Using Community Policing to Prevent Violent Extremism
The task, preventing violent extremism, reminds one of “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” While Lamont Cranston might have known, for the rest of us the task remains foreboding.
Any of us should be grateful when simple, understandable and credible hope is put forth. Schanzer et al. have done us that favor. Still, the limits — mostly as laid out by the authors — should be understood.
These are “promising.” We’ve seen promises evaporate in other contexts. These are not easy to pull off. And the barriers to success are non-trivial.
The spreading of misinformation online
Michela Del Vicario and colleagues wrote an interesting research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/01/02/1517441113.full.pdf). They studied how scientific information and “unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories” are spread via Facebook.
It turns out that both types of information tend to spread via homogeneous “echo chambers.” Scientific information tends to get out faster. The rumors and conspiracy theories have a much longer distribution cycle. And neither group of people talks much to the other.
Most likely, this will surprise few of us. These sorts of processes have been going on since there has been something recognizable as science. The challenge for policing remains how to cope with the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories as their consumers tend to be isolated from sources of scientific evidence.
The challenge goes even beyond that. Police, too, are people, subject to many of the same social processes that affect private citizens. Police, too, may be isolated from scientific evidence. That makes police leadership somewhat of a challenge.
So, as chiefs and sheriffs lead their organizations toward various futures, how can they best enhance the distribution of objective evidence, cope with rumors and conspiracy theories, and encourage the sharing of information across narratives? Surely, transparency can help — rumors and conspiracy theories emerge more often when the supply of objective information is limited. But what else can or should be done?
A Set of Boundary Problems
When U.S. President Reagan was shot, the U.S. went through some soul-searching — and some sense of vengeance — regarding responsibility of those who were mentally ill and also committed a criminal act. States took two diverse approaches, approximately:
- Guilty but mentally ill: The person would be imprisoned but some treatment might be made available in prison versus
- Not guilty by reason of insanity: The person would not be held responsible criminally but could be committed to a mental facility.
There is still disagreement about which approach is preferable and how well each of them works. But we’ve also got a second and even more complicated problem. Where is the boundary between religious zealotry and mental illness — and terrorism. An instructive case is that of the Philadelphia police officer who was attacked Thursday night (http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/08/us/philadelphia-police-officer-shot/) by someone with a history of mental illness and who claimed to be acting on behalf of Islam and in the name of ISIS.
In the Philadelphia case, how does one separate out the terrorism dimension from the mental illness and from religious zealotry? What rules should police and prosecutors follow? Also keep in mind that the first two clauses of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution guarantee religious freedom.
Labels are convenient and attractive because they are simple. Because they are simple, they can be used to achieve political ends and to unite mobs (virtual or physical). But real cases rarely are so simple.
Police are faced daily with real people who are multidimensional. As transparency burgeons, information on these individuals and their interactions with police will be even more rapidly and widely shared. The potential for firing up mobs and intemperate individuals is significant.
The choices that police have are limited somewhat by law and by service availability. To give a concrete example of the latter, my department wants to be able to refer first-time drug offenders to treatment instead of arresting them. Unfortunately, treatment resources are very limited, so they become enmeshed in the criminal justice system — which rarely makes things better and always is expensive to all parties.
Both strategically and tactically, what should police do while enmeshed in such mine fields? Whatever your answer, now play out the processes and the political winds/whimsy to test the viability of the answer.