lost Colony further informs her experience and knowledge of embedded trauma amid changing cultural mores. She quickly learned that managing an organization through change is a difficult undertaking and oft times leaders (as did she) fail.

She is a Ph.D. graduate of Fielding Graduate University in Human and Organization Development with an emphasis in Behavioral Science. She was a Fielding Fellow from 2017-2019. She is the author of ‘When A Toy Comes Alive: A Computer Product as a Study in Material Culture’. More recent publications include:

The Enigma of Unconscious Bias (2017)

Question and Answers (from our perspectives) about policing today in the U.S., December 2020

Q1. Research and peer-reviewed studies show that you cannot change bias. Mitigate bias, yes, but not change it. So, what upfront measures such as a minimum standard of education—a college (tertiary) degree in humanities or developmental leadership—should be required in hiring, in uncovering and addressing bias and mis-performing or underperforming police forces?

Mr. Leek

Answer: A minimum standard of education—a college (tertiary) degree in humanities or developmental leadership should be required of each applicant. It is essential for serving officers to belong to a unified body within their force based on equal opportunity: racial, religious and cultural blindness.

Police should be above politics and separated from it.  The organization should be separate not from just the presidency, but from the state and local politicians.  If elected officials have the power to dictate and dismiss the police, then a separation of powers is not possible and will emasculates police who try to do their duty.  The emasculated of course, will cosy up to their political leaders who employ and protect them.  Most would not be properly educated in the true role of policing. And a lot of police forces in the US are no more than shiny security outfits, often run by ‘cowboys’. I think it is aiding the decline in US society, leading it toward failed state status.  This does not look good from the rest of the world.

And I reiterate, those police who disgrace their cloth by failing to remain fair and just, should be sacked, but only after the organisation makes it clear, probably through education, that it is not acceptable and that will be the consequence of further failures. That education is not likely, because the leaders do not see the breach either.  Serious breaches would need to be addressed immediately as they should be apparent to any officer or any rank.

Ms. Roberson

I suggest we are asking the wrong question, rather than training about bias we should begin by delving into compassion. Mentally healthy humans all have a level of compassion yet, we continue to set up the ‘us vs them’ scenario because our depth of compassion is very shallow. We all have a common understanding of each other, but we each experience that understanding differently. In other words, we experience our compassion through our unique lens.

Let’s begin with the interviewer: When we interview a new-hire candidate, we need to ask two questions: 1) am I connecting with the person I am interviewing and, 2) what feelings am I bringing into the interview. This is not an intellectual exercise such as cognitively looking at bias—it is an experiential one.

Dr Salgado

As I am neither a cognitive scientist nor an evolutionary psychologist, I wish to clarify at the outset that my position on implicit bias is speculative and I rely upon the research and data of neuroscience for supporting evidence.

I speak of bias as a formative or functional tool at a biological and evolutionary level – a mechanism necessary to our survival.  I also examine coexisting data about human behavior that leads us to develop ill-informed content – implicit content carried forward in our conscious and our non-conscious lives.

With a review of clinical studies of memory formation, communication and retention (yes, in little lab mice) I see bias as a biological apparatus, a singular competency or capability, a peculiarity manifested in all humans. It is a survival and evolutionary tool. Memory-formation research has revealed that the brain stores its memories into a network of thought. Fearful experiences emit norepinephrine and pleasurable ones, dopamine. We like an event or we do not. We build and file a spectrum of fearful and of pleasurable experiences—in a biologically formed mechanism or function, I call Bias. Triggered by release of either dopamine or norepinephrine. I argue we carry fear and pleasure biologically. Culturally, we learn to hate; hatred is a secondary culturally learned add-on, content if you will. And the content of our bias is tied to our biological capacity to fear or to like—a seductive habit fed by brain-released chemicals, norepinephrine or dopamine.

How do we override biologically (brain) induced chemicals and centuries of ill-formed content? We cannot. But with effort we can open our minds, to understand and mitigate the seduction of this powerful union. Awareness is the path and the beginning steps to uncovering our implicit biases. There are tools to assist us.

