Moving the Needle: The Science of Good Police-Citizen Encounters

Some officers are naturally skilled at social interactions. They can be thought of as Masters of Social Encounters (MSEs), as if they have an advanced degree. Others weren’t born with these kinds of skills but appreciate the need for social skills and are able to work to become MSEs. And some officers just haven’t seen the need; they are content to be mediocre in interacting with civilians.

Recent tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; Cleveland, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; and Los Angeles, California, have driven home the need for improved social interaction training to help manage the moments leading up to the use of force.1 These tragedies have illustrated how the use of force can quickly go wrong during police-citizen encounters.

For many police departments and agencies, the first impulse is to try to solve the problem by diagnosing it, and there is no shortage of explanations for what causes police officers to unnecessarily escalate the violence of their interactions: the way policing is structured and organized, the perception of threat in certain neighborhoods, implicit racial biases, or self-fulfilling prophesies in which police expect a hostile reaction and adopt a defensive or an intimidating stance that provokes the hostility. These explanations try to account for the ways that policing goes wrong.