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Law Enforcement Today | July 25, 2016

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Do Our Assumptions Disable Us?

Do Our Assumptions Disable Us?
Brian Ellis

I am fortunate that I love my job. As a patrol supervisor for the Sacramento Police Department, I have served in many other capacities.  I’ve had two community policing unit tours, two one as an officer and one as a sergeant.  I have also worked in the parole apprehension and career criminal apprehension teams, narcotics division, and the robbery / burglary unit both as a detective and supervisor.

Not only did I learn different aspects of the job, but even better, I developed contrasting lenses to view the job.  As a patrol supervisor, I am able to use innovate methods of implementing the department’s vision.  LEOs in a dynamic environment can explore new ways of accomplishing the task while disputing current assumptions.

Each day brings new experiences and learning opportunities.  California law enforcement is very progressive.  Sacramento Police Department provides professional development opportunities, which lead to a better organization.  With my competitive nature and a desire to always learn and experience more, I take every opportunity to improve myself while challenging the very beliefs I have.  As part of training, I visited a museum, which resonated with me beyond my affiliation to law enforcement and made me think about my affiliation with mankind.

I toured the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.  Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal dedicated his life to documenting Holocaust crimes and bringing those responsible to justice.  The museum was created in his quest for understanding. Wiesenthal wanted a location that educated about the past, but also provoked a change of thinking in the present and the future.

The Museum staff wished to create an experience that would challenge people of all backgrounds to confront their most closely-held assumptions and take responsibility for change.  The museum is a human rights educational center dedicated to challenging visitors’ understanding of the impact of prejudice and discrimination.  Opening in 1993, it is best known for its Holocaust exhibit.  Several law enforcement agencies use this museum as a part of their mandatory ethics training for Academy trainees.  The museum is a place that no one can ever forget.  I can only explain the experience as moving.

While it is disheartening to tour the exhibits, they reinforce that the only way to deal with tragedies is to learn from them so that they are not repeated.  As I walked through the halls, I was haunted by the harsh acts of people.  The most moving exhibit is the Holocaust exhibit, which recreates the Auschwitz concentration camp experience.

While one can never expect to understand how someone lived through that kind of horror, it depicts Auschwitz a way that resonates.  As you walk into one of the rooms, which are a crematory recreation, the exhibit sends chills down your spine.  You ask yourself how anyone can be so cruel to another human being. Throughout the WWII exhibits, I questioned what would compel people to develop such hatred toward another group of people?  As I thought about the inequities of this time in history, I asked myself what police officers can do to make a difference.  Societies have come far with technology and science, but have not put the effort into treating others with tolerance.  Everything from genocide to maliciousness still exists, which is unacceptable.

How do we make a difference as LEO’s as well as being part of the human race?  Tolerance is be defined as

1) a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, or nationality differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry

2) a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own

The two most important concepts of this definition point to understanding and openness.  How do we become more understanding?

As I pondered the evolution of human behavior, I thought of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.  This book is an intellectual dive into why high achievers are different; however, the book brings concepts to bear upon the concept of tolerance.  Gladwell has a knack for asking enough questions to drill down into topics.

In one chapter, Gladwell describes an interesting set of observations regarding plane crashes.  “Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.” He described common variables such as poor weather; the plane being behind schedule; the pilot being awake for more than 12 hours; and two pilots who are not use to each other as contributory factors.  The typical plane crash involves seven consecutive human errors. The combination of those errors that leads to tragedy.  Gladwell goes on to describe, “The kind of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.”

The book made me wonder if there were any similar equations that bring on things such as genocide and widespread maliciousness.  These events are composed of the following factors:

1) a large population of frustrated people seeking an immediate fix

2) a repeated message

3) a show of force.

When these three factors are present, toxic behaviors such as genocide, maliciousness, and intolerance surface.

Three things can help us eliminate such errors in our behavior while striving for more tolerance.  First, we must be committed to education.  If one is committed to lifelong learning, one does not limit one’s views with marginalizing assumptions about others.

Second, people need to understand how powerful repeated messages are.   Repeated messages are used in advertising daily.  Such messages can be used for good, but can just as easily be used for harm.  Knowing such repeated messages exist can help you screen them from influencing your behavior.  We will perpetuate the existence of repeated messages by stereotyping or generalizing about people and events.  Noting such messages and being open about them is a positive step.  Keep an eye out for the repeated message.  When you see it, challenge the message for accuracy.

Third, we must communicate across unfamiliar lines.  We need to understand each other better find new ways to communicate.  Limiting assumptions about people and learning new concepts does not just happen by chance.  You must take positive action to do so.

This museum can have a positive impact on law enforcement.  While you may never be able to put on the wooden shoes of a Holocaust survivor or feel the pain of Americans who struggled during the civil rights movement, you can gain understanding that these behaviors and viewpoints do not have a place in our world today -= no matter how small or potentially insignificant they might seem.

If we do not seek to understand those whom we serve in policing, we may be faced with incorrect assumptions about them.  These very assumptions hamper our ability to be a better officer, community member, and family member.  The only way to untangle these assumptions is to think about the other side of the coin, the unexpected, and question reality.

Challenging our assumptions can bring great hope to human relations.  The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Therefore, tolerance begins, like anything else, with you.

Learn more about this article here:

Sgt. Brian Ellis serves with the Sacramento Police Department.  He is a 15-year veteran who has worked in a number of specialized assignments including with the Problem Oriented Policing Unit, Parole Intervention and Career Criminal Apprehension Teams, Narcotics and Robbery/Burglary divisions.  He is currently a patrol supervisor.  Brian earned his Criminal Justice undergraduate degree from Cal State, Sacramento and is working on a masters in Organizational Leadership. He is passionate about helping others reach their true potential.  Follow him on Twitter at @BrianEllis10


  1. Sgt. Ellis, what an outstanding article that reflects many of the things I have learned and strived for. The interesting thing about the word tolerance is that it has been misused to mean acceptance of all behavior, when it should be focused on dealing with people as unique individuals without stereotypical or bigoted pigeonholing based upon those incorrect presumptions. Being able to see the humanity of an individual we deal with is the essence of truly making a difference in our careers, communities and future. Without a doubt this is an advanced exercise requiring discipline, perseverance and frequent personal reflection. Law enforcement sometimes is taking criminals off the streets, but the joy of our career is when we are able to change that trajectory for those we encounter through modelling fairness, good citizenship and a strong moral compass. Again, great job, Sgt.!

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