Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt recently recounted this conversation between her and her son:
I’m on an airplane with my son. And he looks up and he sees a black man, and he says, “Hey, that guy looks like daddy.”
And I look at the guy, he doesn’t look anything like my husband, and I notice he’s the only black guy on the plane. And he says, “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.”
And I said, “Well, why would you say that?”
And he looked at me and he said, “I don’t know why I said that.”
And so we’re living with such severe racial stratification that even a 5-year-old can tell us what’s supposed to happen next.
As early as five years old, children (even black children!) learn that black men are suspect. One recent study showed that more than 40% of people think many or most black men are violent. It was 15% for white men and black women, and even lower for white women.
Another interesting study flashed a picture to a group of people. Two white men were fighting. One was holding a knife. When asked who had held the knife, most of the subjects gave the correct answer. A second picture featured a white man and a black man. The white man was holding the knife. When asked about this second picture, most people - black and white - incorrectly identified the black man as holding the knife. Deeply engrained biases actually alter what we see. What might this mean for law enforcement?
I have documented that the rate of justifiable homicide by law enforcement has been increasing since 2000, even as the rate of crime has been falling. I take this as a proxy indicator for more violence in general being used by law enforcement. I have also noted two possible contributing factors. First, “Broken windows” policing came into vogue in the wake of the of a crack cocaine epidemic twenty-five years ago. Minor violations were enforced in an effort to restore order in beleaguered neighborhoods. People wanted more aggressive policing. Second, 9/11 has moved our collective psyche toward viewing ourselves as continuously living with imminent threats. Policing tactics become more aggressive in an emergency and maybe this spills over into everyday policing. I would suggest a third factor upon more reflection. The collapse of the economy in 2008, has left many people with much less confidence in the government’s ability to work well and to protect them. Domestic events like Sandy Hook and international events like ISIS beheadings create a sense of world running amok.
These factors may explain why justifiable homicides have been increasing but why should this have a disproportionate impact on blacks killed by police relative the rate crime in their communities? Some activists see a calculated race war against African-Americans. Law enforcement is only one step removed from Bull Connor or the KKK. Studies suggest that upwards of about 25% of Americans have openly hostile attitudes about African-Americans. Law enforcement officers are drawn from society so there are no doubt represented among law enforcement. With 17,000+ law enforcement agencies in the U.S., I have no doubt particular law enforcement agencies can come under the sway of such attitudes. But the idea that law enforcement community is part of some orchestrated act of oppression goes much too far. All the evidence points to most police officers being highly dedicated people who genuinely want to serve all the public well. Does this then mean that apart from a few bad apples, that there is no racial component to what is happening?
As I listen to conversations about recent controversies, I hear a common refrain from many in the white community. If there was no explicit exclamation of racial animus by a police officer, then there was no racism. Any attempt to raise race as a piece of the problem is viewed as “reading things in,” or even worse, an attempt at race-baiting or playing the race card. This seeing racial bias purely in terms of conscious motivations of individual actors errors in another direction.
I think race is an issue in the rise of justifiable homicide rates in at least three important ways. First, look at the strategies and tactics we use. Neighborhoods most at risk from becoming bases of serious criminal activity are poorer neighborhoods. Minorities make up disproportionately high percentages of these neighborhoods. Any aggressive policing strategy, like broken windows, is going to have disproportionate impact on minorities. Confrontational interactions between law enforcement and citizens will rise, and more interactions mean more opportunities for lethal force. In some cases, our policing strategies set the stage for disproportionate negative impacts with police regardless of the motivations of any particular officers.
Second, we have deep-seated perceptions about black communities and black men. Officers have discretion as to use of lethal force when they feel threatened. Like the young black boy on the airplane, there will be a perception of a black man as a greater threat. The threshold for an officer to act or react will be lower. Without any willful malice toward black men, race will have had an impact in the death of some black men. Studies show that, with good training, officers can learn to ignore irrelevant issues like race but how widespread and effective is that training?
Third, there are bad or incompetent actors in law enforcement who do not belong there. Law enforcement is difficult disciplined work and, as with any human organization, there are going to be unqualified people who slip through even the best screening process. So let us not ignore that there are officers who do harbor ill will. Aggressive protocols give opportunity for expression of this will.
So even absent conscious malice by individual players, race is thoroughly “baked in” to the decisions we make about law enforcement. It is easy for me to be emotionally detached from this problem as a middle-aged white guy but when your whole life is peppered with what feels like constant harassment by law enforcement it is a different story. Marry to this frustration the living memory of once pervasive lynching and miscarriages of justice done with impunity toward the black community, and visceral reactions are not surprising. Justifiable homicide is just an extreme example of a more pervasive reality.
So I will conclude this series of three posts suggesting that what we have is not so much a law enforcement problem but a societal problem. There a bad apples and incompetent players in law enforcement, just as there are in any human institution, but law enforcement is made up mostly of dedicated people who want to serve well. The difference here is that when officers mess up people can get killed. Standards must be high. But law enforcement is also responsive to the public’s demands. And if our fearful demands lead to policies that have unintended negative consequences, should we be blaming law enforcement for those consequences? Better collection of data and reforming a process where the final determination on justifiable homicide is being made by law enforcement agencies and prosecuting attorneys who exist in a symbiotic relationship, are two reform measures that are being discussed. But even before that, I think we need to reflect on to what degree fear is driving us to make bad policy decisions.
But there is another societal problem. Racial perceptions pervade our society. As law enforcement draws it officers from our society, it ranks will be reflective of the views held by society as a whole. We certainly need to work to drive racial bias out of law enforcement behavior but foremost we need to work to drive bias out of society. That would in turn rectify law enforcement behavior. And to that end, I would suggest that white Americans need to stop looking to every excess by either rioting protestors or self-aggrandizing activists as a basis for being dismissive of black voices. I’m now moving out beyond the issue of justifiable homicide but we are kidding ourselves if we think we can solve problems like these with a narrow focus on reforming law enforcement.
The two previous posts: