JOSEPH BOLDUC, LMHC, NCC
Speak To Understand
Psychotherapy • Coaching • Consulting
James P. O’Neill, Commissioner
New York City Police Department
1 Police Plaza Path
New York, NY 10007
Dear Commissioner O’Neill:
Thank you in advance for your time. I wrote to you three years ago after a series of police shootings of unarmed black men. Today I write in the wake of the video of the police officers in Phoenix using excessive force on a pregnant woman with a baby. It made me – ill, as it should any American with a conscience. Your prior response three years ago did not address the training issues I inquired about. My hope is that with three more years of violence and trauma, in the spirit of healing a national wound, you might have another look.
Before I begin, I want to assure you that this letter is not a blanket condemnation of law enforcement. It is – truly – an inquiry – written in response to what is clearly a national problem of bias and training within police departments across the country. My hope of course, is that the questions raised in this letter might spur greater conversations and ideas on how to address bias, training, support – and accountability – between law enforcement and the citizens it has pledged to protect and serve.
In the wake of the recent rash of police shootings of black men, the disproportionate number of black men killed by altercations with law enforcement, and the most recent “excessive force” video coming out of Phoenix involving a black woman with a baby, I have come to realize how very little I know about one of the most important aspects of American life – how our police are trained to do what they do in maintaining the safety and welfare of its citizens.
As a New Yorker, I am so grateful, consciously grateful, for the work we ask our police officers to do on a daily basis. When I think about the enormity of the task we have entrusted to our law enforcement officials – I am overwhelmed. I can only imagine how they feel.
And given the enormity of that task, I am a bit ashamed that I have been a “lazy citizen” – content to assume that someone – someone else – is making sure that things run the way they are supposed to, that constant monitoring is done – and corrections made – to insure that our officers, and potential officers, are getting the proper levels of screening, training, support and evaluation.
It is only now, when the role of bias is being discussed as a factor in so many lethal interactions with police departments across the country, that I thought to ask the questions that every citizen should be asking.
How do we train and screen our police officers? What processes do we have in place to detect biases of all kinds during recruitment and training – and post-training?
As a psychotherapist, trained at NYU, we were required to become familiar with several bias testing tools, the implicit association test being one of them (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html). This test can reveal potential bias in a variety of areas – gender, age, skin-tone, gay-straight and black-white bias (to name just a few). But there are many other testing instruments as well – each with their individual strengths and weaknesses (true of all psychological testing). While the implicit bias test has it detractors, at the very least it gives us a place to start evaluations and, more importantly, communication and conversation.
Do we, in New York City, employ testing of this type to our cadets? Or follow-up with required periodic testing with our officers? What kind of follow-up is done with officers who do exhibit significant bias? What kind of multi-cultural training is offered? What kind of multi-cultural training is required?
Again, as a psychotherapist, part of our training, in order to practice ethically, involved uncovering our own areas of bias and learning how to untangle a very complicated – but very present – and often unconscious – part of our humanity.
We must not be afraid to have conversations about individual and collective prejudices – particularly in professions where individual bias can have life or death consequences. It is only through engagement, identification and discussion that we can learn to, at the very least, understand where our prejudices lie – and what to do about them in the context of our jobs.
Have we created an environment where cadets and officers feel safe discussing and evaluating their biases?
And have we created, within both administration and the rank-and-file, accountability for insuring that training is conducted, support is offered, rules are enforced and violations have consequences?
In the field, in the event of a potentially dangerous situation with a suspected criminal, what kind of “engagement” training is done to avoid lethal interactions?
Our officers put their lives at risk every day. I would imagine that every situation is fraught with the possibility of violence. How do we train our officers to deal with fear? With adrenaline? What do we teach them about firing weapons (if it comes to that), so that we inflict the least amount of physical harm while de-escalating a volatile situation?
And finally, what kind of psychological monitoring and support systems are offered (and required) for our officers? Given the ugliness of the situations they face on a daily basis, I would imagine they are coping (or, sadly, not coping) with high levels of stress – and sadness – and anger. What are we doing for our officers so that when they go back out on the street – they are functioning optimally?
How are we helping them process the enormous responsibilities we have given them?
Are there national standards and training to which New York City, or other cities, are held? If not, why not? Would that be helpful to New York? Might it be helpful to local law enforcement across the country to have national oversight?
New York City may be completely engaged in this process. Our police force may be at the forefront of areas of screening and support. I admit – sadly – that I simply have no idea.
But I would like to.
Is there a website that you can direct me to that explains to the general public how our officer training works?
Again, I write this knowing that the vast majority of our police officers are heroes. Good people, putting their lives at risk every day, in order to keep us safe. How do we support our finest officers in making sure that they have all the training they need to raise to their full potential? And, conversely, as is true in any helping profession, there are those whose personal demons, or damage, or biases work against the mission of that profession. How do we find and attend to those people -and keep them from inflicting harm?
What more can we do (law enforcement and civilians) to help and heal the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens it has vowed to protect – and make sure that that protection extends to all citizens, equally.
As I reflect on all the recent killings – the lives lost – and the lives shattered – we would be less than the democracy we strive to be, less than who we might be – and should be and can be – if we did not each demand from each other that we do it better… if we do not look inside our hearts, as the death tolls mount, and ask not only, “Did they need to die?” but also “What am I doing to prevent it?”
“What am I, as a citizen, as a human being, doing to prevent more death?”
Thank you again for your time. I look forward to hearing from you with specific answers to my questions.
/s/ Joseph Bolduc
Joe Bolduc, LMHC, NCC
Speak to Understand