We begin by seeking to know our individual selves—our interior self. Multiple assessments in the field of psychology and sociology are available today: Myers Briggs Personality Test, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and the Harvard Implicit Association – all are assessments designed to help us know ourselves better to uncover our biases.

Question 2. What procedures or policies come into play between (a) no oversight of policing, (b) too powerful police unions and (c) defunding police?

Ms. Robeson:  

If they’re hired [police force] under contract, there’s somebody who holds that contract. There is someplace in that contract that can be a breach of contract. What I’m saying is, we all have a boss in some way, shape or form. You know, even if it’s just that piece of paper, that contract—what they’ve agreed and promised to do,  If they step out of that, and maybe come in breach of contract, then you have, even if it’s just suing the police chief to get them out of office. I’m just saying that we all have somebody that we’re accountable to.

I would be curious when the police are sworn in, what are they promising to do? And then, even in a recall [of elected police officials], making the case of they’re not doing what they’ve said they would do?

If they’re doing things, are not protecting the citizens, then they’re not doing their job. They are not protecting all citizens.

Dr. Salgado:

This is where unconscious bias is at play. If you fear the person in front of you and it is wrapped in your biological bias, you may not recognize the emotion as bias induced. Your heart races, your hands sweat and you experience a stressful situation that may not be occurring. You pull out your gun or taser. We have weaponized our police force. And the weapon on the hip provides a sense of power without ‘thinking first’.

Ms Robeson:

Yes. We’ve put them at war with their citizens.

We talk about the “we” often as people who’ve had common experiences, instead of speaking to the “we” as people who have common understanding—we need more and more conversations about a common understanding. I think this is what happens even in voting. Pat, you said the Sheriff feels he has a mandate and that people have voted him in to do this. (Reported in the Washington Post, those walking from the church to vote were pepper-gassed, including incredibly young children by the police). What might be is that people have common experience. But that doesn’t mean that we all understand or want the same thing. And so that’s an assumption, an assumption that he [the Sheriff] needs to be tough because he’s been voted in. They might have voted him in for other things, but not for being tough, right? Is the being tough really working within communities?

How do we grow our common understanding about what’s happening, about what we want, about how we want it to happen? You know, those larger community conversations must happen before something [violence] even flares up. They are so incredibly important. And people must have done enough of their own healing work, so that they can hold a space where those conversations can happen without it all going to hell.

Mr. Leek:

In New South Wales (Australia)he Commissioner of Police reports to the Police Minister – an elected member of legislature (NSW Parliament), but only on matters of policy, management, budget and the like. He or she is not answerable for operational matters.  They are open to courts, oversight bodies like the Police Integrity Commission, Ombudsman and the like.  If the commissioner stuffs up, the contractual details come into play but operations are the sole province of the commissioner (as a constable too)

I might add defunding could not happen here in New South Wales (Australia).  No city, shire [county] of local government area has the power to interfere with police.  That is the sole province of the State Government which can hire and fire a commissioner, who is on contract.  The contract would not allow a reduction in salary (this appears not to be the main issue with the Seattle chief, but would still be seen as a vindictive move)  The State government cannot fire other police, other than the most senior who are on contract, but even then the backing of the Commissioner is needed.  All other police are employed at the discretion of the commissioner, who can dismiss for various reasons (although there is always an avenue of appeal.)  Governments cannot dismiss police due to our separation of powers.

Another fault line: when working with smaller forces, local citizen will inevitably hire into police forces leading to an incestuous group lacking in diversity. Larger forces have that diversity—even in the States. Vigilantes simply shouldn’t be tolerated—on either side of the argument and the police should stand above them and deal with them. I wonder what role ex-military have in this uptake of self styled ‘protectors’? Returned combatants often want to continue the excitement, such as joining mercenary forces in overseas operations, not only for money, but the thrill and excitement. An easier version of this is to do the same on the a police force. Before hiring, the Commissioner should consider their background. They need to be retrained carefully.

The question of police unions is interesting – here too (Australia) unions developed to get a fair deal and not out of a power play to handicap politicians. Without them, police would still be poorly paid, poorly treated and made general factotums for every political whim or for policy shortfalls. If the role of policing is secure and clearly articulated, unions will be kept to their core business and not become politicised.

