Surgical Empathy – An Approach to Overcoming Implicit Bias in Law Enforcement

If you can’t get another person to understand how you feel, get them to feel how you feel

Surgical Empathy is the process of going into a person’s unexpressed thoughts and feelings – which often provide the foundation for their implicit bias – and safely enabling them to think, feel and express them. This can have the effect of freeing a person from their implicit bias and opening their minds to becoming more unbiased.

Systemic racism doesn’t merely exist between law enforcement and the communities they serve. It exists within the police force between black and white police officers.

Many white police officers may not be aware of it – possibly because the “white privilege” that exists in many departments makes white officers as oblivious to that privilege as white civilians are – but my black police officer friends are very aware of it.

What follows is a process and half day implicit bias training program that will begin to break through the implicit bias that exists in police, sheriff’s and even some fire departments. This is then followed up with a monthly training that lasts three months in order to allow time for new attitudes to be internalized.

Here are the steps to the initial training:

1. An entire police department meets in a training room which is arranged theater style.

2. White police officers are seated in the front rows and black police officers are seated behind them.

3. They are shown the documentary 13th. The purpose of the seating as explained above is for the white police officers to watch the documentary and the brutality against black people and to feel that the black police officers are watching them watch the movie. It is anticipated that the white officers will become extremely uncomfortable because they will feel what it’s like to be profiled as racist by the black officers behind them and like the white perpetrators in the film who profile black individuals.

13th Official Trailer

4. Following the screening, the white police officers turn around and are paired up one white police officer with one black police officer.

5. Facilitated conversations using the Fishbowl approach take place in the pairings:

Using the technique that is demonstrated in the above video between a depressed patient and their partner, police officers are directed to look into each other’s eyes where Dr. Mark Goulston, the creator of this technique, will direct each person to feel the dialogue that he will provide.

This begins with directing the white police officer to look into the black police officer’s eyes and feel these words that Dr. Goulston will speak:

(Speaking for white police officer): “I didn’t truly know how bad it was for you to go through that – although it doesn’t surprise me – and to be completely honest, I didn’t even want to know. I’m embarrassed at not knowing, but I am ashamed at not wanting to know. That’s because it shows a level of not caring about someone who I work with and who’s even a partner that makes me feel like a lousy human being. And I’m sorry.”

This follows with directing the black police officer to look into the white police officer’s eyes and feel these words that Dr. Goulston will speak:

(Speaking for black police officer, if the white officer had been sincere): “I’m not surprised by what you said, because I have always known that. I appreciate and accept your apology and I am not going to hold your not knowing and not wanting to know against you. That’s because you didn’t know any better and you’re no worse than most of your other fellow white officers. My question is now that you do know how awful it has been, what do you want to do going forward?”

To help deepen the empathy of white police officers for what black officers have lived with as part of their history, this is shown to both:

Mary Turner, May 19, 1918

Source NAACP

Walter White was sent by the NAACP to investigate lynchings in Brooks- Lowndes County, Georgia. The lynching of Mary Turner was one of the investigations.

Abusive plantation owner, Hampton Smith, was shot and killed. A week-long manhunt resulted in the killing of the husband of Mary Turner, Hayes Turner.

Mary Turner denied that her husband had been involved in Smith’s killing, publicly opposed her husband’s murder, and threatened to have members of the mob arrested.

On May 19th, a mob of several hundred brought her to Folsom Bridge which separates Brooks and Lowndes counties in Georgia. The mob tied her ankles, hung her upside down from a tree, doused her in gasoline and motor oil and set her on fire.

Turner was still alive when a member of the mob split her abdomen open with a knife and her unborn child fell on the ground. The baby was stomped and crushed as it fell to the ground. Turner’s body was riddled with hundreds of bullets.

Following this, the conversations between the pairings continue to be facilitated with more Empathogenic exercises including the following:

Dr. Goulston addressing the white police officers:

“if I were to ask the black police officer you are sitting across from, what has most frustrated, upset and disappointed him/her about your and other white officer’s and the department’s attitude and behaviors toward black officers what do you think that black officer would say?”

Dr. Goulston addressing the black police officers:

“If I were to now ask the white police officer you are sitting across from, what he/she now realizes about what it’s like to be black, more than he/she has ever realized, what do you hope that white officer would say?”

One of the most important learnings and “Aha!” breakthroughs for participants is realizing that they can’t be empathic (i.e. seeking to feel and understand another person’s experience) and be angry or even defensive at the same moment (i.e. attacking the other person).

After this, the pairings organically come up with what they want to do and will commit to do going forward.

Throughout the remainder of the session and depending upon what comes out, Dr. Goulston will continue to do Fishbowl exercises to further deepen the empathy between white and black police officers.

More exercises will follow about how these police officers can take this understanding and tactics out into the field to de-escalate conflicts and confrontations wherever they find them.

The session ends with each person in the training being called upon to speak out about what they learned about their fellow police officer from another race and what they learned about themselves.

This session is an example of the Empathogenic Technique that Dr. Goulston invented where by causing one person to feel what another person feels, in addition to understanding it, it can transform attitudes, beliefs, mindsets and subsequent behaviors.

Dr. Goulston has already used the Empathogenic technique in several contexts including training FBI and police hostage negotiators to empathize with a perpetrator as a means to de-escalating a situation.

In the following video, Dr. Goulston transforms himself into a cop who is set on killing himself after he had killed an unarmed teenager a year earlier which causes the attendees to get into where the suicidal cop is coming from, because he is one of their own.

Testimonial letter from FBI

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3 thoughts on “Surgical Empathy – An Approach to Overcoming Implicit Bias in Law Enforcement”

  1. Mark says:

    Thank you Betty for your support.

  2. Wow!!! A breakthrough technique to disrupt the status quo, not only with officers, but also with couples. Grateful for Dr. Goulston.

  3. Wow!!! A breakthrough technique to disrupt the status quo, not only with officers, but also with couples.

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