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The Policing Balancing Act

Control and restraint, consent and common sense

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels
Source: Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels

The protests surrounding the death of George Floyd are occurring in already febrile times. While we still reel from a global pandemic, protestors’ chants of ‘I can’t breathe’ (which were among Floyd’s last words) take on a disturbing double-meaning given the disease’s potential impact. But, despite the ever-present disease risk, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets. The perception is that law enforcement agencies and other symbols of power hold racist values and that the way officers killed Floyd (and many others) in broad daylight is yet another murder in a long and never-ending catalog of brutality.

Racism, both personal and structural, is clearly a critical factor here, but there are additional forces at play. We argue that there are a significant minority of cases in which law enforcement is unable to balance control and restraint with consent and compassion. In this case, the officers dealing with Floyd showed excessive interest in the former and no ability to recognize the value of the latter. And, yes, quite possibly due to the color of Floyd’s skin. This fervent attachment to control is manifest both in physical and psychological terms. Let’s take the former issue first.

It is remarkable that Minneapolis police are still authorized to use neck restraints. Through this tactic they have rendered 44 people unconscious (60% of whom were black and including a 14-year-old boy) in the last five years. Pressure to the neck can restrict air and blood flow and is extremely dangerous. One of us (Laurence Alison) should know—he and most of his family have worked in high-risk psychiatric hospitals (his father was trained in control and restraint for many years). This type of physical control was unnecessary in Floyd’s case–and, indeed, even if we imagine that he was extremely aggressive at any point (for which there is no evidence), there are many other perfectly good methods of physical control. But more noteworthy was the inability to release any aspect of that physical restraint until he was so incapacitated that he was carried off on a stretcher.

Second, there was no obvious reason to restrain Floyd in the first place–talking tactics may have sufficed. Of course, cops need physical know-how to take down aggressive and dangerous people. Not infrequently though, this can be managed through creating physical space between you and the target and simply talking to them. A counter-refrain is ‘what if they had a gun, or....' Indeed, and so, if there are even partial grounds to suspect any of these things one might expect a more robust and immediate physical act. But the police need to be able to update their response when they gain new information: ‘Oh, this guy has no weapon—we can now back off.' Situational assessments are the hallmark of effective decision making, and revising these based on new awareness is critical.

What is perhaps most frightening about Chauvin’s actions was his continuing to kneel on Floyd's neck despite all the signs–Floyd himself directly, repeatedly, saying he could not breathe, onlookers begging the officers to back off. More disturbingly, this external pleading for control apparently ossified it–which may reflect a psychological phenomenon known as reactance (Brehm, 1966). In Chauvin’s case, the pleading voices begging him to reconsider did not make him re-evaluate or situationally update, perhaps because that was a threat to his sense of control. Instead, he seemed to re-commit to the action more fervently.

The George Floyd case, as individually horrific as it is, needs to be viewed through the lens of broader policing issues: Control and restraint training that is woefully outdated, and a value system within some police forces that prioritizes looking strong overlooking weak–control over capitulation (“Hey, maybe my first impression was wrong, I need to back off and let up”). One involves basic technique training but speaks to a police service that seems unable and/or unwilling to recognize the dangers inherent in current techniques. The second is a psychological/interpersonal issue that sees the community as the enemy and the solution as control, not consent. This issue is much more pervasive and speaks to a more fundamental issue in how policing is designed. It requires better selection methods (to weed out those who don’t recognize the right underpinning value systems) and better training—not just in how to load and fire but in how to talk and engage.

More information on our work on communication is available here.


Brehm J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York, NY: Academic Press.

More from Neil D. Shortland Ph.D., Joseph M. Moran Ph.D., and Laurence J. Alison Ph.D.
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