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Science of Strangers: Military Research Could Boost Cops' People Skills

A military-led research project meant to improve modern warfighters' social skills might also help police officers overcome public distrust.
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SPOKANE, Wash. — The assignment seemed simple enough: walk up to a woman in a mall and start a conversation. Yet the thought of it made David Erickson clammy.

A military policeman, Erickson was accustomed to dealing with strangers, but only while in uniform. This time, participating in a Department of Defense research project, he was in his street clothes—no badge, no gun, no trappings of authority. Naked.

The woman sat, back to him, on a bench. Erickson, a 44-year-old Washington National Guardsman, approached her from behind. She flinched. He asked to chat. She told him, with a choice profanity, to get lost.

The cop in him wanted to say, “No, that is not how it goes,” and pull her from her seat. Then he thought better of it, and retreated.

Later, in a classroom on the grounds of Fairchild Air Force Base, where Erickson and 27 other law enforcement and military personnel were learning the science of talking with strangers, his “Frankenstein”-like performance became a benchmark for futility. It illustrated how difficult it was for many of them to deal with the public on equal footing. And over the next five days, they practiced how to overcome it.

They’d been invited to be test subjects of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the frontier-pushing R&D arm of the U.S. military that is trying to unravel the mysteries of how humans communicate with each other in unfamiliar situations. The goal is to develop a new way to train soldiers and Marines for modern warfare, in which they increasingly must use social skills to scout enemy territory, distinguish friends from foes, gather intelligence and resolve conflicts, often with little understanding of the local culture or language.

The $40 million Strategic Social Interaction Modules project, led for most of its run by two self-described “philosopher cops” from the West Coast, has yet to be tried outside four small DARPA pilot sessions, the last of which was held at Fairchild in early October. But authorities are already exploring other potential applications, namely for use in American policing.

The research is arriving at a time when police departments across the country are under growing pressure to improve their relationship with the public, a challenge that has unfolded vividly on the streets of Ferguson, Albuquerque and New York this year. Law enforcement officials who have taken part in the DARPA program—nicknamed “Good Stranger”—say it can help prevent abuse of force and build respect in communities with historic suspicion of police.

War, like crime-fighting, is a social enterprise that turns on individual encounters.

“When you’re looking at how to build public trust in communities, it’s the hundreds of thousands of one-on-one interactions that happen on the street between cops and citizens,” said Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, the state’s police academy. “If those hundreds of thousands of interactions don’t go well, you will never build trust.”

Rahr, the former sheriff of King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, hopes to incorporate DARPA’s methods into her agency’s training regimen. “This isn’t PR, or ‘hug-a-thug,’” she said. “This is scientifically based.”

The Ph.D.-toting cops who developed the project are trying to seize the opportunity. They’ve left the program, and have developed a training curriculum for police based on the DARPA research. They call it T3, for “Tact, Tactics and Trust.”

Image: DARPA Training
Anthony Anderman, DARPA SSIM Primary Investigator, talks to students during a "Teach Back" session in a classroom on Fairchild Air Force Base.Jim Seida / NBC News

“We felt the need to do this level of work because we wanted to understand and avoid military-civilian/police-citizen encounters like those we saw in Ferguson,” former project manager Brian Lande explained in an email, referring to the aggressive crackdown on protests that followed an August police shooting outside St. Louis. “Officers who can diagnose (or size up) situations well, take time to take the other’s perspective, reason about the causes of other’s behavior, take time to build rapport, de-escalate conflict, gain voluntary compliance, etc. are able to perform their jobs more safely and are able to keep citizens safe.”

Lande, who has a doctorate in sociology, took on the project in 2011 on request from DARPA, which wanted to understand why many encounters with citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan eroded relationships and resulted in violence. Lande saw many similarities with modern police work, like protecting immigrant neighborhoods infiltrated by gangs. He hired a like-minded partner, Jonathan Wender, a University of Washington criminologist and retired police sergeant.

Their guiding philosophy was that war, like crime-fighting, was a social enterprise that turned on individual encounters. Those interactions were malleable, and could be shaped, given the right tools. They set out to identify those tools, and understand how the best cops and soldiers— the “Good Strangers”—used them to negotiate with the public.

"The students I observe, it’s very hard for them to walk up to a stranger and have a conversation with them.”

They began with a deep-dive into social and behavioral science, enlisting experts in verbal and non-verbal communication, marriage dynamics, child development, hostage negotiations, emotional intelligence. They asked members of the military and law enforcement to help them identify the most important elements of a successful street encounter.

