Hans Toch: On Policing

This is the second in a series of interviews with APA Books authors and editors. For this interview, Tyler Aune, Editorial Supervisor, interviewed Dr. Hans Toch, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York, Albany.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.

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Hans Toch is a social psychologist whose pioneering work with police departments and prisons in the US and abroad has led to reform based on humane principles and participatory change.  Of his book, Organizational Change Through Individual Empowerment, Criminal Justice Review noted “Toch’s ability to provide real examples of not only what is possible within the field of corrections and offender programming but the impact these programs can have on the lives of offenders and officers leaves the reader finishing the last page and eagerly wanting to know how they can be a part of these efforts too.”

His many books include Organizational Change Through Individual Empowerment: Applying Social Psychology in Prisons and Policing (2014); Cop Watch: Spectators, Social Media, and Police Reform (2012); Police as Problem Solvers (Revised Edition) (2005); Acting Out: Maladaptive Behavior in Confinement (2002), Stress In Policing (2001), and Violent Men: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Violence (1992).

There is widespread belief now, as there was among some in the ’60s and ’70s, that police unfairly single out and brutalize minorities.   In your book Cop Watch: Spectators, Social Media, and Police Reform, you show how social media has amplified what was once common knowledge only on the street. 

The belief that you allude to is indeed widespread, and unfortunately is especially prevalent among members of minority groups, for whom the perceived risk of being victimized by the police is far from an academic question.  Persons who hold this view about the police being a malevolent threat to them are apt to cite many instances of horrendous encounters with actual, real-life police officers that document their point.  Even where many such persons may not be able to recall having been recently singled out and victimized by the local constabulary, they can easily come up with a convincing humiliating encounter or two involving a relative, friend, or close acquaintance.

Has public perception of these issues changed over time?

This sort of intimate personal documentation is obviously very powerful documentation, even if it may rest—as it usually does–on statistically unrepresentative experiences.  And such documentation is much more available nowadays than it used to be decades ago.  The fact is that while accounts featuring the proverbial brutal or racist cop have always been widely available (largely because brutal and racist cops have always existed to some measure in most police departments, despite efforts not to hire them if possible, or to screen them out), the dissemination of the predations of such officers via social media has provided us with mountains of incriminating documentation.

In other words, what we have seen is not a proliferation of deployments of widely excessive force but a huge change in the availability of incriminating illustrative material, compared with the days in which comparably tragic or farcical exemplars of police malfeasance had to be drawn from newspaper headlines or individually passed on by word of mouth on street corners, in barber shops and play areas, and among intimates across the dinner table.

Many today are calling for changes in the way police departments operate. You have worked with police departments that made good strides toward reform.  What was that process like?  

Longstanding practices are always hard to modulate or to modify.  And I believe that the worst way to attempt to get anyone, anywhere to change is to issue peremptory edicts or orders, and to back these with threats.  Unfortunately, police departments pride themselves in being “paramilitary” organizations, and are therefore attracted to this approach.

Operating in this fashion turns out to be a mixed bag.  It might get you initial compliance and give you the illusion that you are making headway.  But what you are getting is surface conformity, which invariably invites lots of grousing and lingering resentment.  And you are very likely to eventually end up back on square one.

I suspect the second worst way to try to institute police reform or any other kind of reform is by lecturing to folks in classrooms, which is how I happen to have spent most of my working life. The sad fact here is that one cannot change people’s deep-seated habits by preaching to them—no matter how informative and how scintillating and entertaining one might think one is.

And yet, “training” is by far the most frequent recommendation you will run across in police reform proposals—or any other reform proposals.  “Training” is the prevailing mantra, and to be sure, classroom training can do no one any harm.

After the riots of the sixties, you and Doug Grant worked directly with individual cops most prone to provoke violence, creating a way for them to examine what set them off and come up with more constructive behavior.

I think the long and the short of it is that you get people to change [by getting] them to face and to understand the problems they may be creating through their current maladaptive behavior—very much including problems for themselves—and to help them to discover and rehearse more appropriate responses to the situations they are likely to run into on the job.  In relation to off-putting police practices, this means working with rank-and-file officers who intersect with citizen on daily basis, and getting them involved in the process of improving the way they operate in relating to citizens (including suspects) on the street.

This also has come to mean doing counterpart work out in the community, to get the customers of police service to react with less blind hostility in responding to police officers– to give the officers a chance to establish positive relationships with citizens.

This two-pronged approach to reform is called “community policing,” and it has been available as a successful reform strategy for several decades.






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