Phie van Rompu
Violence and the police, why do we need more research on this?
"Man died after incident with the police in Waddinxveen [small-town]: 'Was possibly a confused man'." In red: 'Victim was supposedly hit hard by the police'source: Telegraaf.nl
Imagine you are that police officer. You went to work this morning, probably hoping to arrive home safe at the end your shift. A call comes in: a confused man needs attention, and you are the officer send to respond. Minutes later you find yourself on top of this man, being called a 'motherfucker' and you're trying to restrain the individual. Not cooperating that well, you shout 'cooperate, now!' to the person and you feel you need to resort to other measures apart from verbal instructions. You punch the individual in the side ribs hoping he will lower his arm so that you can cuff him, and consequently move him to the police car. These are all strategies you learned in your police trainings of course. Then, all of the sudden, the personl stops breathing, and eventually dies.
Headline reads: "Officer punched in the face in a fight at party Leek [small-town]"source: Nos.n
Let's say this time you are the colleague of the punched officer. You and your team-members are trying to break up a fight and when you look over to your colleague you see the fist of a man hitting your colleagues face. As an officer you do not tolerate violence against the police, let alone violence against your team-mate and you jump in. Only your intervention is not enough, several other officers are needed to bring your injured colleague into safety. Struggling to de-escalate, moments pass you by, you're pushing and shoving and protecting your own body by holding your arms up. Then, finally, people are taken apart and the peace returns.
Police officers encounter violent interactions and violent individuals. Some might even call it an 'occupational-hazard'. Police officers are also often scrutinized for how they handle violent situations or individuals, specifically in the media. But what do these violent interactions actually look like? How do they, the situations and police officers themselves, escalate or de-escalate? And how does the police view and experience these situations? More importantly, why do we need to know this?
This question has also been posed to me by the Dutch police organization. There is substantive national and international research and knowledge on violence and the police. The 'why' and 'what's the new story about violence' are thus relevant to answer, but it's not so easy. Therefore, we need to look at what is missing.
- It is not clear how officers working together influence the dynamics of violence;
- The police perspective; physical, mental and emotional experiences, is not included in academic research so far.
Even if police officers do not encounter violent interactions – both verbal and physical – on a daily basis, violence does make a significant impact on police officer's mental, emotional and bodily well-being. And media coverage, such as you the ones read at the beginning of this blog, is painting a one-sided picture of what happens when the police encounter violence. It fails to pay attention to details. Thus, the main point is that we do not exactly know how violent situations come about nor do we know how the police experience these situations. Knowing this might help to: identify how the police can handle these situations in effective ways – know how they might even prevent them – and help develop training in violence or aftercare minimizing the risk of harm to officers.
This is exactly what I will be studying in the Group-Violence research project by focusing on these issues:
- Escalation and de-escalation patterns;
- Cooperation during threatening or tensed situations;
- Group behavior and group feelings;
- Experiences and meanings of violent situations.
So why do we need more research on violent interactions, and specifically the perspective of the police?
Well, exactly because we do not know the intricate dynamics of violence, and what the effect is of officers working together during violence. Not to mention what it's like to be in these situations. Shedding light on the complexity of violence and officers' experiences may also help public understanding and lower the chances of scrutiny. Academic research has tried to elaborate on these subjects, but has failed to show an understanding of violent situations and experiences, or to do justice to the police perspective. This is where my research will contribute.
For a reaction of police sociologist dr. Jaap Timmer (Vrije Universiteit) on the situation in Waddinxveen see: