As a Police Officer, is it Good to be Prejudiced?

I’ve been watching the saturation of coverage on the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict over the past several weeks and now the ‘Stop and Frisk’ controversy in New York.  I’m not going to talk about the racial aspects being addressed ad nauseum in the media; instead I want to focus on the issue concerning “profiling” and “prejudice” thinking.

In my Arresting Communication classes as well as the Street Survival seminars, we ask the attendees this question: “How many of you are prejudiced?”

For more on this topic, Check out Jim's classic book, Arresting Communication.

Typically, only a smattering of hands go up among the audience members. Those who do raise their hands begin to drop them, almost sheepishly, as they realize they are in a small minority. But I then clarify the question: “I didn’t ask if you were racist; I asked if you were prejudiced. In other words, how many of you have ever prejudged another human being before you knew everything about them?” Phrased in that manner changes everyone’s perspective and virtually all raise their hands.

So I follow with this: “As a police officer, is it good to be prejudiced?” Again there is a near-unanimous response in the affirmative, which is good since everyone on this planet is prejudiced.

Human beings are in a state of prejudging others constantly, and I do mean constantly.  Our brain is designed that way.  Some may have deluded themselves into believing this isn’t true but that’s exactly what they are – delusional.  We are always judging others; from which way they are going to walk as we move toward them on the sidewalk to who we want to approach in a bar; our brain is always evaluating others – it can’t help it. 

This week I’ve listened to the supposed intellectuals who are adamant that no one, especially police officers, should “ever prejudge” or “profile” anyone.  Well these people obviously don’t live anywhere near the world we call Reality. Those statements are – quite frankly – at best ignorant and at worst completely asinine.  But what really bothers me is that the insanity of these statements become accepted as fact by the media, the collective citizenry, many politicians and even some law enforcement administrators.

So let’s look at this practically: Police officers are - by design - supposed to be profiling people.  We do it while patrolling, questioning, interviewing and interrogating.  We train to recognize body language cues, verbal missteps, paralinguistic anomalies that indicate deceit or suspicious behavior, and when we do – we act! And that’s what the public wants and expects from us - to be proactive.  If we ignored what we recognize as possible criminal behavior and waited to act until absolute confirmation and 100% certainty - there would be chaos. 

One of the problems is that the words profile and prejudice get confused with racist attitudes and “Racial Profiling.”   And racial profiling is, for the most part, illegal.    But profiling based on behavior, appearance, environment, location, time of day, etc. is perfectly legal.  The courts recognize that we profile, and in fact, specifically say we can do it: Ever hear of reasonable suspicion (Terry v. Ohio)?

Imagine if you took the intellectual argument to its obvious ridiculous conclusion, then even probable cause couldn’t be used by law enforcement officers.  PC isn’t 100% assuredness; it’s arguably just a little bit more than 50%.  But we are allowed to make arrests, obtain warrants, crash houses and get permission to wiretap on factual information that isn’t even close enough evidence to get a conviction (beyond a reasonable doubt) in court.

And reasonable suspicion is even less than probable cause, yet we are allowed to do a pat-down on people, interview them, stop them and even at times handcuff them on nothing more than articulable reasonable suspicion.

The key for police officers is to learn what they are looking for on a conscious level and then be able to explain what they saw and what they thought in both writing and in verbal testimony.  The best cops are the ones who have the best “gut.”  But their gut isn’t really what they are following; it’s the unconscious part of their brains.  The unconscious, theoretically, houses everything you’ve ever experienced.  It picks up signals that determine something isn’t quite right, that something doesn’t fit in the immediacy of the situation. 

The best cops acknowledge these feelings, recognize them consciously and act on them.  But to most people those unconscious feelings are often confusing to the conscious so they are ignored.  That disconnect can cause confusion, hesitation and at times even death due to inaction.  The key for cops is, again, to recognize these behavioral cues on a conscious level and then be able to articulate what they saw both verbally and in writing to explain their thought process and subsequent enforcement actions.

There are several books that address this phenomenon:  The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell , I Know You Are Lying by Mark McClish and mine, Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement, all discuss how to reconcile the unconscious and the conscious parts of the brain in order to recognize particular behaviors quickly.

But again, if the culture of this country is fed a narrative that defines any pre-judgment as something immoral, unethical and illegal, police officers will be forced into a situation of being reactive instead of proactive.  If that happens people will be victimized and criminals will have free reign.  Is that what they really want in Florida and New York?  Do they really want the cops to wait until crimes are committed until they do anything?  I don’t think so.  What we really need to do is educate the public as well as police officers in the realities of communication, verbal and nonverbal cues and indicators.  That’s the skill set that the best cops have.  That’s the skill set that thwarts criminals before they can act.


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