Complexity and Community: Beyond Control

By Davidlohr Bueso from Santiago, Chile (police special forces) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
In facing complexity, institutions that seek to represent some form of authority can no longer count on simple mechanisms of control, nor can they claim to hold the sole, proprietary keys to critical information. The information most critical to their success lies within the minds of those they would seek to influence.

Knowledge from the community, as we’ve discussed here before, is critical information to the flourishing of successful enterprises, whether a business, school, government, or—as recent statements by NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton and FBI Director James Comey have made clear—a police force.

In “Another Bratton revolution for the New York City police” by Kevin Cullen in the Boston Globe, Bratton addresses the significant tension between the police and the communities they work most within: “The biggest challenge. . . is that the neighborhoods where our approval is the lowest are the same neighborhoods most plagued by violent crime.”

To address the great rift that lies between the perception of the communities they serve and the police officers, Bratton wants to tap into the expertise of veteran cops by pairing them with rookies. This apprenticeship model gives cops an opportunity to learn from those who have long served the communities they work within:

Basically, it’s getting back to the beat cop paradigm, freeing them from the tyranny of responding to radio calls. Cops will learn, from the community itself, who the troublemakers are, reducing the need for the random stops and frisks that engender so much resentment.

“For years,” Bratton said, “we’ve been asking our officers to engage with the community, but we’ve never given them the time to do it.” [bold added]

There’s parallels to teaching here. Most teachers are thrown into any school they can find employment at, with little apprenticeship, and little induction into the community their school serves. Teachers are left stranded in an isolated classroom, struggling to support students whose everyday lives may be so foreign to that of their teachers that may be little opportunity to connect new academic learning to prior knowledge or social aspects of students’ lives.

When you add racial and socio-economic differences into this mix, situations can become toxic. Though everyone talks about high expectations in the education sector, at the ground level, in that isolated classroom, who is to say that this teacher is equipped with the context and understanding to work positively with students that may look, talk, and live in a manner completely foreign to her own experience? What kind of training and support has she received to prepare her for the specific social, cultural, linguistic, and emotional reality of the students who sit before her?

The FBI Director, James Comey, also addressed the deep tension that can lie between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. In “F.B.I. Director Speaks Out on Race and Police Bias” by Michael Schmidt in the New York Times, Comey refers to the “significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases.”

Echoing Bratton’s comments on beat policing, Comey suggestions the following:

“Law enforcement officers, he said, need ‘to design systems and processes to overcome that very human part of us all.

Although the research may be unsettling, what we do next is what matters most,” Mr. Comey said. . . .

Mr. Comey said tensions could be eased if the police got to know those they were charged to protect.

“It’s hard to hate up close,” he said. [bold added]

It’s a constant refrain in education these days for a reason: getting to know our students and build positive relationships with them is critical. Furthermore, knowing their families and community is critical. Without this knowledge and understanding, unconscious biases and assumptions have free reign. And while that may have worked just fine for schools and law enforcement agencies in the past, it’s no longer tenable in a day and age where individuals are equipped with advanced communications technology (smartphones).

We live in a time in which anyone with a phone can nearly instantaneously post a blog or a video and influence many others within their networks. This has changed the game for those who work for institutions that represent “authority,” and who seek to influence the constituents they serve.

This recognition has also been made by the military. In “A refocus of military influence” by Vaughan Bell on Mind Hacks, Bell investigates the birth of the 77th Brigade, a new arm of the British military that “has been prompted by a growing realisation that the success of security strategy depends as much on influencing populations at home and abroad as it does through military force.”

The formation of the 77th Brigade is a mostly reflection of a wider refiguring of global conflict that puts cognition and behaviour at the centre of political objectives.

It is simultaneously more and less democratic that [sic] ‘hard power’. It makes the battle of ideas, rather than the use of force, central to determining political outcome but attempts to shape the information environment so some ideas become more equal than others. [bold added]

In schools, we have long shed disciplinary mechanisms of paddling and rapping knuckles with rulers. Yet we still cling to vestiges of this mentality, suspending kids right and left, rather than seeking to get to the heart of the psychological perceptions and emotional and social experiences that drive that behavior. But this, too, is changing, as concepts of “restorative justice,” rather than suspension, become more widely propagated. Restorative justice sounds like a hippie thing. But when you consider that the method strategically taps into the perceptions and emotional experiences and social networks of those involved, it becomes more evident as a tactic for better coping with complexity by harnessing the knowledge of those who hold the most critical information.

All of this talk of police work as embedded within the community it serves brings to mind David Simon’s “The Wire” series. One of the moments that most stood out to me from that show was when a police major, Colvin, laments the “warfare” mentality engendered by the “war on drugs,” and recalls the “real police work” of the beat officer walking the streets of the community she serves.

Here’s a short clip of his monologue [Warning: strong language use]:

2 thoughts on “Complexity and Community: Beyond Control

  1. Micah

    Though it was implied, I have to point out that teachers are also seen as authority figures to poor and minority children. Which is to say that there is another layer the teachers must get through to reach the student.

    As a kid who grew up poor, I was told by my parents to never ask questions, to shut up, and do what I was told. If I didn’t, my teachers would fail me or suspend me, my doctor would give me shots, and police officers would throw me in jail. Scare tactics like these are prevalent in lower-income communities which make kids scared or rebellious.

    It’s hard to earn trust when your parents have made you fearful that a certain person can truly ruin your life with a snap of the fingers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Micah,

      Thank you for bringing out this point. I agree that teachers stand at a further remove as the authority figures in the classroom — and they furthermore stand as representatives of an institution that serves as a figurehead of authority. And as you also pointed out, if this authority is to be recognized as a legitimate authority, not simply one to be feared based on coercion, then it needs to earn the trust of those it serves. I believe that this concept of “service” is important to draw out–the authority of institutions stems from the quality of the service that they can provide.


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