Walking and Talking with Our Police

Guest Blog by: John O’Neill, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA

Contextual Behavioral Science Institute

The field of behavior analysis has accomplished great things by protecting and serving vulnerable populations such as individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). As practitioners, we place ourselves in harm’s way for the safety of others. We work long, often thankless hours, only to have our job accompany us home and into our private life. We jest with our colleagues about sensitive topics that only they can understand and appreciate. We observe and respond to behaviors that would turn the stomachs of our family and friends. We pursue our calling with unshakable passion. In these ways, we are a lot like our police officers.

Behavior Analysts and Police

Despite the similarities between practitioners and police officers working in the community, the field of behavior analysis as a science of human behavior is largely unknown within the police academy. This is likely because we have not done our part in disseminating our science to this important area. For example, there is no review of the applied behavior analytic research in law enforcement because we have not conducted enough studies to warrant one.

This lack of attention to applications of behavior analysis to topics such as skill performance, maintenance, and generalization in law enforcement is particularly ironic because when our procedures fail, we rely on police officers to restore the safety of our staff and clients. Indeed, crisis management is the most readily accessible pathway to collaboration with law enforcement. The two professions face similar challenges in the areas of skill acquisition, maintenance and generalization, treatment integrity, decision-making, problem-solving, employment screening, attrition (i.e., burn-out), organizational leadership, and culture (O’Neill et al., 2018). As we tackle these complex problems within our own field, it is our obligation to disseminate that knowledge outside of our usual professional circles. This means participating in police conferences (e.g., International Association of Chiefs of Police), publishing in police media (e.g., O’Neill, O’Neill, & Lewinski, 2016; O’Neill, Hartman, O’Neill, & Lewinski, 2018; O’Neill, 2019) and learning how to adapt our science to the context of the law enforcement world (e.g., O’Neill, 2018).

Unlike applied behavior analysis, the profession of law enforcement is not directly connected to a consistent philosophical approach or science of human behavior. (e.g., criminal justice, cognitive psychology, ergonomics). The predominant approach is usually that which presents the more palatable terms and workable procedures. Behavior analysis has not yet met these criteria. Our verbal behavior is off-putting and our procedures are cumbersome at best. Even our title (i.e., behavior analyst) tends to raise eyebrows in skepticism. If we are to influence law enforcement, we must adapt.

Adapting our Verbal Behavior with Police

As in my work with the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, verbal behavior is perhaps the most influential aspect of any collaboration. Both parties need to be understood, respected, trusted and valued to accomplish our objectives. To make the most of a collaboration, values of both parties should align. As such, I often find myself first asking questions intended to gauge the level of buy-in during a project. If unsatisfied, I take it upon myself to explore and suggest modifications that might bring our shared value of real-world scientific applications to the forefront. This often requires a delicate balancing of scientific rigor with social validity. For example, readers will find sufficient but not extensive baseline measurement in our article on police academy training, performance, and learning. I also rarely refer to myself as a “behavior analyst” or use technical language when describing a concept. Instead, I call myself a “behavioral scientist” or simply a “researcher.” I employ metaphors and analogies to reconcile differences in thinking and rely on everyday examples to demonstrate concepts. For example, when explaining the concept of shaping a handcuffing technique, I talk about “taking baby-steps” and “making gradual improvement” instead of “differential reinforcement of successive approximations.”

As is the case with direct care professionals working to serve our most vulnerable populations; I believe we expect far too much from police officers under the present structure and schedule of training. The profession as a whole is overworked and devalued by many of those which it has sworn to protect and serve.

In the end, our findings need to provide actual solutions to very real and serious problems. Issues in law enforcement reflect our society at large. Every police officer is a contributing member of our society and, not unlike the behavior analysts I know, do their absolute best with the resources available to them (O’Neill et al., 2018). Most do their job because they love it and wholeheartedly believe in their code of ethics (IACP):

“As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice…”

Behavior analysis has a lot to offer our police in these trying times…but will we? If you are interested in learning more about this area of research and practice, subscribe to the Public House podcast. We discuss a variety of aspects relevant to police academy training and firearms safety with professionals in policing. For monthly updates, subscribe to our free newsletter or consider supporting our efforts through membership.

Dr. John O’Neill is the Founder of the Contextual Behavioral Science Institute and Host of the Public House podcast where he discusses police academy training and firearms safety. He has over a decade of experience in behavioral science. He has published numerous works including book chapters, peer-reviewed research, and magazine articles. Dr. O’Neill serves as Chair of the Dissemination of Behavior Analysis Special Interest Group and on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science.