Frederic G. Reamer – Submitted photo

You have been a prominent force in Rhode Island for many decades, with major contributions to social work, criminal justice, mental health, professional ethics, healthcare, public policy and more. Let’s start with a recent initiative: “Teaching Ethics in the Training Academy: A State-of-the- Art Approach,” which you teach in the Providence Police Department Training Academy. Give us an overview.

In 2012, Thomas Verdi, recently retired Deputy Chief and Commander of the Providence Police Department, invited me to develop and teach the ethics curriculum in the Providence Police Department Training Academy. Prior to that, Verdi and I had collaborated on several projects, and he knew of my expertise in criminal justice and professional ethics. I have taught the ethics curriculum in every Providence Police Department academy class since then.

As all of us know, national and local concern about ethics in law enforcement has intensified. This topic has always been addressed in police officer training, but the compelling and very legitimate controversies surrounding George Floyd’s murder during his tragic encounter with Minneapolis police in 2020 certainly brought these issues into sharp relief. All of us are keenly aware of multiple incidents throughout the U.S. that have raised daunting questions about police conduct and misconduct.

Throughout my career, I have gotten to know hundreds of police officers. In my experience, the vast majority are dedicated, principled, and conscientious professionals who do their very best to assist their communities. That may sound pollyannish and naïve. I am not an apologist for police officers and am willing to call out unethical conduct when I see it. In fact, during my 24 years of service on the Rhode Island Parole Board, I presided at a number of hearings for former police officers who were sentenced to prison for a range of job-related crimes; fortunately, they are a distinct minority in the profession. Most often I did not vote to support their parole because of the egregious ways in which they violated the public’s trust.

The ethics curriculum I teach in the police academy is designed to heighten recruits’ awareness of ethics challenges they may face and enhance their ability to manage them skillfully and avoid misconduct. The curriculum includes several key goals: (1) enhance officers’ understanding of the range of ethics-related challenges in law enforcement; (2) provide a comprehensive overview of ethics-related risks and patterns; (3) identify “red flags” and predictors of ethics-related challenges; and (4) discuss prevention strategies.    

Now, some specifics. The training aims to “elicit a sense of moral obligation and personal responsibility.” Break that down for us.

One of my principal aims in the training I provide is to heighten officers’ moral instincts and awareness of ethical challenges that arise in law enforcement. I drive home the importance of recognizing ethical issues—for example, related to conflicts of interest, compliance with ethical standards, whistle blowing when they encounter colleagues’ misconduct, abusive behavior, and impairment—before it’s too late.

I share with recruits the results of compelling research summarized in a book entitled The Invisible Gorilla, which demonstrates that people often fail to see what’s right in front of their eyes because of distractions and their intense focus elsewhere.  Researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons have documented this phenomenon in a series of very creative studies. In the basic experiment, which the authors have replicated many times with impressively similar results, observers are asked to watch a short video in which six people—three in white shirts and three in black shirts—pass around basketballs. These observers are asked to keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a person in a gorilla costume strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera, thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen.

At the conclusion of the video, observers are asked to report how many times the people in the white shirts passed the basketball, suggesting that the purpose of the study is to assess people’s ability to focus on and count a particular activity and compare observers’ reports. In fact, the real point of the study is to assess how many people are so focused on the basketball activity that they completely fail to see the person in the gorilla outfit strolling into the middle of the action. As the authors demonstrate over and over again, consistently about one-half of those who watch the video and count the passes completely miss the gorilla, as though it were invisible.

I can vouch for this result. I have shown this video during many ethics lectures and, nearly always, about one-half of the audience reports that they did not see the gorilla. This is a compelling way to demonstrate that sometimes we simply do not see what is right before us. My concern is the possibility that some police officers will fail to see the ethical issues that are directly in front of them and will fail in their duty to manage these challenges in a morally responsible way.

Another is “Develop the ability to respond to ethical controversy and ambiguity.” What does that entail?

In my experience some ethical issues in law enforcement are “easy”—black and white, so to speak—and others are murky and generate considerable disagreement even among the most seasoned officers. These difficult situations are in the proverbial grey zone, and often, I find, there are multiple shades of grey. For example, under what circumstances in policing, if any, are lying and deception permissible (for instance, when an undercover police officer must lie about her identity)? How should a rookie police officer intervene when he sees his supervising officer (known as an FTO, or field training officer) abusing a suspect? Is it ethically acceptable for a detective to lie to a suspect about the evidence the detective has related to the suspect’s involvement in a crime in order to extract a confession? Is it appropriate for an undercover narcotics officer to participate in an illegal drug deal or overlook a burglary she witnesses to avoid blowing her cover? Under what circumstances is an officer morally obligated to blow the whistle on a colleague whose conduct crosses the line?

In these and related circumstances, I believe police officers must have the finely honed ability and conceptual skills to manage ethical ambiguity. Sometimes, I find, officers are so uncomfortable with moral ambiguity that they rush toward black-and-white thinking. I think that’s very risky. I want officers to accept that some ethics challenges are inherently ambiguous and to have the ability and willingness to cope with this ambiguity and seek nuanced solutions.

And a third is “stimulate the moral imagination.” Please explain.

Stimulating the moral imagination entails the inclination to acknowledge and search for ethical challenges in one’s work. In addition to my work in the police academy, I conduct many ethics trainings for behavioral health professionals in the military branches. What police departments and the military have in common is that they are highly structured environments dominated by strict rules and a command hierarchy. In my experience, this sort of context tends to favor and incentivize a “right or wrong” way of thinking that can ignore complex ethical challenges and discourage the moral imagination required to search for and recognize morally ambiguous questions and circumstances.

I want police department command staff (senior officers) to encourage their officers to use their moral imagination and broach complex questions that lead to constructive discussion and debate. To me, that’s the hallmark of a morally responsible professional. I recognize that complex ethical questions may not always lead to consensus outcomes. I am a firm believer that, in the end, all of us are better off if we engage in vigorous, respectful discussion and nuanced debate, even if in the final analysis we disagree. Thoughtful reflection leads to better outcomes than knee-jerk and impulsive decisions and actions.  

Who can enroll in this program?

My ethics trainings for the Providence Police Department are limited to recruits in the academy.  

An article in Police Chief Magazine about the program has several words and phrases that caught our attention. “warrior vs guardian,” for example. What is that?

In 2015 a publication entitled The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing highlighted this conceptual distinction. In short, the report questioned whether police should be trained like soldiers, i.e., warriors whose aim is to conquer. In contrast, the concept of police as guardians views officers as protectors. This prominent report espoused a view that I embrace wholeheartedly: “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian—rather than a warrior—mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public. . . . Law enforcement agencies should also establish a culture of transparency and accountability to build public trust and legitimacy.”

What about “media portrayal”?

There is no question that public perception of police has suffered in the wake of well publicized instances of egregious police abuse. This is understandable, and widespread negative media portrayals have exacerbated the challenge. The police officers I know are keenly aware that they have taken a reputational “hit” and have to work very hard to strengthen their bonds with the communities they serve and seek a renewed sense of trust. At this moment in time, especially following the horrific murder of George Floyd, it seems to be an uphill climb. Yet so many of the police officers I have come to know—the vast majority, in my experience—are earnest about engaging in deeply meaningful, trust-filled relationships with the communities they serve. Certainly, there are exceptions. But they are exceptions.

And “community relations”?

When former Providence Police Department Chief Dean Esserman was hired in 2003, he championed what is known as community policing, a movement that emerged especially in the 1960s. Put simply, community policing values the personal connections between officers and community residents. The model encourages officers to spend considerable time out of their vehicles, walk neighborhood streets, converse with residents, visit store owners, even shoot hoops with kids on a playground, all in an effort to foster genuine connection. That is hard to achieve when citizens primarily see officers riding around in their vehicles, when officers pull drivers over to issue a speeding ticket, or when officers intervene in a hot crisis. Community policing is all about relationships.

