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  • Jonathan Parker

Don’t Discount the UT-Dallas Study on Self-Control and Police Use of Force Just Yet


Law Officer recently reported “Study: Divorced Police Officers More Likely to Use Deadly Force,” which was based on a UT-Dallas study on the connection between self-control and use of force. The eight factors, which include divorce, debt, and traffic crashes, were used as indicators of a higher likelihood for uses of deadly force.

Many have immediately discredited or discounted the findings, setting social media ablaze, because they assume the researchers are biased against police or the research is pointless.

See how readers responded on the Law Officer Facebook page.

Further investigation shows that the same research team published a study this month in the American Journal of Public Health, with the Dallas Morning News reporting that “white Dallas police officers do not disproportionately use force against minorities, contrary to common public perceptions.” It would be foolish to think that researchers do not approach their work with a certain amount of bias, but perhaps they are being reasonably objective without an axe to grind against police.

Aren’t we guilty of the same bias if we don’t approach the research objectively to see how the findings may apply to or help us? So indeed, how can the research benefit the law enforcement community?

Patterns of Behavior and Totality of Circumstances

One of the foremost objections to the study had to do with cherry-picking one or two factors and arguing based on personal experience that the research is false. “I’ve been divorced twice and never used deadly force.” “So just because I have a car loan and a divorce I am more likely to use violence in my duties?”

In our profession, we understand patterns of behavior and the process of drawing conclusions based on a totality of circumstances.

An individual cannot be validated as a gang member because he wears red clothing…unless he also has gang related tattoos, is in possession of other symbols, is consistently observed associating with known gang members, or a combination of factors. A suspect cannot be convicted of robbery simply because his cell phone pinged in the area of the crime at about the same time. There must be other patterns, evidence, or circumstances.

The UT-Dallas News Center reported, “An officer having one or two of the indicators could be attributed to bad luck, but a pattern might indicate that more screening is needed, Maskaly said.”

The study is focused not on a specific behavior, but on a pattern of behaviors that paint a bigger picture of a lack of self-control.

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The Marshmallow Test

The issue of self-control and its correlation to behavior is nothing new. To be sure, correlation does not automatically mean causation of the behavior, but when there is a strong correlation, we cannot simply wink at the findings.

Some 40 years ago, at a nursery school at Stanford University, Psychology Professor Walter Mischel ran an experiment that is now famously called “The Marshmallow Test.” His 2014 book by the same title talks about the study and mastering self-control. The test involved placing a series of 4-year-olds into a room. They were given one marshmallow and told they could eat it immediately. If they could wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, they would be given a second marshmallow to enjoy as well.

The study revealed that only 30% of the children could wait the full 15 minutes to get the second marshmallow. Repeated studies in different countries have produced similar results.

Follow-up research found that those children who demonstrated self-control or delayed-gratification by waiting for the second marshmallow scored, on average, 250 points higher on the SAT test, were higher achievers in whatever field they had chosen, had a lower BMI, lower rates of addiction, a lower divorce rate, and were generally more successful and happy.

So, there is a distinct connection between certain behaviors like divorce, substance abuse, paying bills late, excessive debt, and a person’s level of self-control or self-discipline.

Would it be an unreasonable conclusion, even without the UT-Dallas research, that an officer with a demonstrated lack of self-control might also be more likely to escalate force or use deadly force rather than demonstrating restraint in situations where restraint may be possible or preferred even if deadly force is technically justified?

The Opportunity for Law Enforcement

There are several valuable takeaways from this research that can help us develop as a profession.

First, understand that our personal lives do in fact affect our professional lives. In a recent interview on my podcast, The Watch Your Six Podcast, Federal LEO Dan O’Connor said, "Anybody who tells you that your personal life does not affect your professional life is more than naive, they're ignorant. If you believe that your sickness and your health, your love and your relationships don't impact your behavior and performance at work, then your lack of emotional intelligence is so great that you're actually detrimental to the organization."

Secondly, the research is better equipping us to take care of our own. It does not appear that the researchers are seeking to disqualify otherwise qualified officers from serving. The point is that if we know certain behaviors are correlated with lack of self-control, and lack of self-control “may” manifest in certain other unwanted behaviors on the job, then wouldn’t we be doing ourselves and our communities a disservice if we did not investigate further.

If we knew that lack of self-control, or impulsive behavior, was a risk factor for officer suicide, then wouldn’t we want to address the lack of self-control in an attempt to prevent the suicide?

The research is helping us know what to look for. We may be able to better weed out those who would tarnish the badge, but we may also be able to help officers before they endanger themselves or their coworkers. There’s no issue with pre-hire credit checks, random drug screens, or annual performance reviews, so what would be the problem with following the Federal Law Enforcement protocol of background screenings every five years?

Thirdly, the research is helping us develop a stronger culture of leadership. As one of my graduate professors, Dr. Fred Garmon, says, “Leadership-development begins with self-development, and self-development begins with self-awareness.” Don’t be so afraid of looking in the mirror to see if there are areas where you could improve or develop as an individual and leader.

One of the takeaways from The Marshmallow Test is that we can utilize core strategies to train self-control into our development, but we can only implement those strategies when we know they are needed.

The findings of the UT-Dallas study may not be an easy pill to swallow for some, but for the sake of our profession, let’s hope they continue their research.

This article was originally published HERE at LawOfficer.com.

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