Everyday encounters like these shouldn’t be what breaks trust with the public
May 9, 2023
“‘I’ve got a great respect, or had a great respect, for law enforcement,’ Slama told The Washington Post. ‘Now after the incident that I’ve gone through, it’s considerably changed.’”
Jason Slama was leaving a concert in Cass County, Nebraska last September when he initially refused an officer’s order to throw away his beer. Then, when told to leave the venue, he continued to challenge the officers, demanding legal codes to support their orders.
Apparently officers had enough of his disobedience and acted to restrain Slama with such force that his leg was broken in the encounter. Now - not surprisingly - Slama is suing, and the lawsuit is making headlines.
An argument over a beer escalated into a broken leg, a costly lawsuit and a further fracturing of trust between the community and the police.
Insight Policing offers a different way. When faced with noncompliance, rather than going straight to force, we emphasize – based on leading-edge conflict resolution theory and practice – that trying to understand the behavior by getting curious about it can make all the difference.
This is easier said than done. When people are being aggressive or difficult or getting in the way of the job we need to get done, it can be frustrating.
Frustration is a feeling that indicates threat. Our natural response is to defend, and we try to stop or fix whatever it is that’s frustrating, usually by using conflict behavior. But as we know from experience, when conflict behavior is met with conflict behavior, the interaction escalates. Each move is met with more resistance and a higher degree of force to gain control.
That’s likely what happened this past fall in Cass County, Nebraska. What began as a simple order to discard a beer turned into a forceful encounter with damaging fallout.
Imagine if the officers had recognized Slama’s disobedience as conflict behavior rather than disorderly conduct? Instead of trying to stop it through force and arguing with Slama to try to get control, the officers could have identified his disobedience as a decision Slama was making. From that point of view, there is information to discover.
We don’t know why Slama was being resistant. The officers didn’t seem to ask. But if they had, not only would they have learned something about what was leading Slama to be disobedient, they would have slowed the cadence of the interaction. They would have opened dialogue. When people are communicating, they are much less likely to be fighting. When we are asked questions and engaged in conversation about things that matter to us, we tend to relax and stop defending. This makes the job of law enforcement that much easier, even when someone is intoxicated.
An argument over tossing out half of a beer at the end of a concert isn’t what should be taking policing down. But when we hear stories like this, it brings into focus how important everyday interactions are to preserving and building trust. And also how fragile that trust can be.