Over the years, I have witnessed the development of connections between citizens and officers who have taken the time to get to know them beyond cursory encounters. I think that can be a profoundly important way to heal wounds in communities where officer-citizen relationships have been strained.

One poignant example stands out. Shortly after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 when a gunman killed 11 worshippers and injured 6 others, the Providence synagogue my family and I attend had Providence police officers guarding our entrance for the very first time in our history. This was a new and unbidden change. Since then, I have witnessed firsthand how congregants and police officers have gotten to know each other as they chat informally week to week. They learn about each other’s families, tastes in music, favorite vacation spots and restaurants, health challenges, and so on. They get to know each other as people in poignant ways. I have seen congregants and officers hug and children sit in officers’ laps.

When one of these officers retired, the synagogue honored him in front of hundreds of congregants and police officer colleagues. The officer’s wife and children attended the event and had tears in their eyes, as did the officer himself. That’s what community policing is all about.

OK, let’s talk about more of your work. You have written several books, including the powerful On the Parole Board: Reflections on Crime, Punishment, Redemption, and Justice. Tell us about it.

I served on the Rhode Island Parole Board for 24 years. My book On the Parole Board: Reflections on Crime, Punishment, Redemption, and Justice takes a deep dive into the nature of parole and, more broadly, the criminal justice system. Drawing on my decades of experience working in prisons, I do my best to pull back the curtain and share my insider’s view of what it’s like to administer justice in the context of an admittedly strained and flawed system. I have learned over the years that so many of the most traumatized inmates—people who have inflicted great harm on their victims—do indeed have the capacity to change and turn their lives around. This may not happen as often as I would like, but it most certainly happens. I have a long list of former inmates who are living remarkably admirable lives, many making profoundly important contributions.

Are there a few others you’d like to highlight here, with descriptions?

Two of my other books focus on crime: Heinous Crime: Cases, Causes, and Consequences and Criminal Lessons: Case Studies and Commentary on Crime and Justice. These books also draw on my many years of experience working in prisons to analyze the nature of criminal behavior and explore key causes, prevention strategies, and constructive responses.

My other books focus primarily on professional ethics. Titles include Social Work Values and Ethics; Moral Distress and Injury in Human Services; Risk Management in the Behavioral Health Professions: How to Prevent Malpractice and Licensing-board Complaints; The Philosophical Foundations of Social Work; Ethical Standards in Social Work; Boundary Issues and Dual Relationships in the Human Services; and Ethical Dilemmas in Social Service, among others.   

You have been on the faculty of Rhode Island College since 1983 and recently transitioned to Professor Emeritus. What is your role at RIC now?

Although I have concluded my formal classroom teaching of graduate students at Rhode Island College after 40 years of service, I continue to have a very full professional calendar. I don’t think of myself as retired; rather, I am shifting my portfolio. I am privileged to be able to teach many continuing education courses for seasoned professionals throughout the U.S. and abroad. My lecturing opportunities have taken me to nearly every state in the nation and to many Asian and European nations. That’s a remarkable privilege. Typically, I feel like these experiences teach me more than I impart to others, especially related to cross-cultural differences in ethical standards and expectations.

I am also quite busy serving as what the courts call an expert witness in many litigation and licensing board cases throughout the U.S. I have devoted much of my career to the study of professional ethics; it’s in that capacity that I am asked to participate formally in many legal proceedings that involve allegations of malpractice and ethical misconduct.   

What else are you engaged in these days?

I am working on new books related to professional ethics, which is quite time consuming. That said, I am relishing having more flexibility in my schedule than I’ve ever had since the start of my career. And my most important priority, by far, is to increase the time I spend with my wife, Deborah Siegel, and our children and their families. Deborah and I met in 1977 as Ph.D. students at the University of Chicago. We have spent our entire professional careers since then teaching in the same graduate program. That has been a profound and special joy. Sharing this next chapter of our lives together is the biggest blessing life has to offer.

Frederic G. Reamer is a member of the Ocean State Stories Advisory Board.