Blog No. 114. Race and Policing: The Curse of Stereotypes and The Way Forward

The fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 20, followed by only a few days the fatal shooting of Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte were the latest in a series of tragic encounters between police and African-Americans. By now it is understood that such encounters will produce cries of outrage from the local African-American community and beyond, and protests in the streets, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent. When the protests are violent, the people who suffer the most are, ironically and inevitably, African-Americans.

In Tulsa, the reaction was restrained, perhaps because a video tape was promptly released and manslaughter charges were filed against the officer. An article in the New York Times also suggested that the calm response in Tulsa could also be attributed to a desire to avoid repeating an ugly race riot in 1921 that scarred the city for many years. In Charlotte, however, protests began immediately and continued over several nights, at least one of which produced significant violence. The mayhem, however, did not approach that experienced by Baltimore and Ferguson in the wake of earlier fatalities at the hands of police.

The recent history of African-American fatalities at the hands of police began in the summer 2014 with the chokehold death of Eric Garner and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (although the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a civilian, George Zimmerman in 2012, may have been a prequel). Since then, there have been several more incidents that received considerable coverage but some of which may now be forgotten by much of the public;

–In November, 2014 Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy wielding a fake gun was killed by a Cleveland policeman.

–In April 2015, police in North Charleston, South Carolina, shot and killed Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, after stopping him for a non-functioning brake light.

–In April, 2015, Freddie Gray died in Baltimore while in police custody following his arrest.

–In July, 2015, Sandra Bland died in Waller County, Texas while in police custody following her arrest for failure to signal a lane change. A wrongful death law suit was settled in September 2016.

–In November, 2015, Chicago officials released a dash-cam video of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. McDonald was shot 16 times while apparently walking away from police.

–In July, 2016, Alton Sterling was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

–In July, 2016, Philando Castile was fatally shot in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota.

To list such instances is not to imply that in each case the shooting was necessarily unwarranted, or that the police should be criminally responsible. Nevertheless, while each must be judged on its own merits, and not solely on the basis of video tape, cumulatively they represent a condition that is deeply troubling.

There is no reason to think that we are not in for more such experiences, and each may give rise to protests and possible violence. In the two years since Ferguson, the use of body cameras and dashboard cameras by police has greatly increased, and video cameras on cell phones are widely held among the public. On the whole, we think that is a good thing. More information is better than less. On the other hand, it is clear that video cameras are not a “silver bullet” assuring that police will always act responsibly or guaranteeing that they will be incriminated or exonerated, as appropriate, in a particular case. Whatever the video tape shows, or appears to show, such incidents must be investigated thoroughly and with a view not only to doing justice, but to doing it in a way that is as transparent as possible and credible to the public.

In most cases, that is likely to mean that responsibility to investigate, and to decide whether to prosecute, should be placed in an independent agency at the state or even the federal level. In the Charlotte case, there was controversy over the initial decision of the local police not to release immediately the police videos of the incident. That decision was reversed on Saturday and we believe that reversal was wise. There were legitimate arguments that the tapes should be withheld until investigators had interrogated all the witnesses at the scene. Nevertheless, in this case, and in similar cases, we believe that the argument is out-weighed by the high degree of public interest in learning as many of the facts as as possible. (In Charlotte, the argument for withholding had been further undermined by the release of the video tape of the scene made by the victim’s wife which, like the police videos, was inconclusive).

In July, confrontations between police and African-Americans produced their own horrific and contemptible backlash in the murder of five police officers in Dallas and three in Louisiana. Some have blamed the murders on anti-police feelings generated not only by some members the Black Lives Matter movement but also others who have called for reforms in policing. The Wall Street Journal blamed the media and politicians for a “political narrative” that the Journal described as “trigger-happy, racist cops kill defenseless young black man, and then the racist system conspires to deny the victim and his family the justice they deserve.” Such a narrative conveys a stereotype and, like all stereotypes, may have some basis in fact but is dangerously misleading. But broadly attributing that narrative to media and politicians, as the Journal did, is to employ another and equally misleading stereotype. Put another way, we believe that many in the media, and many political figures, respect and admire police for their skill and bravery, as we do, but also believe, as we do, that too often the system has failed to operate as it should.

One reason that the system may fail is that police struggle with their own stereotypes of African-Americans, particularly in troubled neighborhoods. In February 2015, FBI Director Comey gave a speech at Georgetown University on race and policing. The speech was widely praised for both its wisdom and its candor, and it bears reading, or re-reading, in its entirety. Without using that term, Comey addressed the problem of stereotyping directly:

[P]olice officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.

A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights. The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two white men on the other side of the street—even in the same clothes—do not. The officer does not make the same association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or black. And that drives different behavior. The officer turns toward one side of the street and not the other. We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

It is worth noting that, as Comey indicated, the stereotype he described could be held by either white or black officers. Whether such a stereotype played a role in the shooting of Keith Scott is not clear, and may never be, but the officer who fired the fatal rounds was himself black. And three of the officers who were tried but acquitted in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore were also black. Moreover, some of the shootings suggest that, quite apart from issues of race, some police may need more intensive training on how to avoid the application of lethal force unless there is no reasonable alternative.

