Over the weekend Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald instituted a new policy requiring that all the city’s officers operate in two-person units. While partnering up was already the standard for patrol cops, the change explicitly states that “under no circumstances will a single officer respond to any call or make any location by his or herself. This is not optional and is a mandate that includes patrol supervisors, detectives, and any officer in plain clothes assignments.”
The move is an understandable reaction to the horrific events of July 7 here in Dallas and the slayings of cops in Baton Rouge on Sunday. We want to keep our police as safe as their inherently risky job allows. But are two-man squad cars really better off?
I couldn’t help but think of what the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the subject in his 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Despite that title, Gladwell’s work isn’t an endorsement of the magic of making split-second decisions. Much of the book is dedicated to exposing the dangers of our reliance on our instincts, of acting before thinking — particularly in life-or-death situations like police-involved shootings.
Gladwell cites the psychologist Keith Payne, who says “When we make a split-second decision, we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe.” We’re usually better off when we take a beat to slow things down. Gladwell writes:
“Our powers of thin-slicing and snap judgments are extraordinary. But even the giant computer in our unconscious needs a moment to do its work. The art experts who judged the Getty kouros needed to see the kouros before they could tell whether it was a fake. If they had merely glimpsed the statue through a car window at sixty miles per hour, they could only have made a wild guess at its authenticity.
For this very reason, many police departments have moved, in recent years, toward one-officer squad cars instead of two-. That may sound like a bad idea, because surely having two officers work together makes more sense. Can’t they provide backup for each other? Can’t they more easily and safely deal with problematic situations? The answer in both cases is no. An officer with a partner is no safer than an officer on his own. Just as important, two-officer teams are more likely to have complaints filed against them. With two officers, encounters with citizens are far more likely to end in an arrest or an injury to whomever they are arresting or a charge of assaulting a police officer. Why? Because when police officers are by themselves, they slow things down, and when they are with someone else, they speed things up. ‘All cops want two-man cars,’ says [security expert Gavin] de Becker. ‘You have a buddy, someone to talk to. But one-man cars get into less trouble because you reduce bravado. A cop by himself makes an approach that is entirely different. He is not as prone to ambush. He doesn’t charge in. He says, ‘I’m going to wait for the other cops to arrive.’ He acts more kindly. He allows more time.'”