When a white police officer shot an unarmed African-American teenager in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, last August, and when a
predominantly white grand jury later declined to indict him,
the resulting protests weren’t just about Michael Brown’s death.
Instead, they were about the distrust, racism and militarized
policing that contributed to the tragedy. Psychology can help
counteract those forces and improve interactions between
communities of color and police, psychologists said at a
Nov. 12 briefing sponsored by APA in cooperation with Rep.
Hakeem Jeffries (D-N. Y.).
Psychology should be at the forefront of such efforts, said
Jeffries, urging policymakers to draw on psychological science
to answer such questions as why police officers view unarmed
men of color as threats and how violent environments and
stressful police encounters affect children.
Take the New York City Police Department’s controversial
“stop, question and frisk” policy, which entailed stopping large
numbers of people on the street, 90 percent of whom weren’t
doing anything wrong and the majority of whom were men
of color, said Jeffries. Something was causing the department’s
officers to see men of color as inherently criminal, even
though the facts didn’t bear those suspicions out, he said. “The
discipline of psychology can help inform what was driving that
behavior, implemented by tens of thousands of uniformed
members of the NYPD,” said Jeffries.
APA is committed to helping improve relations between
police and the communities they serve, said Norman B.
Anderson, PhD, APA’s chief executive officer.
“As a nation, we must commit ourselves to facing the
complex, difficult work of change so we can prevent these
tragedies going forward,” Anderson said. “That change starts
with the willingness to talk honestly with each other and to have
difficult dialogues regarding race relations and the persistence
of racial bias.”
The type of policing that led to Ferguson represents a step
backward, said Ellen Scrivner, PhD, an executive fellow at the
Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works
to improve policing via research and evaluation of policing
practices plus training, technical assistance and other services.
Twenty years ago, Scrivner said, Congress passed the
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and laid the
groundwork for establishing community policing as the national
paradigm. Rooted in community psychology, the approach
focuses on building partnerships between police officers and
the residents they serve, collaborative problem-solving and
transforming police departments from the inside so that their
focus becomes more about improving the quality of life and less
about trying to control crime through the use of force. That shift
helped bring crime to new lows in the 1990s, said Scrivner.
By the mid-2000s, however, budget cuts began to hinder
police departments’ ability to put community policing into
An APA-sponsored briefing on Capitol Hill
showcased the role psychologists can play in building
trust between police and communities.
By Rebecca A. Clay