‘Authority’ cards

Over at the Attitutor Blog, educational entrepreneur (or “teacherpreneur,” as he calls himself) Don Berg offers a thoughtful assessment of what went wrong at the  TJDP:

The videos of the dancing incident at the Jefferson Memorial seem to indicate that the police reacted in a highly unprofessional manner. They interpreted the actions of a group of people to be a threat of some kind and then acted swiftly and without any meaningful communication about why they were taking the actions they took.

These are the park police failures.
1. They judged the activity of dancing to be a threat to the sanctity of the monument
2. They created a conflict by ordering the dancers to leave without explanation
3. They escalated the conflict by using foul language, engaging with people by physical contact and openly displaying anger.

With the job of keeping the peace, our police are entrusted with an extraordinary responsibility for acting in a manner that ultimately leads to the lessening of conflicts, not the creation of conflicts. Given the videos that I have seen and the account of the organizer, it appears that the police abused their authority, violated the public trust, and may have abrogated the rights of the arrested dancer, if not the rights of all the people who were peacefully gathered to celebrate Tomas Jefferson’s birthday with a late night show of physical exuberance.

Consider this three part series of articles entitled “The Situational Sources Of Evil” by Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University. He revisits Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience and shows a number of ways that authority can be abused. The question on the flip side is how to create professional codes of conduct for authorities (i.e. uniformed and armed law enforcement officers) in such a way that abuses like this can be prevented.

The fundamental practical problem is that they made a ridiculous judgment of the situation and then simply played out the “Authority” cards they dealt themselves. The exercise of authority needs some way to reign in the tendencies of the officers to act merely according to their role as an “Officer’ without tempering that role with some other more human roles such as “Human Being” or “Exuberant Celebrator of Jefferson’s Birthday.” Engaging a different perspective on a situation like this is where leadership is crucial.