Thursday, September 10, 2009

Can a police commissioner have a visceral reaction?

Police Commissioner Kelly thinks he can’t, or at least in response to the Sean Bell shooting. “I can't afford to have a visceral reaction” is what he literally said. To me, this is an example of deflective, evasive and non-committal communication that won’t benefit the process of debate. But in an interesting discussion following a presentation I just held on this topic, a different vantage point emerged.

Nick Ragone pointed out: "It makes sense – he is representing the rank-and-file. He can’t be critical. Moreover, he is bound by legal restrictions. The Mayor, on the other hand, represents all New Yorkers, and it makes sense he will seek conciliation."

It made me think. Yes, there is definitely truth in this. But it smart for the Police Commissioner just to ‘represent’ the police and therefore say ‘I can’t have a visceral reaction’? To me, this won’t improve police-community relations, and moreover, it will be detrimental to the morale of the rank-and-file who have such a profound presence in the community and will have to deal with negative responses. My opinion: If you want the community to respond well to the police – not only in the political arena of debate, but also on street level – then yes, you not only have to communicate to them, but also with them. Moreover, isn’t it a challenge to find ways to communicate effectively within the legal restrictions and work towards conflict resolution?

I would love to ask him this myself – Next week more on my mission to interview some stakeholders here!!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bloomberg and Kelly: two different communicators

How does the communication between Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly differ in the aftermath of the Sean Bell shooting? Here is a piece of analysis I would like to share with you from my dissertation. This specific analysis deals with the interpretations of both concerning the role of communication. It shows how talk that appears to be similar in nature, in fact can differ to great extent. First, take a look at the following two New York Times excerpts:


Just before the acquittals
News conference Bloomberg just before Judge Cooperman’s verdict:

Speaking at a news conference at Public School 36 in St. Albans, Mr. Bloomberg said he had met with community leaders several times in recent days, praising the ethnic diversity and joy he sees not far from where Mr. Bell died on the morning of his wedding day in a storm of 50 bullets.

“In the six and a half years I've been mayor,” he said before reporters asked any questions, “the most important thing is always the importance of keeping open communication and constant collaboration. And that's true whether it's about fighting crime or building housing or the economy or education. I've always thought that if we keep listening to each other, keep committing ourselves to be better as neighbors and as communities, there's no challenge that we can't overcome, and I think this community's a good example of this.”


Just after the shooting
New York Times excerpt on the role of Police Commissioner Kelly in the aftermath of the shooting:

Mr. Kelly said he has a long history inside the department and as a government official in Washington of improving the culture of agencies, combating racial profiling, and holding his own people accountable. He also said his diplomatic skills in times of crisis have not atrophied in the years that his focus has been pulled toward domestic security, an effort that is without precedent in the department.

“I’ve always prided myself on being forthright and open with the community, and not holding very much back -- what you see is what you get with me,” he added.

“I think you build relationships, and you can go back to other incidents perhaps where people relied on something I’ve said or I’ve done, and hopefully that’s built up a certain level of trust,” Mr. Kelly said. “You hope that is something that is going to play a role.”

What strikes first in the above quotes is how both Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly – in their interpretation of the processes that ensued after the Sean Bell shooting – refer to their period in office and recollect their ‘on the job’ experiences. (‘In the six and a half years I've been mayor’/ ‘Mr. Kelly said he has a long history inside the department’). Also, both acknowledge that good, open communication is important in police-community relations, of which the interaction processes that occur after police shootings are a part of (‘the most important thing is always the importance of keeping open communication and constant collaboration’/ you build relationships … and hopefully that’s built up a certain level of trust’).

However, while the Police Commissioner interprets the police-community communications from a self-centered ‘praising’ perspective (‘I’ve always prided myself on being forthright and open’), and moreover, foremost looks at his own role in this (‘something I’ve said or I’ve done’), the Mayor conversely interprets such communications from both a stakeholder-centered perspective and a two-way interactive process, of which the Mayor is part of (‘if we keep listening to each other’), without commending himself for his communication skills, or interpreting his role in other ways. This ‘commending’ does to a certain extent occur on other instances not captured in the New York Times, yet again, the quotes in the New York Times rather show the emphasis than the totality of communication.

Thus, while the Police Commissioner not so much interprets the events that take place after the shooting as part of a broader interactive communications process, but rather from a self-centered framing and a pattern of excelling communication skills on behalf of the Police Commissioner, the Mayor conversely mainly interprets the events as part of a much broader communication process concerning much broader problems than just police misconduct (‘that's true whether it's about fighting crime or building housing or the economy or education.’), in which he, but also others, take part.
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It makes sense that the stakeholder-centered talk conveyed by Mayor Bloomberg is more beneficial to the process of debate than the self-centered talk of Police Commissioner Kelly. But there is much more to it, as this is just a brief excerpt of my research. I understand the difficult position of the Police Commissioner, but still I think his communication efforts can be improved. To be continued!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A rigid conception of the truth - two random conversations

Last week, I met this guy at a rooftop bar in New York, and we started talking about my research. Interest soon changed into distrust, however, when he heard about the topic of my dissertation. He briefly interrupted me. 'Let’s make this clear,' he said, 'I am on the side of the cops'. It made me laugh. 'Is it OK if I am on no one's side?' I asked him. Still a bit distrustful, he said: 'That's not possible, you have to be on someone’s side!' To prove my point, I turned to the case study I am working on right now – the Sean Bell shooting. Now that is definitely a story with two sides, I said. He again repeated how much he supported the 'cops', and added 'yes, it is so obvious the detectives were innocent. Sean Bell and the other guys - they were carrying guns and shooting at the police!' I am always surprised when someone has such a rigid conception of the truth, without knowing the facts. So I had to inform him that Sean Bell and his friends were actually completely unarmed. You know what? He did not believe me.

The reverse also occurs, and to be honest, more frequently. Take for example the following reaction from another person I met this week: 'You are researching the cops? That is great! They have so many problems. They are engaged in racial profiling. There is so much police misconduct. The police don't understand the black community.' I usually reply to such remarks by giving another perspective: 'Well, the police are facing a lot of undeserved criticism too, you know. What do you think that does to the morale of the rank-and-file?' But she didn't want to listen. 'I hope your research can really makes a difference and improve police conduct,' she concluded.

Yes, I hope my research in the end can make a difference. But not regarding the improvement of police conduct. And I don’t want to prove that 'the cops are right' either. So, I am sorry to disappoint these random New Yorkers I spoke to this week. In fact, I am not researching 'the cops' at all, although these people would love to believe so. I am actually researching the communication that occurs between polarized groups – and if my findings can help these people to better understand each other's reality and background – that would be the difference I am looking for.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Inspired by an uninspiring meeting

10 a.m. Second Wednesday of the month. That’s when the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the New York city agency that investigates allegations of police misconduct, meets to discuss ongoing issues with the public. Although the organization itself is not directly related to my research, my expectations of heated discussions between police critics and police defenders lured me to drop by, as heated discussions is what my dissertation is all about.

I was early, but not the first: an eccentric looking tall African American man, with a white helmet covering his braided hair, was eagerly waiting in the back row. His posture, his eagerness, and frankly his helmet had ‘a good story’ written all over it, and I was wondering what it was about. His appearance was a sharp contrast to the dry minutes I was flipping through concerning the statistics of the past years. Case 200812650: ‘Frisk, stop’. Case 200816329: ‘Stopped’. I raised my eyebrow though at Case 200816688 ‘Other blunt instrument as a club’. Now that must have been ‘a story’ too. What is blunt yet not a club - I wondered. On paper, though, it was merely a case.

The meeting started, yet stopped shortly after. It consisted of a monotonous citation of the July statistics and a short speech of the chairman who repeated at least five times, in different formal sentence constructions, that ‘we do what we are authorized to do’, ‘we only follow our mandate’ and oh, yes, ‘we reject all criticism’. These toothless remarks inspired me to think further. Why no discussion? Why reject all criticism, and not just some? Why not say why you reject it? Why no emotion? Why no stories? Why so defensive? As a communications advisor, this just boggles me. But my hopes were still up – the helmet guy was still around, who now not only formed a sharp contrast to the stats I was reading, but also to the slick looking people in business suits.

‘Any questions?’, the chairman asked. I instinctively looked to the back row, but he was already standing in the middle of the room. ‘I would like to talk about my case...’. Chairman: ‘No, we can’t do it here’. ‘But I was told I could speak to you here!’ I could hear the disappointment in his voice. Chairman: ‘Talk to that guy there later. We don’t discuss cases’.

