Compassion and empathy

The events of September 11th 2001 are so horrific they need no name. That morning the managing editor of TIME magazine, James Kelly, kissed his wife and son goodbye and left for work in downtown Manhattan. As the horror of that day unfolded Kelly and his staff felt compelled to produce a special issue of TIME. In that issue Kelly writes that he watched with horror as thousands died. He notes that the bravery of the fire fighters and that the police officers remind him of his dad who was a New York City police officer for 25 years. Mr. Kelly and his colleagues may have been moved by the horror of that day and with good intent they printed a special issue of TIME to memorialize the event. However, what they produced may be a metaphor concerning the lack of compassion and empathy for many victims of domestic violence. 

I have been working with domestic violence victim advocates for more than a decade and many ask me over and over again: “Why are not police officers more compassionate and empathic concerning the victims of domestic violence.”  Regardless of what is often written, most police officers agree that domestic violence intervention is a necessary element in the quest of the community at large to minimize violence in our homes. Many police departments require demanding and inflexible background examination of their applicants and they have domestic violence training in their recruit-training academy and that training is updated yearly through in-service training. Many police departments have written standardized guidelines, policies, and procedures to ensure uniform police procedures in responding to domestic violence calls and they provide guidance concerning the conduct of the officers if they themselves become involved in a domestic violence incident as an abuser or victim. Most, if not all, police departments have information and the appropriate resources and referrals concerning domestic violence and they provide this information to domestic violence victims.

While their training is not perfect, data will document, it is far more extensive than most other vocations, public or private provide to their employees. A recent Washington Post article documents that less than 10 percent of national cooperation’s provide any domestic violence training for their employees. In a recent issue of the National Bulletin on Domestic Violence Prevention, Andy Klien who is the former chief probation officer for the Quincy, Massachusetts court and who is now a domestic violence author and consultant, writes that he believes that most police departments are doing more than many others concerning domestic violence. In the article, “Dangers from Without and Within” a Brockton [Massachusetts] Enterprise newspaper article, the author writes that many domestic violence advocates agree that police departments are doing more these day to crack down on domestic violence, including abuse perpetrated by their own officers. Lesley Stahl of the television show “60 Minutes” believes that “the police, for the most part, are sympathetic, and encourage a woman who is battered to call them any time she’s been hit or even threatened.” That withstanding, I continue to hear from victim’s advocates that with all their training, police officers still often do not respond to domestic violence victims in a compassionate or empathetic manner. And I believe that too often the advocates are correct.

What the September 11, 2001 special issue of TIME documents is that we live in a culture that is often void of compassion or empathy for “others”. Others are people who are not our family members or people who do not act or behave as most people believe they would, given the same circumstances.  Law enforcement can train police officers what to do and how to do it, but not how the officers think, feel, or what they believe. Police officer’s beliefs and behavior, more often than not, reflects the norms and mores of the community at large. Robert Kennedy while Attorney General of the United States wrote that, “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.”

The September 11, 2001 special issue of TIME has a centerfold picture of another” bleeding, battered, and beaten. There is a double page picture of “others” who are falling or jumped to their death. The cover picture portrays thousands of children, women, and men “others” who are suffering a horrific death.  Would Mr. Kelly and/or his staff feels comfortable if those were pictures of their children, their wife, their husband, their father, or their mother? At the end of the special issue is an editorial by Lance Morrow. Morrow writes, “A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have rage.” Rage indeed. Rage is an emotion that lacks reason and logic and it is rage that caused this horrific act. Terrorists believe, just as Mr. Morrow does, that their actions are justifiable because they have righteousness, justice, and God on their side. In war most societies believe, it is justifiable to kill thousands of innocent noncombatant children, women, and men. Police officers live in a society that often lacks compassion and/or empathy for “others” and when officers respond to domestic violence calls, not unlike society, they often see the victims as “others.”

This lack of compassion and empathy concerning the pain and suffering of “others” that domestic violence victim advocates see exhibited by some police officers is not “police behavior” it is human behavior. This lack of compassion, and empathy for the suffering of “others” is not exhibited because they are police officers, it is ingrained in our society as documented by this issue of TIME. How can law enforcement produce police officers who are compassionate, and empathetic towards “others” when they live in a society that too often turns a deaf ear and a blind eye to the suffering of someone who is not a family member or “others” who do not behave or act “just like they would.”

In our society there are many mores and norms that continue to foster this lack of compassion or empathy. The Catholic Church refuses to ordain women as priests and that perpetuates the belief by many that women are “others” and are not equal to men.  The Southern Baptist church proclaims that homosexual behavior is a sin and hence gays and lesbians are “others” and are less a human being than heterosexuals. The United States Congress condones a, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy in the military for “others.” Anti-Semitism is still a problem in many communities as some people still view Jews are seen as “others.” Corporal punishment is still legal in many states and children of course are “others.”

As a young man I watched in horror the behavior of police officers beating “others” in the segregated south. Segregation was not a policy put in place by police officers concerning African Americans. Police behavior, then as now, is representative of society in general. Most often the lack of compassion and empathy is not the result of a “police culture,” it is representative of a “community culture.” Domestic violence is not a police problem nor is it a problem suffered by “others.” Domestic violence is a collective problem and it is time all of us face our collective responsibilities.

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