Dr. Salgado:

Out-of-balance political power within any organization clouds the organizational equilibrium, confuses those within the organization and obscures the mission, perhaps even the values to the outside world. Also, we must consider the role played by loyalty, chicanery or unlawful behavior within an organization. Not all policemen or women behave as their job demands. All are extremely important to an organization (an armed organization in the U.S) whose mission is to protect its citizens.

In the height of an overheated summer 2020, journalistic reporting and often civilian-filming uncovered rogue policemen and systemic problems within the police forces. For example, 1) police unions lacked oversight or the union leadership overlooked oversight. 2) Police forces without proper training or accountability measures went off the rails inflaming the chaos farther. 3) A recent complication is the influx of returning military-combatants into police forces and the introduction of weapons into the police forces weapons in the hands of individuals who were competent in using them in war.

Alan and I discussed the emotional high experienced by those formerly engaged in a war and the need to get that emotional high once returned home. PTSD perhaps plays a roll. But if you compound these factors with encouragement from the rhetoric of current leaders, proper policing steps out the door; vigilantes and counter protestors step in and chaos reigns.

Ms Robeson: Defund’ the police force: Pat and I spoke about this recently and agree that defunding the police, a rallying protest has been misinterpreted—an inflammatory vocabulary seeped into mainstream media and without clarification. A city without a police force is open to anarchy and its citizens victim to crime and violence. The police force must be redefined at this point, reeducated and retrained from top to bottom.

According to Officer Scott Watson (Flint, Michigan) defunding has been occurring for years: underfunded, under resourced and understaffed. (continue reading Officer Watson’s report)

Q3. When upheaval is in full sway and politicians and activists are involved, what steps are most critical to return to stability and away from chaos?

Mr. Leek

The answers are still the same, Pat.  Overuse of force in a community that exudes force and violence and is frightened of itself.  Poorly trained officers let the public and their department down by their actions. Racism ingrained within the public will surface within their police.  I remember while in the FBI training, being told that the many black officers with us were not Black, they were Blue.  While this was a well-intended comment, it showed a vulnerable underbelly that still saw them as different and an exception was needed to accommodate them.  This statement isn’t needed if equality exists and genuinely so.  

The system, across the US seems to make it impossible for reform as I understand policing and reform.  Political interference, persistent racial attitudes and ‘shoot first-ask questions later’ ethos, must come from fear (and perhaps ingrained through experience) which refers to your earlier comments on Bias.  I know I am repeating what I have said before: it all comes back to the same root–system does not allow for reform.  

The only organisation I have seen in the US that anywhere near approaches the ideal is the FBI and which is not a police force, but an agency of the Justice Department. But again, I question: What is a police force in the US?  University Police, indeed.  Here, we call them campus security and they in no way pretend to be police – and the few that exist on campuses keep an exceptionally low profile.  Police are called to campus when needed as is the case with everyone.

Ms. Roberson:

The police force must go back to: ‘what is your number one job’? To protect and serve all the citizens, not just the ones you like. It’s kind of like a a surgeon—the doctor can’t perform surgery on the people that he likes, right? And so policemen are supposed to be neutral. And sometimes we must remind them of what their real job is.

We’ve done just the opposite with our police. During those times, we pour fuel on the fire. We tell them you need to protect yourself, you know, at all costs. Well, that’s not their job. Sometimes it means not exacerbating the situation. And because the responsibility is always on the one with the most power, and in those circumstances, that is the policeman. So, the responsibility isn’t on the citizens in those moments, it’s on the policeman. And we must remind them of that. Maybe, especially in that moment.

An inflammatory situation? That’s what we’re supposed to be training them for. What is their job when things get heated? To de-escalate. So, if we bring them back to that, if we’re training them properly, if we remind them that this is what you’re trained for, this is your job. They speak about being afraid. I shouldn’t say afraid because I think we all are afraid at times. Are you going to let your fear dictate? If you’re going to let your fear dictate what you do, then this isn’t the job for you. If as a policeman, fear is your overwhelming response, you are in the wrong job. Your first reaction should be protecting the citizens.

