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Do Baltimore police need empathy boot camp?

In Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's telling of the fatal arrest of Freddie Gray, one thing in particular stands out: the complete lack of empathy and compassion allegedly shown Gray by any of the six officers charged in his death, including one woman who was specifically sent to check on his well being following two citizen complaints. The officers put Gray into a police van face-first on his belly with his hands and feet bound, Ms. Mosby said, leaving him to roll around like loose change. They ignored his pleas for medical attention while he could still make them and continued to do nothing for a time after he couldn't, she said.

How could six people treat someone so inhumanely? It is the apparent consequence of a police culture that encourages paranoia, feelings of superiority, and an "us" and "them" mentality. And too often, the "them" is made up of uneducated, poor black men. The disregard allegedly shown for Gray's life is not of the sort we usually associate with police brutality — the intentional misuse of force against a suspect, which requires a certain passion or fear, however misplaced it may be. Gray's case speaks to another evil in the hearts and minds of too many of our police officers: apathy.

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As the Department of Justice undertakes its investigation into whether Baltimore police exhibit a pattern and practice of excessive force and violations of civil rights, we expect them to find multiple instances in which world-weary officers violated rules of basic human decency: invasive body searches, brutal takedowns, jaded denials of medical attention. Police are the good guys, and everyone else therefore has the potential to be a "bad guy" — and who respects the bad guys?

But police should maintain their respect for the people, at least, if not the behavior. It's better for the suspects they arrest, for the communities they work in and for themselves. A lack of respect leads to an over-reliance on force and a discounting of de-escalation techniques, which are already undervalued by police. The average police cadet receives more than 100 hours of training on defensive tactics and how to use a gun, but only eight hours on how to calm a situation, according to a recent New York Times story.

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While it's natural to dehumanize your adversaries somewhat — we do it in war, in politics and on the playground — you risk losing your humanity when you do. And police have to be better than that; their role in society is too great.

Police are essentially guardians of order; they're authorized to use force to keep the peace. It's a huge responsibility — and burden. There are real people out there looking to do them harm; they're constantly on edge and searching for the worst in people, and very few of us understand their everyday experiences. Unless you've been out there on the streets, jeopardizing your life with every traffic stop and response to a call for help, it's difficult to gauge the effect that has on an officer's mindset.

As community members, putting ourselves into the shoes of police is something we could all try to do better. Disrespect of officers fosters a vicious cycle. But police must do this better too. Inherent in their positions of power is a duty to identify with the community — and that includes all members of the community, from the bystanders to the victims to the potential criminals. That's difficult to do when 70 percent of Baltimore police officers live outside of the city limits and 10 percent live out of state.

In his first interview after Gray's death from a spinal cord injury allegedly sustained in the police van, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts acknowledged to CNN that city police behavior contributes to distrust in law enforcement.

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"Now we have to evolve. Now we have to change," he said. "This isn't going to be a short journey. You can see the distrust that's out there, and we have to find inroads to sit down with people — to show care, to show empathy."

Perhaps a start would be to subject officers to the treatment they subject others to. Call it empathy boot camp: Pepper spray them. Forcibly take them into custody. Strip search them, Taser them, leave them sitting cuffed on the side of the road, held down on the sidewalk, unbuckled in a police van. Take their shoes and cell phones and dump them in a park in Howard County. Fingerprint them and put them in a cell. Let them consider scenarios that would have put them in those positions, the effect it would have on their lives and those around them.

Such experience wouldn't be about punishment — just as it shouldn't be about punishment when police arrest someone; that's what the courts are for. It's about understanding — and recognizing what it is they have the power to put other human beings through.

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