Conflict Cycles and Body Cameras


A few days ago, Amanda Ripley at The Upshot Blog of the New York Times posted the results of a comprehensive study of police body cameras in Washington DC. The results were said to “defy expectations.” That is, if you make the assumption that use of force is purely the result of bad decisions on the part of individuals, then the results do indeed defy expectations. If, however, you recognize that use of force is a systemic matter, then the results of the study do not come as a surprise.

The study was conducted on two-thousand officers in which half were randomly assigned body-cams and the other half were the control without the devices. The researchers tracked incidence in which force was used on the part of the police officers. The setting was significant in that Washington D.C. and its police department have a history of racial conflicts. The results showed that there was no difference between the control and experiment groups.

This study contradicts an earlier, much smaller and less representative study from 2012 done in Rialto, California. The Rialto study has been the hallmark for body-cam recommendations and policy changes. The more recent, more comprehensive study, however, sheds doubt on the hope that police and suspects just need to be subject to surveillance and the violence will go away, especially the race-based violence. It looks like we’re just going to have to deal with institutionalized structures of violence rather than try to focus on controlling the behavior of a few “bad apples.”

For many years now, my strategy for understanding police violence, specifically police violence that takes place in the context of marginalized communities, is based on my experience with conflict cycles interpreted through a Thomas Theorem frame. Consequently, the results from the D.C. study do not come as a surprise. In fact, they are consistent with such a thesis.

First, an explanation of what I mean by conflict cycles and how I’m using this construct. When I was a counselor in a residential camp for delinquent boys I often found myself dealing with what were called conflict cycles between individuals. A conflict cycle happens when the actions of one party encourage a negative reaction from the other, which in turn encourages a negative reaction from the initial party, which in turn encourages another negative reaction…ad nauseum. So one of the young men, feeling aggrieved over something, calls another young man a name. The other young man responds by calling the first a name. The first young man responds with an even worse litany of namecalling, prompting the second to respond in turn.

As a supervisor, I was especially interested in the conflict cycles that took place between the camp counselors and the clients. This was often the result of non-compliance, but this type of interaction was different because of the power discrepancy between the counselor and the client.

Later, as I was looking for a frame by which to understand the increasingly publicized brutality of police against suspects of color I kept returning to the conflict cycle. As a sociologist, of course, I was unsatisfied with the “personal choice” narratives that dominate the debate. The cop involved was clearly a racist. If the suspect was white this would not have happened. If the suspect just did what he was told, the cop wouldn’t have shot him. It’s always been my position that vilifying one of the interactants offers the least informative analysis.

If individuals could end up in conflict cycles, then why couldn’t social structures like police forces and communities? After all, an interpretation of the Thomas Theorem suggests this very point. W. I. Thomas is famous for pointing out that what people perceive is real becomes real in its consequences. But what people perceive is shaped by their particular social situations and socialized frame of reference.

So can the relationship between the police and subject communities be understood in terms of a conflict cycle, and can that model explain the perceptions of individual police and individual suspects in a real way? I think so.

If we take a look at the relationship between specific communities, especially communities of color with a low socio-economic status, and their respective police departments we often see a long history of abuse and exploitation and troublesome, often violent, interactions between police and suspects. Police know, going into one of “those” communities, that they are entering a threatening environment. The police will often respond to such patrols with an “us against them” mentality. The community also looks with suspicion on the police, seeing cops as oppressors and representatives of a system that serves only to abuse and exploit the members of the community. The police are certainly not seen as helpful public servants.

When officers enter these communities, they are prepped for combat and are socialized to suffer no challenge to their authority. Any indication of trouble should be met with immediate force. In some cases, it’s understood that force is the only thing that “those people” understand. Police enter these communities more aggressively and interact with members of the community in more authoritarian ways.

Members of the community then look with suspicion on the police and avoid interactions. When members of the community must interact with the police they do so defensively. From the point of view of the police, however, this is suspicious behavior. Police are more likely to assert authority and show aggression. Members of the community are more likely to resist. The increased assertiveness and aggression on the part of the police reinforce resistance and avoidance on the part of the community members, which, in turn, reinforce greater assertiveness and aggression on the part of the police, which continues to reinforce resistance and/or avoidance.

From the point of view of the police officers, their assumptions about “those people” are confirmed by their unwillingness to cooperate, their greater likelihood to resist arrest, their shifty behavior. Add to this equation a long history of racial animus and we have a perfect scenario in which a police officer, even a police officer of color, will feel justified in behavior in the line of duty that would otherwise be defined as abusive and exploitative.

From the point of view of the community members, especially young men of color, the police are dangerous. Offering deference and submission, the suggested strategies for interacting with a police officer (which is really a police-state style interaction, but that’s a different post) does not necessarily guarantee safety. Stories of abuse and violence at the hands of out of control police officers abound in the community. And if a police officer has it in for a member of the community, there is no recourse. The officer will be vindicated, and the community member may very well be dead.

