Why society should not forget the positive value of touch

Touch is likely the most important physical activity a law enforcement officer will engage in during their police career


By Andrew Bell, faculty member, Criminal Justice with American Military University 

In November 2017, I sat dumbfounded hearing that the Girl Scouts of America had – amidst the ongoing imbroglio over sexual assault – advised parents to think of alternatives to hugging others during the holidays. Initially, I mistakenly thought I was one of the few offended by this advice. However, after hearing my minister preach on the value of touch, I realized that others were just as troubled.

In teaching police ethics, I constantly look for real-life examples of ethical dilemmas and problem solving in public safety. The debate over “inappropriate touching” is certainly such an example. Police must physically touch citizens to do their job within the letter and the spirit of the law. However, in the context of current accusations and revelations, an extreme response is to suggest not reaching out for fear of improper touching. But the answer to the problem is not, and never will be, to stop all physical contact between police and community members.

Touch is likely the most important physical activity a law enforcement officer will engage in during their police career. (Photo/In Public Safety)
Touch is likely the most important physical activity a law enforcement officer will engage in during their police career. (Photo/In Public Safety)

Touch is likely the most important physical activity a law enforcement officer will engage in during their police career. In fact, the phrase “lay hands on” is a historically common phrase within the police profession – usually in the context of an arrest or apprehension. In police training we say, “If you lay hands on someone you better have probable cause to make the arrest.” However, police touching goes much further than arrest.

Touch is widely known to be a necessity for proper child development. As we learn more about the benefits of touch in teens and adults, it seems absurd to suggest we find “alternatives.” Indeed, due to a number of factors and the media frenzy around inappropriate sexual contact, we may be missing out on the positive benefits of touch. Our children are spending more time in front of video screens, schools have “No-Touch” policies, and workplaces have shunned touching all together. All of this creates an atmosphere where any physical contact is socially unacceptable.

The stigma around touching has been growing and we see that even those with “in loco parentis” duties call police rather than touch a kindergartener having a temper tantrum. Some psychologists say banning all touch is a bad idea, and I agree. It would be tragic if, during my police career, I had not physically touched or been touched by others in moments of need. Those touches include: the touch of kindness to show bond with citizens, especially children; the touch of sorrow over the death of a loved one; and the touch of friendship and camaraderie.

As a young child, I remember not wanting to visit one Italian aunt who had a habit of greeting us by clasping our heads with her hands and pinching our cheeks with her fingers as she said “You’re getting so big!” That memory sticks in my head and now brings to mind my heritage, culture and her personal touch. If I had my choice as a teenager, as the Girl Scouts suggest, I would have missed out on creating a warm memory that is with me today.

As a police officer, I was at times guided by my humanity to touch someone and the thought of losing that because of misguided political correctness is beyond my comprehension. Now as a teacher, I will be sure to emphasize the positive impact of touch in bringing police and citizens closer together.


About the Author: Andrew Bell has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2004. He has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Bell also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. He recently co-authored a book, Cops of Acadia, based on real-life stories of police in action. He is a regular contributor to In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu.

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