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Steve Woolrich: Use of force should compel us to learn more

A worldwide pandemic has a way of casting a large shadow on many issues, including the way we police our communities. We’re not out of the weeds yet, and we continue to see and hear about incidents that are naturally disturbing to us.

A worldwide pandemic has a way of casting a large shadow on many issues, including the way we police our communities.

We’re not out of the weeds yet, and we continue to see and hear about incidents that are naturally disturbing to us. Remaining objective and compassionate is integral to seeing our way through this crisis and co-creating a new path forward.

Police services continue to be under fire – but do we truly understand what they’re up against? This is particularly true when it comes to the use of force by police. Peel’s fourth principle of policing states that “the degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”

The word force immediately conjures up many thoughts, and these can be alarming. The fact that we still have some police services referring to themselves as a police force is old school thinking. Still, some agencies, officers and the media refer to “the force” or being part of the force.

This no longer bodes well unless you are referring to Jedi Knights and Star Wars. This only creates more of a divide within communities.

With the spotlight on police and what seems to be a growing number of violent incidents in which police appear to be the culprits, we would be wise to look at research.

A 2019 paper by Bradley Celestine and John Kruschke with the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the Indiana University provides a great launchpad for discovery and the potential for advancing policing around the world. They are carefully examining the use of force.

Celestine and Kruschke provide a public significance statement for their paper, titled Lay Evaluations of Police and Civilian Use of Force: Action Severity Scales. It states “we report public perceptions of moral and physical severity for a set of police and civilian forceful actions that are representative of the complete range of force options, from polite dialogue to lethal force.”

The academics go on to say that their results reveal that non-expert perceptions of police and civilian violence are quite different from official police use-of-force policies, and provide researchers with a unique tool and foundation for future investigations into discrepancies between non-expert evaluations and legal models of legitimate use of force.

Celestine and Lieutenant Stuart Greer, with the Morristown Police Department in New Jersey, joined the president of the National Police Foundation on a live webcast last week.

Celestine suggested to listeners that “the education component of bringing the community and police leaders together is critical and helps build relationships.”

Legitimacy is central to relationship building, and creating social capital, said Greer. The president of the foundation, Jim Burch, closed the event by stressing how important research and science is in strengthening our understanding and trust between communities and the police services that serve them.

Meanwhile in Victoria, we should credit VicPD officers for how they handled what could have been a lethal force incident at a supported housing facility a week ago. It ended peacefully after a three-hour standoff with officers, including the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team.

It was reported that a weapon had been discharged, making the incident even more dangerous for responding officers and the public.

The final outcome was peaceful, with the police using a less-lethal form of munition after the suspect rushed out of one of the suites. The man was arrested and taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Actions such as this and many other good deeds by police officers go a long way in securing the cooperation of the public, and not further eroding relationships to the point where groups are demanding that police services be abolished or disband.

We should acknowledge that we’re putting more and more demands on police to deal with issues such as mental health and addiction, problems they were never meant to address. Science and innovation can go a long way in advancing policing, and ensuring less violent outcomes. We can do better together; more voices, more cooperation.


Steve Woolrich is a crime prevention practitioner and the principal of Rethink Urban’s collaborative focusing on community safety and well-being.

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