Regarding police and community relations

Burke Brownfeld / Guest Columnist

Brownfeld is a 2009 graduate certificate recipient of Mason’s Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a former Alexandria (Va.) Police officer.

Over the last months we have faced immense anger and tension with regard to police and community relations. With that, we have seen social media sites flooded with popular one-liners like “black lives matter” or “blue lives matter.” After the Eric Garner case in New York, Facebook was dominated by posts of “I can’t breathe.” The response to this was “breathe easy, don’t break the law.”

Our love for overly-simplified, inflammatory statements posted on social media has reinforced our human tendency to take sides, and stick to them. I get it, people are angry. I am angry also. Citizens have died. Police officers have lost their lives too. We should be angry. However, while anger is a powerful emotion, it is not an effective game plan. Being angry is easy. What you do with your anger is the real test. What if we were to use our anger to propel us into the process of sustainable, and peaceful conflict resolution?

Let us start with the basic conflict resolution adage of the orange. I learned this story as a graduate student at the Mason School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Once upon a time, there were two chefs in a kitchen, both focused on creating specific dishes. There was one orange in the kitchen, and both chefs grabbed for the orange, exclaiming, “I need this orange for my dish.” A conflict was established.

The chefs did what most people would do; they agreed to cut the orange in half. One chef took his half and squeezed the orange juice into a bowl, discarding the peel. He didn’t have quite enough juice to make the dish taste right. The other chef took the second half, grated the orange peel into his bowl, and discarded the fruit juice. He didn’t have quite enough peel to make the dish just right. What if the chefs had stopped and explained why they needed the orange? They would have realized that one chef could use all the juice and the other chef could have all the peel.

The orange story is an example of what happens when we focus on our stated positions instead of our underlying interests. The conflictive position in this case was, “I need this orange.” However, at a deeper level, there were specific interests that created this position. Since the chefs did not take the time to discuss the interests, they failed to see the clear resolution that was right under their noses.

In today’s conflict, police and community members have pitted themselves against each other, with opposing positions. Upon closer inspection of their interests, these groups are more similar than we thought. If we carefully listen to the gripes, we hear a plea for respect, empathy, and valuation of life from both sides. Young black men are tired of being stopped and being told they “fit the description.” Police officers are tired of being stereotyped on the whole, as “brutal”, based on a handful of incidents. One group is hurt by being called “thugs” while the other group is hurt by being called “pigs.” The list of similarities goes on and on.

When, as a police officer, I was in a cold dark alley at 2 a.m., facing a citizen during a stop, Twitter and Facebook weren’t going to protect me. The mayor was at home. CNN and Fox News were busy stirring up anger in people’s living rooms. During the moments of the typical police/citizen encounter, there are two individuals facing each other who likely want the same bottom line: Survive this with my life and my dignity. And what prevents the citizen from resisting arrest? What deters the officer from using force? All of those outcomes are determined by the words and actions of the officer and the citizen.

However, if that officer and citizen have taken the time to listen, and try to understand the interests of the other person, maybe they will each realize they aren’t so different from each other.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a process that can begin at 2 a.m. during the encounter. We must push police departments, communities, politicians, and media to focus more on the interests and less on the positions. Celebrities and sports stars, push yourselves to type more than a three word tweet to sum up a complicated situation. If you really want change, you must be willing to put your anger to use, and seek a better understanding of your perceived foe. Find out what can be done to appease both of your interests, because it seems like we all have a lot more in common than we thought.