In the moment of chaos, our natural instincts will take over and this leads to your reaction. You will not lead with your intellect but with the embodiment of what you are feeling. Unfelt feeling turns into emotions that rule the day.

Let’s look at compassion. For example, policemen and policewomen have no place to grieve—no place to empty out all the horrors that they see daily. Consequently, they are left holding unresolved anger that they feel. Consequently, they are quite good at anger and they have access to that anger quickly. We do not provide them a space or place to grieve or recover. Why are we surprised when they dump that anger on someone else?

Dr. Salgado:

Never being threatened with a gun or other weapon, my example of facing an insurrection is mundane, or at least, insignificant. Yet in the heat of the moment, my heart raced, my hands grew cold and I could not smile or relax. My instinct and I thought my only choice, was to face down an insurrection that wasn’t necessarily an insurrection. I chose to face the rebellion in an hastily called ‘after show’ meeting  of cast and staff. (To add to the dilemma, my guest at this late-in-the-hour meeting was the visiting Executive Director of the Outdoor Drama Association.)

Yet, leaders must face the issues publicly and attempt to calm protestors, detractors and agitators alike. Listening and rational decision-making is the only answer. However, the insurrection reminded me of the old saying: “If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk.” As for fear, perhaps, as Quanita pointed out, I was in the wrong job. Reflecting upon Quanita’s comments, and in hindsight, I think I did not feel nor reflect compassion for the cast members. I embodied anger at that moment; anger at the actor who had physically threated me and earlier, threatened the female production manager. Compassion would have reduced the tension perhaps. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but unfortunately often too late,

Closing: In summation, we would appreciate your comments or questions. We are open to other views.


Recommended Resources and Readings

And Finally from The Guardian, October 20, 2020)

The NBA Finals: The game is never “just a game”. For those who think sports are merely mindless entertainment somehow separate from the Sturm und Drang of the world around, you haven’t been paying attention lately. Sports have always been a mirror of national values reflecting all the same struggles and turmoil. This year’s championship series is especially meaningful because, although it took place during one of the most politically and socially chaotic and world-bending times in recent history. In many ways, it was an expression of the finest qualities of America – both on and off the court, (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)

Rice, John, June 21, 2020. The Atlantic. Life In America: The Difference between First-Degree Racism and Third-Degree Racism

White Noise (2020) staring Lauren Southern and Richard Spencer is a film about the seductive power of extremism. Hatred feels good. But the fix is fleeting. As the film progresses, the subjects reveal the contradictions at the heart of their world. Southern advocates for traditional gender roles yet resents the misogyny and sexism of her peers. Cernovich warns that “diversity is code for white genocide,” but has an Iranian wife and biracial kids. Spencer swears that he’ll lead the white-nationalist revolution—until it’s more comfortable for him to move home to live with his wealthy mother in Montana. For so many who feel lost or alone, these avatars of hate offer a promise: ‘Follow us and life will be better’.

Policing and Good Samaritan:

2 thoughts on “The View from a Small Island: Policing in the U.S.A (2020)

  1. I would like to call attention to the work of Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a professor at Stanford University in the Department of Psychology. As a social psychologist, Dr. Eberhardt has employed a variety of research methodologies to study the psychological association between race and crime and her work should be considered as the conversation on this topic evolves. Dr. Eberhardt not only found that there is a stronger Black race/crime association bias amongst police officers she studied, but that crime-associated racial imagery and judgements infiltrate the broader societal culture when participants were exposed to black faces.

    Her research informed her work with law enforcement to design implicit bias trainings that were later made available to police departments across California. I provide a link to an article that discusses her specific work in Oakland. Dr. Eberhardt recommends strongly the transparent use of data and that bias trainings need to be “rigorously evaluated” for effectiveness.


    1. Thanks, Dr. Bunnell. I have briefly read of Dr. Eberhardt’s work and her recommendations to Oakland’s Police Force. The issue of rush-to-judge needs a cooler head in the matter of confrontation. The few-seconds-test makes a difference.


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