Sorry helmet guy – you are but a case.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Back in New York

I am back in New York to do some final research for my PhD. I will regularly post updates on my findings here the coming months.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

(Dutch opinion article) Communicatie onderbelicht in Skipgate affaire

This is an opinion article I wrote for the Dagblad van het Noorden, a Dutch newspaper. It was published on 5/8/2009.
De hoog opgelopen discussie die is ontstaan na de arrestatie van Harvard-hoogleraar Henry Gates roept gevoelens van déjà vu op van eerdere confrontaties in een slepend debat in Amerika dat maar niet opgelost wil worden. Hiermee doel ik niet op het brede emancipatiedebat over zwarte Amerikanen, maar juist op de discussie over de rol van de politie hierin. Het is een herhaling van zetten: een incident tussen een blanke (of soms zelfs zwarte) politieman en een zwarte burger, gevolgd door een felle discussie waarin de spelers in het debat een welbekende riedel van argumenten opdreunen.

Een oplossing voor de slechte relatie tussen de Amerikaanse politie en de zwarte gemeenschap ligt echter niet in het herhalen en aanscherpen van de inmiddels uitgekauwde argumenten, maar juist in een kritische blik op de communicatie hiervan door alle partijen in het debat, niet alleen nu, maar juist ook in het verleden.

Wat vaak onderbelicht blijft is namelijk de geschiedenis van de politie in Amerika. Vanaf het ontstaan van de hedendaagse politieorganisatie in de 19e eeuw heeft deze – met name in de grote steden – te kampen gehad met een stortvloed aan al dan niet terechte kritiek. In New York bijvoorbeeld, misbruikten ‘politieke machines’ de politie als pion en zondebok in een strijd om de macht in de stad. Achtereenvolgens is de politie de inzet geweest voor allerlei groepen variërend van communisten tot de civil rights movement, die de problematiek van de machtsverhoudingen aankaartten door juist de politie meedogenloos en persoonlijk aan te vallen. Het is logisch: de politie is immers de meest zichtbare vorm van de overheid op straat en daardoor een makkelijk doelwit. De gevolgen hiervan zijn echter desastreus voor de politie en voor het verloop van de discussies. Niet alleen voelt de politie zich onterecht aangevallen, ook hebben zij een afweermechanisme ontwikkeld om kritiek – welke dan ook – te negeren.

In het huidige ‘Skipgate’ debat is wederom een patstelling ontstaan waarin dit mechanisme duidelijk te zien is. Deze patstelling zal niet veranderen als de gepolariseerde kampen vasthouden aan ‘wij’ tegen ‘zij’ percepties en interpretaties die het eigen slachtofferschap koesteren. Zo spreekt President Obama terecht over de ‘lange geschiedenis waarin zwarten en latino’s buitenproportioneel vaak worden aangehouden door de politie’ maar laat daarbij de turbulente geschiedenis van de politie achterwege. Hij spreekt daarnaast uitvoerig over de gevoelens en percepties van zijn vriend Professor Gates en vraagt zich daarbij af wie niet ontstemd zou zijn als de politie je ondervraagt in je eigen huis. Echter, een net zo logische, maar niet benoemde, vraag: mag een politieagent daarom maar de huid volgescholden worden? Obama’s herkansing daags daarna was doordachter, maar het kwaad was al geschied: de politie is gekwetst en Republikeinse critici hebben nu munitie om de president voor racist uit te maken (Fox news 29/7).

De positionering van de diverse spelers in het debat is te rigide om te leiden tot consensus. Gepresenteerde oplossingen door critici zijn vaak eendimensionaal, terwijl de politie, en vooral de vakbonden, de kritiek – van welke hoek ook – van de hand wijzen. Een duidelijk voorbeeld van het eerste is de suggestie van hip-hop artiest Wyclef tijdens een ‘police-community’ bijeenkomst een tijd geleden in New York. Hij stelde voor om de politie hip-hop bewegingen en taal te leren begrijpen. ‘Als zij beter zouden communiceren, dan kunnen we veel spanningen voorkomen’, zo redeneerde de musicus. Zo’n oplossing legt echter het probleem voor 100 procent bij de politie, die juist door zulke voorstellen en harde kritiek zich nog stugger opstelt in discussies - niet alleen in het publieke debat, maar juist ook op straat.

Problematische een-op-een interacties tussen politie en de zwarte gemeenschap zijn dus deels product van spanningen tussen twee heetgebakerde groepen, die zich allebei slachtoffer voelen en respect eisen, maar dat niet krijgen. Om deze reden valt er geen directe winst te behalen in een harde aanval op de politie of juist op groepen die de politie bekritiseren. Het leidt immers tot slachtofferschap en een nog grotere – dwangmatige – eis voor respect. Wellicht de beste zet tot dusver is daarom President Obama’s uitnodiging aan beide kemphanen om een biertje te komen drinken op het Witte huis. Waar twee vechten, hebben twee schuld.