Racial Bias and the Stigmatization of Police

With the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York as well as the senseless murder of two New York Police officers, the nation must face two truths: black men are marked as dangerous, violent criminals and police officers are stigmatized even as they risk their lives for us. In facing those tough truths, I want to ask the simple but difficult question of what is to be done. The answer requires deep, hard honesty and a practical vision.


In a recent Gallup poll on American confidence in our institutions, only 53% of respondents answered that they have a great deal or quite a bit of confidence in our police officers. That is a dangerously low number when officers must step into harm’s way for us every day. Why do I say that number is dangerously low? In part, at least, because what seems to be implied by the 47% who expressed limited to no confidence in the police is that a large portion of our population sees the police as a hostile force.


We may wish that the murder of NYPD officers Ramos and Liu were the result of a single sick mind, but the social forces at work argue to the contrary. The murders were the natural outcropping of a diseased relationship between police and US citizens.


Some argue that the underlying bigotry of our society is magnified by police power, and that this institutionalization of injustice causes the apparently justified stigmatization of police officers. A recent New York Times article by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan pointed out that in first-person shooter simulations, African-American characters are shot at higher rates than others even when they are not holding weapons and the shooters are asked to distinguish between hostile and non-hostile characters. And police officers are the very sorts of people who must make snap judgments about whether someone is aggressive or not. So, it would be not all that surprising if officers’ judgments were found to be motivated by unconscious prejudice.


Mullainathan points out that the bias found in the study mentioned above is part of our “fast-thinking,” a form of thinking plagued by unconscious bigotry, but that a slower, more deliberate process can help to mitigate the effects of some of our deeply ingrained prejudices. So how do we translate this lesson into action that protects our officers and helps to heal our racial divisions?


Part of a solution is already at work in mental health facilities. When patients take up aggressive behavior, many mental health facilities now have a practice of calling out a code for all available staff to converge on the location of the patient. No action is taken until the staff are present in sufficient numbers, sometimes numbering as many as 15 or more staff members. This protects both staff and patient. If force is necessary to subdue an aggressive patient, staff members can immobilize the patient’s limbs without much force at all. The staff are also protected from the risk of being overpowered, and they have secondary support should something go wrong. Finally, the team of staff members can make a plan for confronting the patient with the use of as little force as is necessary, and execute that plan in a calm and responsible fashion.


The officer who confronted Michael Brown was placed in a terrible situation. Police officers should not confront suspects without the numbers necessary to allow officers to make calm, well-calibrated choices. But as it is now, we expect the police to risk their safety, and that puts everyone at risk.


As for the Eric Garner case, it seems to me that the officers involved got away with murder. If the mental health facility model was used, and Garner had been talked through the situation without physical force being used until absolutely necessary, Garner would likely still be alive. But the officers involved acted on instinct, apparently. Fast, prejudiced thinking led to the death of Eric Garner.


The tragedy of the two NYPD officers could also have been avoided, if officers had been deployed in groups sufficient to confront an individual in a safe and responsible way. True, the officers were ambushed and their murderer planned an execution. But a group of officers providing security for one another is much more difficult to take by surprise than two officers sitting in a squad car. We failed officers Ramos and Liu by failing to imagine how to protect them and our community at one and the same time.


Healing the wounded relationship between the community and our police will take time. If we can protect our officers by deploying them in the numbers necessary to slow down their thinking and protect their safety, then we will set conditions for less violent and less dangerous interactions with the police. In turn, this new situation will allow officers to act on their better instincts, rather than the prejudices which infect us all when we are put in fast-thinking, high-stress environments. A noble profession deserves the chance to show its nobility, and our communities need our police officers.