Archive for January, 2015

Police practices have come under scrutiny in the past few years, regarding the politics of race in particular cases such as the Ferguson shooting of an unarmed black youth or the death of Eric Garner by chokehold in  New York, but also regarding the general role of police and its militarization in terms of structural violence that is criticized for being deployed in a neoliberalist hegemonistic agenda to lead the biopolitical discourse of race war and suppress resistance (such as of the Occupy movement).

While there is certainly important aspects in these kinds of diagnoses – I identify as ‘quite the Foucauldean’ scholar myself -, I propose that we look at the matter, additionally, from a somewhat different, practice-oriented angle.

When I first saw the video of the infamous pepper-spraying of students by police during protests at UC Davis in November 2011, one of things that I and many others found so uncanny, was the casualness that the police officer showed in his action. There didn’t even seem to be any explicit malice expressed in his action, he was spraying people as if he was watering plants or, as some have suggested, spraying plants with pesticide. One of my colleagues described this casualness as another form of the ‘banality of evil. In terms of police practices in general, and  recent shifts in my research approach (towards opportunities rather than problems)  however, I have begun to think about this somewhat different way. What strikes me about the casualness is, basically, how routinized the officers action appears – i.e. the physical routine as an enacted, embodied practice, that had it be learned in this embodied form in the first place – and how ‘mindlessly’ it is deployed. Mindless actions, as theorized and empirically studied by mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer, mean precisely that: Practiced routines, learned by rote, are deployed with very little mindful perception of and reflection on the situation. So what would happen, if we did a little bit of ‘thinking with’ Ellen Langer on headline-making police practices in recent times.  Could it be possible that a lot that has happened in recent years should first and foremost be viewed from a mindfulness perspective?

i do not mean to say, that we should stop thinking and talking about racism and militarization of police – these are important and necessary questions to be asked and studied. However, in the actual event when practices are performed, there is more at stake and more in play than merely these factors, and perhaps the shift of perspective can help us understand these practices and their horrible outcomes better, as well as develop research and intervention strategies that are more effective.

If we consider the shootings of unarmed black men first as acts of mindlessness rather than malice, a different line of inquiry opens up: Reconstructed in this fashion, we ask what kinds of practices are routinized, why and how are they routinized, a) to pay attention to and perceive threats in one’s environments, and b) to respond to these. On an important social level, I think, we can say that the ‘culture of fear’ that is governing American, as some sociologists have proposed, is an important trace to follow: What if the routines that  police officers learn are primed to be in terms of this culture of fear? What if, among the many practical routines that police officers learn to deal with situations, the priming that happens are those that correspond to the culture of fear? So if police officers react mindlessly – as many people do in many situations, this is precisely Langer’s point – they will deploy the routines that they learned by rote as responses to any situation that has a signal that is deemed threatening. That means one police officer seems to ‘casually’ pepper stray protesting students, another officer seems to have ‘casually’ unloads a magazine of bullets into another human being. Of course, militarization of police makes these responses seem more brutal in their result, the same way that a pitbull’s bite is more grave an injury  than a chihuahua’s – the reasons for the dog biting, however, are the same in both cases, a human doing something – usually mindlessly – wrong. Of course, a racist mindset works as a catalyst for being – mindlessly – in a heightened state of fearfulness. But underlying the miiltarization  and the racism is a practical dimensions that requires equally careful study and offers perhaps better opportunities for intervention – which in turn might even affect the other levels (racism, militarism, administrative culture) in play. This affects, by the way both patrolling officers, as it does people on the decision-making level – be they people who order military gear for police officers, people who train police officers, or people who coordinate strategies (such as in the case of inter-agency response to the Occupy movement).

I suggest that mindfulness training and research, which has been shown beneficial in psychology, health care, leadership and organization studies, with surgeons, pilots, in healing, lessening physical effects of ageing, etc. etc., might be an important asset when dealing with the problem of how to improve police officers’ performance. To be a bit polemical, mindfulness training might do what cultural/racial sensitivity or tolerance  training (which is, in a sense, itself already racist) cannot.

If we can help police officers be more mindful of what is going on, their responses might not be mindlessly deploying a routine of fear reaction.  It sounds very simple, but it may just be. No, it may not make an individual officer who is a racist into a person who is not racist. But it may change the reaction of that officer, when he perceives a situation as potentially threatening from pulling a gun to a better assessment. Mindfulness training may help, to begin with, to evaluate situations better in the first place instead of mindlessly deploying patterns of interpretation learned by rote, i.e. is the situation really threatening. This could be proven in evidence-based research, by having officers with mindfulness training and control-group without interpret situations. Here, test scenarios could be designed that include particularly difference in signals of race/ethnicity/culture in interactions. Mindfulness training will help police officers to be mindful, for example, of differences in body language between different cultures: Difference might then be mindfully perceived as merely different than mindlessly as threatening. Research and training could and should include interactive simulation training with live actors, and could lead to the establishment of professional actor/mindfulness trainer teams, as well as the development of interactive online teaching modules based on mindfulness research. Many more research and training projects can be designed on this basis, of course. And much more detailed discussion of the theoretical and empirical questions raised here should be conducted.

My point is, however, that responsible leadership in the police force can only be created by effectively ending mindlessness of routinized behavior, for the safety of both the public and the officers. My goal here is to begin this conversation, and to create a culture of mindfulness within the police force and towards the police. ‘To protect and serve’ is something that cannot be done mindlessly but only mindfully, since it is a matter of care not merely a matter of fact or of concern.

Suggested Readings:

Langer, E. J. (1989) Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley

Langer, E J. (2009). Counter clockwise: mindful health and the power of possibility. New York: Ballantine Books.

Stingl, A. I. and Weiss, S. M. (2014) ‘Mindfulness As/Is Care: Biopolitics, Narrative Empathy, and Technoscientific Practices’, in The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness (eds A. Ie, C. T. Ngnoumen and E. J. Langer), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781118294895.ch31

Stingl, A. I. and Weiss, S. M. (forthcoming 2015) “Making Trouble: Mindfulness as a Care Ethic”,  Proceedings of German Ministry for Education&Research (BMBF) symposion, “Psychology instead of Ethics”,  in: Cordula Brand (Ed.) (2015): Dual-process theories in moral psychology. Interdisciplinary approaches to theoretical, empirical and practical considerations. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.


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