Interactions between police and African-Americans that result in fatalities draw the most attention and spark the sharpest protests but they are only a part, and arguably not the most important part, of the troubled relationship between police and African-Americans. A New York Times article on July 11, reported on an extensive study by a Harvard Professor, Roland G. Freyer, that surprised many, including its author. According to the Times:

A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.

But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias. When a fatal shooting occurs, the ensuing protests may be sparked by the shooting but reflect a much broader range of grievances. In any event, there is a clear need for better understanding between the police and the community and the abandonment of stereotypes on both sides. Again, Comey’s words are instructive:

Those of us in law enforcement must redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice. We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us. We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach him with respect and decency.

We must work—in the words of New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton—to really see each other. Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We simply must see the people we serve.

But the “seeing” needs to flow in both directions. Citizens also need to really see the men and women of law enforcement. They need to see what police see through the windshields of their squad cars, or as they walk down the street. They need to see the risks and dangers law enforcement officers encounter on a typical late-night shift. They need to understand the difficult and frightening work they do to keep us safe. They need to give them the space and respect to do their work, well and properly.

Comey’s speech foreshadowed central recommendations of the Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that was issued three months later. The Report is a lengthy document, but even a brief perusal will reward the reader with a better appreciation of the number and complexity of the problems confronting police and the communities they serve. The Task Force had been created in the wake of Ferguson, and we briefly discussed its Interim Report in Blog No. 67. “Police, Minorities and the President’s Task Force (The Final Report was issued a few weeks later but did not differ greatly from the Interim.) The Report strongly supported the concept of Community Policing which is centered on extensive collaboration between police and the community. In addition, the Report emphasized the need for improved training in many areas, including training that recognizes and confronts “implicit bias and cultural responsiveness.”

In Blog No. 67, we found the Report to be a comprehensive menu of issues to be addressed by federal, state and local agencies, but foresaw difficulties in implementation. Now, a year and a half later, we are not aware that the Task Force is currently active or that any other agency, public or private, has attempted an assessment of progress. Nevertheless, there are encouraging reports from some cities. A July 26 article in the New York Times, “A Strategy To Build Police-Citizen Trust,” described the positive experience of Stockton, California, one of six American cities taking part in an experiment funded by the Department of Justice. The cities (which also include Birmingham, Ala.; Pittsburgh; Gary, Ind.; Fort Worth; and Minneapolis) are developing programs to promote racial reconciliation, address the racial biases and to gain the community’s trust through “procedural justice.” On August 21, the Times published an op-ed piece by Charlie Beck and Connie Rice entitled “How Community Policing Can Work.” Beck is the Los Angeles Chief of Police and Rice is a civil rights lawyer who is a member of the President’s Task Force. Their commentary describes the progress in Los Angeles. One example:

Come to Watts and East Los Angeles and you will see the Police Department’s Community Safety Partnership unit, which operates in seven of the city’s most violent public housing projects. Here, officers call out residents’ names in greeting and patrol on foot with gang intervention specialists. The officers earn trust by participating in a range of neighborhood activities — everything from buying bifocals for older people to helping start a farmers’ market and sports leagues for kids. The unit’s officers are not promoted for making arrests, but for demonstrating how they diverted a kid from jail and increased trust.

As evidence of community support, the writers noted that the killing of a young man by police this summer had generated no protests after police were given time to explain that he had been shooting at them and that, contrary to rumors, he had not been shot while surrendering. Peaceful resolution under those circumstances might strike some as a rather low bar, but the writers pointed out that “In the past, there would have been no listening — bottles, rocks and worse would have been the only response. But by morning, calm had taken hold.”

Such encouraging reports give some reason for optimism amid the despair and outrage produced by the shooting in Charlotte and by the reaction of the community (or some fraction of it) to the shooting. But clearly much work remains to be done and random reports from individual cities are no substitute for a comprehensive survey. There will be many items on the agenda of the incoming President, but we hope that reviewing and updating the work of the President’s Task Force will be one of them.

4 thoughts on “Blog No. 114. Race and Policing: The Curse of Stereotypes and The Way Forward

  • Thanks so much for this excellent post. As was obvious from tonite’s presidential debate at Hofstra University, Donald Trump has not read the president’s Task Force report and Hillary Clinton has. There is a racial divide in our criminal justice system — from stop and frisk to convictions and incarceration — that must be remedied if our country is to become a safer and more enlightened place for all its people. One obvious way to reduce crime is to better educate our children and reduce poverty and income inequality. Another is adopt sensible gun control laws. In short, we must proceed on many fronts to — not just community policing — to reduce crime and unequal enforcement of the law. The unnecessary use of lethal force by poliice officers — whether directed against people of color or caucasians — must end. Rogue, trigger happy, racially biased or mental unstable people should never be allowed to wear a badge and carry a gun. Police officers must receive much better training and higher pay.

  • Thank you, Doug, for this exceptionally thoughtful recap of where we are and where we should be looking to go.,,,Comey’s observations are especially cogent and helpful. Would that more of the public discourse in this area were as civilized and constructive.

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