A Preventable Killing…..

Like me many of you will have tuned into to hear the verdict in the case against police officer Derek Chauvin.  A training I was delivering to future US Police and Public Safety Chiefs ended some thirty minutes before the verdict was delivered. Whilst the guilty verdicts will provide some justice for family members and the wider community, the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officer was totally preventable and should never have happened.

George Floyd would not be a name we would instantly recognise if only one member of the group of police officers who responded to that call had intervened to force officer Derek Chauvin to release his knee from the man’s neck.

Many of us will have watched the footage captured by Minneapolis resident Darnella Frazier which ultimately led to the guilty verdicts.  The ‘9 minutes & 29 seconds’ was horrific to watch, and I can only begin to imagine the trauma that jury members have been exposed to over the past few weeks.  However, the film has communicated many important issues.

Firstly, the film tells us that the members of the public who were nearby were not escalating an already escalating incident. They were trying to stop it.  They could see what was happening and wanted it to stop. 

Frazier herself testified that she has constant feelings of guilt.  She wanted to do more but was powerless to do more.  Her capturing of the killing was her intervention.  A clear example of when phone footage is an effective intervention for a bystander.

The footage also presents many questions for policing both in the U.S and indeed here in the U.K.  Three sworn male officers of the Minneapolis Police Department were in a position to interrupt their fellow officer’s abusive behaviour and save Floyd’s life. But none did. Why was that?

As we saw in murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 social scientists, media and armchair analysts alike will debate for years about why this happened.  Some will focus on race and the long history of police violence being directed towards African Americans.  Some will look at militarisation of policing in the U.S and see this as a consequence.

I would like to add the fact that this was a group of male police officers which is especially of concern within close-nit groups such as policing and military and one that requires focus.

Here in the U.K, policing has been the centre of discussions involving sexist and racist behaviours being reported in media stories.  A recent reported case from Hampshire Constabulary identified a toxic culture where a team was in effect left to their own devices.  Furthermore, a recent case involving the Royal Air Force highlighted an initiation ceremony that resulted in a sexual assault taking place on a male member of staff.  In both of these cases bystanders were present and it’s clear that many didn’t intervene to stop what was happening. 

Why do organisations such as the police and military get caught up in such illegal behaviour, harassment and toxic leadership?  An article published in 2018 in the Harvard Business review highlighted an underlying cause, a Masculinity Contest Culture. This kind of culture endorses winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness.

Surveys of thousands of workers in the U.S. and Canada, from different organisations, revealed four masculine norms that together define masculinity contest culture that are highly linked with organisational dysfunction:

1) show no weakness,

2) strength and stamina,

3) put work first, and

4) ‘dog eat dog’.

These norms, the report highlights, lead people to focus on improving their personal image and status at the expense of others, even their organisations. These results not only communicate what leads to problematic behaviour but also how do norms in male-dominated peer cultures like law enforcement operate to keep men silent, even when they know something is wrong? 

In my work I talk frequently about the reasons why people don’t intervene.  The factors that inhibit bystander action are quite different depending on whether people know each other or not.  Many people do not want to get involved in situations of potential harassment or violence in which they don’t know the parties involved, largely out of fear of putting themselves at physical risk.  The term ‘Bystander Effect’ is used to describe the ways in which people avoid taking action; for example, as members of a crowd, they might be waiting, or hoping, for someone else to jump in.

Incidents where the bystanders know the people involved, their hesitancy to get involved is typically based on a social fear.  They worry that intervening will be challenging and could result in the loss of friendships, social status, or professional standing.  It’s clear in my work with university students that many young men find it difficult to stop a male friend leaving a bar with a drunk female.  When I ask why I’ve heard terms such as ‘cock blocker’ or when working in the US I hear the phrase ‘Bro-code’.

These inhibitors are very strong and can lead to inaction.  Those working in University settings are all too aware of the consequences of such inaction.

The Floyd case featured both kinds of bystander, the active ones and the passive ones.   As I discussed above a number of bystanders saw Floyd on the ground with Chauvin’s knee on his neck, and heard Floyd complaining that he couldn’t breathe. Unlike many people who are afraid to intervene in violent situations in public settings out of their understandable fear of violent retaliation, these bystanders pleaded with Chauvin to release Floyd. These bystanders did exactly what we wanted them to do, unfortunately their words were not actioned.

Gender is a key factor in defining the protocols of bystander intervention.  Men commit the vast majority of violence against people across the gender spectrum, so any serious effort to reduce violence needs to grapple with the specific dynamics of male dominated peer cultures.  

A set of unwritten rules exist in these cultures and in my view is even more evident in law enforcement.

Men who fail to demonstrate “bravery,” or a willingness to use force under certain conditions, are often branded as “soft” and “weak,” and consequently lose status in their groups.  Any ‘masculinity contest’ needs shut down.  Dropping in a diversity programme won’t cut it.  Culture development takes effort and consistency.  A healthy culture is vital in keeping the bad apples in check.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the “It’s just a few bad apples” narrative.  If these individuals, the bad apples, act without challenge, we have a problem. 

Some men hesitate to intervene when they see a friend, teammate or colleague behaving inappropriately or abusively not because they approve of the behaviour, but because they lack the language, skills and most importantly, the self-confidence to speak up.  It is therefore vital that training is considered where individuals can learn and practice how they would respond.

The pressures on men, especially young men to do whatever it takes to be “one of the guys” can be intense.  Remaining silent even when you know you shouldsay something is the membership fee to this club.  But while staying silent might be the easy option, the Floyd killing shows that silence and inaction can also have disastrous consequences.

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