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Expert to Durham cops: What would Aristotle do?

DURHAM – Harry Dolan wants Durham cops to be more like Aristotle.

Dolan, who retired as Raleigh’s police chief in 2012, believes the ancient Greek philosopher’s modes of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logos – can help save careers and even lives.

At a day-long workshop Tuesday, he armed Durham police officers with verbal strategies for de-escalating volatile situations.

Attendees watched videos from traffic stops to see if the officer “stopped the car like Aristotle might” and did role-playing exercises.

Dolan says better communication can dramatically improve police-community interactions. He told how one Occupy Raleigh protester sent a letter to the editor thanking the police for the respectful treatment he received while being arrested.

But these strategies have limits, he admitted.

During one session, the group watched body camera footage of an encounter in another city that went wrong, leaving a teenager dead, and analyzed what the officer could have done differently. The verdict: not much.

“What everyone has to realize is there are times when it doesn’t work,” Dolan said in an interview.

The stakes are especially high given increased police scrutiny across the country.

Dolan, a third-generation officer, said police officers have been “scapegoated” but maintains the general public still respects and trusts law enforcement. He cited a Gallup poll saying faith in the honesty and ethics of police rebounded in 2015.

“People admire you very, very much,” he told the officers, although he added, “people hold you to standards they don’t hold themselves to. And you don’t make a lot of money.”

“We’re like teachers,” he said later. “It’s a calling.”

But Detective Deborah Smith, who joined the Durham department 13 years ago, said she hasn’t always seen positive attitudes toward the police.

“Growing up, I had always thought law enforcement was the most respected profession out there,” she said. “It’s not like that now. We’re being looked at as evil almost.”

“What a lot of citizens don’t understand is that we don’t know what we’re going into,” she explained.

Even routine traffic stops can be risky.

“When we stop a car we have no idea who’s driving that vehicle,” she said. “It could be just an average citizen, or it could be someone who just killed somebody three counties back and is paranoid. Things could get ugly really, really quick.”

“We are not the enemy, period,” she said. “We are here to help you. We don’t want to hurt you, ever. Even when we have to fight you, we don’t want to hurt you.”

Dolan hopes the empathy he discussed with the officers can go both ways. “Police would like people to treat them with respect, wait for the facts to come out and look at the situation holistically,” he said.

Nearly all of the Durham’s 512 police officers and some non-sworn department employees have now completed verbal de-escalation training, either at Tuesday’s session or an earlier workshop on March 9.

Smith said de-escalation training is critical, especially for young officers.

“If you don’t know how to communicate with your public, things go wrong,” she said. “You’ve seen that all over the news. I think this needs to be a longer class, to be honest.”

“Just like we teach you how to use handcuffs, we need to teach you verbal de-escalation,” Dolan said. “This should be something we do on a regular basis.”


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