There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception. Aldous HuxleyYesterday, I gave a talk to a group of police officers. It's a 'sensitivity training' program designed to open dialogue about homelessness and to bridge the gap between their perceptions and the reality of homelessness from the service providers perception.
The concept of this training program came through my work with the police service towards building bridges of understanding, to create a more -- we are in this together perspective versus the 'us against them' position we often assume.
The first time I went to talk to officers my goal was to inform them about the services we provide at the shelter where I work. I walked in expecting the presentation to be just like every other presentation I've given -- open, caring people wanting to learn about the shelter and the people we serve.
I was quickly disabused of that notion. The officers were vocal, strident and almost hostile in their attitudes towards homeless citizens.
I was, to say the least, surprised. Couldn't they see these individuals through my eyes? The anger, the frustration, the hopelessness they felt concerned me. How could I reach them if their belief system about who 'the homeless' are is so different than mine?
I quickly learned, the best way to understand was to open my mind to hearing what they had to say. Dousing them with my facts, my reality, my beliefs was not effective -- they didn't want to hear what I had to say, they wanted me to listen to them.
So, I shut up and listened.
From that first meeting I have learned a great deal about the value of acknowledging someone else's position.
A police officer's encounters with homeless citizens is not based on the 'how can I serve you model' of care givers. Often adversarial, often performed under the worst of circumstances, when individuals are either acting out or breaking the law, their encounters are fraught with the reality that they carry a firearm - and they must under all circumstances protect their gun.
An interesting concept I had not considered until yesterday when we were discussing the benefits of the officers walk-throughs of the shelter. Some months ago we had invited the police service to send officers in to the shelter to get to know our staff and clients better. Our goal was to deter drug dealers from infiltrating the building by having random walk-throughs that would discourage their trying to do their business on site.
"I feel it is one of the most dangerous places for me to be," said one of the officers.
I was surprised. Dangerous? We generally have a staff to client ratio of 1:50, or 1:75. Our staff wear vests and, other than a radio and 'panic button' which immediately sounds an alarm in security if they are under duress, carry no weapons. We have very few instances of physical violence.
"Dangerous? How so?" I asked.
"We are two officers amongst two to three hundred people, the majority of whom are not happy to see us there or simply don't like us. If we are swarmed, we must, at all costs, protect our firearms. And I sure don't want a gun fight in the shelter. Someone will be hurt. "
"If someone were to get my gun, the reality is, we're no more bullet proof than the other guy," added his partner. "No matter how much we pretend to be."
I had never considered the walk-throughs as 'life or death' situations.
"I often feel like staff resent us being there and would like to thwart our walking through," another officer chimed in. "They'll tell us we can't go into the men's washroom on the second floor or that we can't stay. I wonder why we even bother to go in?"
A case of miscommunication. Of different perspectives not seeing the same thing.
To our staff, the officers have walked the measure of the law in their walk-throughs but have done little to create 'warmer' relations between staff and clients. We can't figure out why they're so 'stern' and/or unfriendly when they come through.
I'd never considered the aspect of their fear of 'crowd mentality' or the danger of being so outnumbered as part of their psyche.
It was a good lesson in the value of asking questions to understand, not to judge. With that information I now have an opportunity to open our staff's minds to a reality they too have not considered -- that police officers feel at risk on both personal and professional levels when coming into a crowd that generally holds hostile feelings towards them. That, their coldness is not based on a mentality that says -- I've got the gun. I'm boss. Show me the criminals and I'll get them out of here, but rather, from a sense that they're not wanted there in the first place.
The question is: Where do your rigid beliefs about what someone else is doing hold you back from testing your perceptions against their reality? Have you asked questions to understand what's going on for them? Have you opened your mind and listened without judging?