“There are all kinds of people who do this well. But if you ask them what makes for a good stranger, they say, ‘I don’t know, I’m just good at talking to people,’” Wender said. “So we tried to take a more measured and systematic look at this question. What are the skills of interaction that lets someone walk into someone’s world, gear into that and get things done?”

Among the contributors was cognitive psychologist Gary Klein, renowned for his work on high-stakes decision-making. He interviewed 41 police officers and military personnel who embodied the Good Stranger ideal. “We found a common theme was the good strangers in each encounter tried to build trust,” Klein said. “One police officer used the metaphor of ‘moving the needle.’ He said he wanted people at the end of an encounter to have more trust in him and his agency than they had at the beginning.”

The research stressed the importance of trying to understand the target’s perspective of an encounter—a process that started before that interaction even began. All sorts of cues offered insight into that person: their clothes and accessories, the way they held their hands, the distance they kept, how they fit in with their surroundings. There were also ways to appear less threatening, such as “mirroring” the target’s body language.

Anthony Anderman, a former corrections officer who teaches at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, led development of the curriculum, a mix of classroom discussion, video game-like simulations and field work. To test it, he invited members of the military and law enforcement to five-day pilot courses.

“We assume they’re socially adept to the level of being able to engage, adapt and earn trust,” Anderman said. “But based on our observations, that’s not the case. The students I observe, it’s very hard for them to walk up to a stranger and have a conversation with them.”

That was clear in Spokane, where 28 students arrived at Fairchild in early October. On the first day, they were sent out into the public with little guidance. Many, including Erickson, botched their assignments by exploding into people’s personal spaces as if cornering a suspect. Then they hit the classroom, where they learned about the Strategic Social Interaction Modules research. The lab-rat feeling dissolved, and they came to see themselves as sharers of a secret cache of knowledge, able to size up people and adjust conversations by following a seven-step “core competency” checklist: pre-plan, observe and assess, contact, engage, self-control, adapt, disengage.

The students’ coaches placed a particular emphasis on that last step—to end a conversation on a positive note. “That is the step we fail at,” said Brian Sommer, 39, a sergeant in Normandy Park, a small town south of Seattle. He’d enrolled in an earlier class and was so good that he was invited to Fairchild as a coach. “You want to leave a situation so the next officer who meets this person isn’t going to have to make up for what you did.”

The class spent the fourth day in downtown Spokane, practicing on unsuspecting people (they did not identify themselves as police or soldiers). The coaches began with a softball—find out someone’s favorite holiday—and progressed to a short list of unrelated discussion topics that had to end with the target agreeing to talk again sometime. Encounters were recorded on a tablet for instant analysis.

Erickson, who days earlier had delivered his woeful “Frankenstein” performance, felt another bout of anxiety coming on. But, ticking through the checklist, he surprised himself by initiating several relaxed conversations outside the city convention center, including one that involved a mother, a daughter and a protective husband. “You’re killing it, man,” a coach told him afterward.

“Everything from the last three-and-a-half days is falling into place almost perfectly for me,” Erickson said. “It’s pretty cool. Now I’m like, ‘I got this. I can do this.’”

Image: DARPA Training
Brian Lande, left, and Jonathan Wender stand outside the Criminal Justice Training Center in Seattle, Washington.Jim Seida / NBC News

Mike Suniga, a 33-year-old patrolman from Airway Heights, a nearby suburb, approached three transient-looking men gathered under a gazebo in Riverfront Park. With his coach watching a hundred yards away, Suniga drew one of them into a conversation. It turned out the man was a college graduate who was hanging out before the start of his night shift. They chatted amiably for several minutes, shook hands, and said they’d see each other around.

Minutes later, Suniga sat on a bench, examining the video. An experienced officer, he was refining his techniques. But he saw the most potential in training new recruits. “If you have a positive interaction with law enforcement, the perception right now is that one is a fluke. But on the second, third, fourth time, that starts a trend. Eventually the people we are constantly dealing with will start seeing that change. That’s the only way things are going to change, if those encounters with law enforcement are tweaked.”

At day’s end, a group of students gathered at a picnic table on the edge of the park, sharing tales of the newly acquired skills they'd used to ease people into conversations. One of the coaches, Yousef Badou, a former Marine, told them the techniques would not only make them better cops and soldiers, but also “a better person in general.”

“Go out and don’t let this information die with you.” Badou said. “Teach it to your airmen, your colleagues, the people around you, your wife, your kids. It applies.”