I offer a scenario in my class when discussing this issue. I’m walking down the street when a police officer approaches me, shows me his badge and tells me to put my hands against the wall and spread my legs. What do I do? Well, I could play macho, but the reality is that I’m going to comply with the officer’s demand. What will I be thinking? I’ll be thinking, what’s going on? What happened? I didn’t do anything. There must be some kind of mistake. This is going to suck. Let’s see, I’ll have to call my wife. She’ll get a lawyer. There’s going to be a lot of stuff going through my mind, but, though I’m sure this is going to be an unpleasant experience, I’m also sure that I’m going to be okay. I’m a well educated, middle-class white guy with a grey beard. Resistance is not in my interest.

But what if I were a young black male from one of “those communities?” What’s going through my mind? Can I be sure that I’m going to be okay? What would it look like if I think I’m not necessarily going to be okay? What would it look like if I perceived the police officer as a threat? I might put my hands up, showing my palms. I’ll step back. I’ll insist that I didn’t do anything. I’ll avoid contact. Ask what the officer wants from me. If I felt threatened, I might run, or I might even pick something up with which to defend myself. I’m certainly less likely to put my hands up against the wall. I may see resistance as a reasonable option.

Now, from the point of view of the police officer, what does this look like? He’s already primed to see members of this community as aggressive, more likely to resist. He has been socialized to not allow any breach of authority, to show strength. Are the suspect’s actions defiant, even threatening? How might I, as an officer respond? After all, I’m no less susceptible to fear just because I have a badge, and when all is said and done, I want to go home at the end of my shift.

The beauty of this analysis is that there’s no bad guy. This is just people responding to their perceptions of reality, looking out for their own best interest, but ending up in a conflict cycle. Furthermore, this conflict cycle is not solely predicated on the choices of the individuals involved, but rather on the social matrix in which they are embedded and within which they are acting and reacting.

If this were a matter of a mean and angry cop or a crafty suspect, the presence of a body camera might be enough to alter the outcome. But that’s not the case, as revealed in the experiment above. Instead, the conflict cycle model does well to describe the interactions.

So what do we do about it? I’m not saying ditch the body-cams. As a sociologist, the body-cams are just another source of information from which to make judgments, and the more sources the better. But body cameras are not a solution to a problem that is structural. As seen with the model above, the interactants do not necessarily believe they are doing anything wrong. They are thus not motivated by the external controls provided by camera-based surveillance. The problem isn’t regulating individual decisions. The problem is in dealing with the conflict cycle that exists between the police force and the community in question.

So what do we know about these conflict cycles? My experience with conflict cycles was in counseling individuals, but I see no reason why the rules do not apply sociologically. After all, we are talking about interactions here.

First, everyone involved is actively perpetuating the conflict cycle. The minute one of the interactants stops, the conflict cycle ends. The underlying problems may not be resolved, but the conflict cycle has ended.

Secondly, it’s very likely that neither interactant believes they are doing anything wrong. In fact, if given the opportunity, both sides of the conflict will be able to make a reasoned case justifying their actions. This is one of the most difficult issues when trying to end the conflict. Both sides believe that the other should be the first to give.

Thirdly, so long as both interactants are actively perpetuating the conflict, the conflict cycle will continue and will, almost certainly escalate.

Fourthly, just as a conflict cycle is actively being perpetuated, the conflict cycle must actively be ended. This can happen via interference from a third party, or it may result from one side of the conflict cycle actively deciding to end his part. However, the conflict cycle may also be ended through successful use of force on the part of one of the interactants. This last option must be avoided.

Finally, where there is a significant power discrepancy between interactants, force becomes more likely. In such a case, the interactant with the least power is likely to have his needs oppressed or violated, even to the point of physical violence.

These are the characteristics that I’ve noticed from my many years of dealing with conflict cycles. Consequently, I always advised my counselors that it was their responsibility to end any conflict cycle in a way that preserves the dignity of everyone involved. This was especially true when they, themselves, were involved in such an interaction. It was on them, as the counselors, to end the interaction and seek me out as a third party, or to re-engage the client at a time when cooler heads could prevail.

It was their responsibility because they were the interactants with the greater power. The longer the conflict cycle lasted, the greater was the probability of physical force being used…and that physical force would be used to the detriment of the client.

I believe that the same holds true with the intrinsic and systemic conflict cycle that exists between the police and marginalized communities. If it is the department’s and the state’s goal to promote justice and equal protection under the law, then any conflict cycle between a community and its associated precinct must be resolved. As representatives of the state and the holders of legitimate power, it’s incumbent upon the police to end any conflict cycle that exists with a particular community.

Body cameras may be a good start. They may demonstrate to the community that the police are making an effort. Surveillance systems, however, do nothing to address the underlying assumptions being made on the part of the police and the communities that sow and replicate long-standing structural animosities.


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