I came across this UCLA Medical School Commencement Address by Dr Atul Gawande. Reading through it, I was struck by the solutions it offers for India’s current problems of rather frequent instances of violence on doctors in hospitals. The solution comes from the speaker’s philosophical thinking. I was also struck by the mission level commonality between the practice of medicine and practice of policing.
The first principle of the practice of medicine is that saving the life of any patient should be equally important to the treating doctor. Dr Gawande acknowledges that practitioners do not always live up to the principle. It is also the first principle of the practice of law enforcement- that there should be no distinction when acting upon complaints of persons from different social status. However, like in medical practice, but more so in policing, this principle is still only a goal to be achieved.
He mentions hospitals as places where you encounter the whole span of society-everyone, irrespective of position and means, needs medical care. Similar are the police stations- everyone needs good law enforcement work by police and the person’s position and means should be irrelevant for police when dealing with a victim or perpetrator of crime. Dr Gawande observes that US has a high incarceration rate ( currently 7 million people) and many of those incarcerated are blacks or the mentally ill and further, that 30% of the country’s adults carry a criminal arrest record! These figures are an eye opener about the unending circular link between poverty, social disadvantage and crime.
Impacting the nation’s economic growth and widely dispersing the benefits of better growth are not in the hands of the police but one of the significant fallouts of poverty and inequality is higher crime- which is fully a police responsibility. Poverty and inequality are two factors whose outcome is more crime in society. How then can the police cope with the hard problem of crime due to poverty and inequality?
Dr Gawande provides the solution for the medical fraternity- doctors need to be open to recognising the common core of humanity in each individual and develop curiosity for understanding what it feels like to be in the other’s shoes. In short, if doctors develop their capacity to empathise, it will help people dealing with doctors overcome their anger and fear through which they often act violently. I especially liked the way Dr Gawande expresses this ‘Once we lose the desire to understand-to be surprised, to listen and bear witness-we lose our humanity.’
What is in this solution which is beneficial for policing? Treating the especially vulnerable populations with understanding and respect means creating a more level playing field for access to justice. And what can cause this better understanding and respect? To my mind, it would be preventive policing through appropriate community policing schemes. It is therefore very important to nudge police activities in the direction of preventive policing through community policing. And a nudge which works here is the budgetary funding which government can provide for community policing schemes and supervised through performance audits of such schemes.