This has been another one of those years with a heightened awareness of police violence against unarmed black men. Awareness is a good thing. Understanding, however, is better. You can’t solve a problem until you know what the problem is.
The problem isn’t really racism, though. The problem is fear. These shootings don’t happen because the victim was black. These shootings happen because the officer was afraid.
The overwhelming majority of police officers, of course, will go their entire careers without ever pointing their weapon at another human being, much less shooting at one. Of the few officers who do pull the trigger, the majority are justified — they’re using deadly force to protect themselves and the public from deadly peril. That’s the norm. But some police shootings shouldn’t have happened — the victim wasn’t armed, and wasn’t posing a serious threat to anyone.
When those shootings happen, it’s because the officer was afraid. He saw danger where it didn’t exist. Maybe he panicked when the victim reached for his wallet. Maybe he was scared in a dark staircase and was suddenly startled by someone appearing out of nowhere. Maybe he wasn’t scared witless, but simply rationally assessed an indignant shouting person as being a vicious attacker. Either way, he pulled that trigger out of fear.
That fear is real. It doesn’t justify anything, however. Fear is the problem that needs to be solved. So where does it come from, and what can be done about it?
Police often use the phrase “training and experience” in court, to explain their judgment calls. “I suspected that the defendant was getting ready to rob that store, based on my training and experience.” “I determined that the substance he was selling was probably cocaine, based on my training and experience.” It’s a catchall phrase, but not a meaningless one. Training and experience, after all, are how any of us know anything. We know that 2+2=4 because we were trained in elementary school to do addition. We know that the sun rises every morning and sets every evening because we’ve experienced that every day of our lives.
Experience is stronger than training. I can lecture you until I’m blue in the face that the sky is red, but that’s not going to change what you already know from your experience, that the sky is blue.
This fear that police officers have comes from experience. It is ingrained in an officer’s brain from his lifetime of experience. His perception is that this kind of person, looking like that, behaving like that, in this kind of a situation, is probably a threat. Right or wrong, justified or not, that is what he’s learned. It’s what he instinctively knows. You can give sensitivity lectures until you’re blue in the face, but the only thing that’s going to change that perception is real-life experiences demonstrating that he doesn’t need to be afraid.
That’s important, because this fear is not something that can be intellectually or rationally changed. It’s purely unconscious. It’s coming from the unthinking part of the brain, before the thinking part ever gets involved. The emotional parts and ingrained memories of past experiences are saying “this is a threat,” and are pumping fight-or-flight signals all over the nervous system without any conscious control.
On top of that, the brain is unconsciously creating a perception based, not on what’s really going on, but on what it expects is probably going on, based solely on what that brain has experienced in the past. We don’t have much room for attention at any one time — our brains can only keep track of a handful of things at once, and the area of our visual focus is (astonishingly) no bigger than your thumbnail held out at arm’s length. Our brains create the illusion of a continuous experience, and of seeing all the things we think we see. And that’s what it is: an illusion. To do this, our brains fill in all the blanks with what’s probably there, based on the experiences we’ve stored. This happens without our awareness, without our control, and it happens constantly. We perceive what our experience expects to see.
And in the case of unjustified shootings, the police officer very often saw a threat where none existed because in his personal experience, that was a threatening situation.
It’s worsened when an officer’s experience is extremely limited. And it very often is. But it’s all he’s got to go on. Someone raised in a quiet suburb, who whose only experience with certain people has been of a violent or threatening nature, is going to know, based on his training and experience, that people like that are dangerous.
This fear can be racial — police officers are generally more likely to use violence against blacks and hispanics than against whites or asians. Even police officers who themselves are black or hispanic. But that doesn’t necessarily make it racist. And in fact race is less important than socioeconomic status — police are more likely to shoot at low-income, low-prestige individuals regardless of race. But that, too, doesn’t necessarily make it classist. It’s not blind racism or classism, but rather a prejudice based on limited life experiences. An officer may have a real prejudice that black people (say) are more likely to be dangerous than white people, and that poor people are more likely to be dangerous than middle-class or rich people.
We can spout statistics until we’re blue in the face again, that these prejudices do not in any way reflect reality, but that’s like telling him the sky is red. They reflect the officer’s reality, the only one he knows.
On top of that is the “us vs. them” mentality that many police officers can’t help but develop over time. Nobody’s on their side — the politicians whose rules the police are enforcing are the first to throw them under the bus if there’s ever any outcry. The citizens whose lives they’re protecting, for whom they’re risking their lives, call them names and march in outrage. The communities they police scream bloody murder when they don’t like what an officer did, but don’t utter a peep about the people in their communities who are killing children and driving businesses away. Nobody organizes marches against the criminals, against the real bad guys. The only people on their side are fellow cops. Not even prosecutors are really on their side. It doesn’t take long for an officer’s training and experience to prove to him that the citizens he serves are actually his opposition. And when any of us look at people as outsiders, we’re even less likely to notice individual differences. An officer who no longer sees himself as “one of us,” but rather sees any of us as “one of them,” is far more likely to rely on internal prejudice when assessing an individual. This is what we all do, by the way — it’s yet another unconscious function of our brains over which he have little or no control. Members of an “other” group just get lumped together into a stereotype, without much attention to individual differences.
Stereotype is the right word here, but not in the way it’s normally used. It means “the things our brains expect to see.” Most of the time, stereotypes are great — they’re a real survival skill without which we couldn’t function in a complex environment. “That car was coming right at me last time I saw it. It’s in my blind spot now, but it’s probably still coming this way. I’d better get out of its way.” In a panic situation, when there’s no time to think and assess, they’re a real time saver, as the T-shirt says. Your brain falls back on what it already knows, to determine what is probably happening, and what is probably the best thing to do about it. Most of the time, it’s right. Which is why you’re probably still alive to read this.
But sometimes instinctive reactions are tragically wrong. An inexperienced motorcyclist, for example, who suddenly needs to veer left, will do the obvious thing and steer the handlebars to the left. Which is unfortunately the opposite of what he needs to do, and so he goes down and slides into that oncoming truck. A more experienced biker, however, will have trained herself to overcome that instinct and do the counterintuitive thing — she pushes the left handlebar away from her, and veers to the left as she wanted.
Similarly, a police officer whose experience with certain people is limited can easily misinterpret a harmless situation as a dangerous one. Like the motorcyclist, the only cure is more experience.
Training helps a little bit, but it only goes so far. You can lecture to the inexperienced motorcyclist until your face assumes a certain hue, but he’s not going to believe it until he tries it. And it will take a lot of practice to make the counterintuitive decision the ingrained instinct. Similarly, you can give all the cultural sensitivity training you want, but for it to have any real effect the officer is going to have to see for himself that most people who look like that, talk like that, dress like that, live in that neighborhood, etc… most of them are okay. And he must gain enough experience to be able tell those few who are threats from the majority who aren’t.
That doesn’t come from a lecture. That comes from spending time in the community and getting to know the people. That comes with walking the beat with a more experienced cop who knows the people, who can share his knowledge and insights. That comes from giving police officers experience, not just of the criminal element, but of the community as a whole.
That’s hard to do. And it’s getting harder in recent years. Police are less and less likely to come from the communities they police, and cultural dissonance and misunderstanding are ever more likely. Community outrage against police is getting louder, and the “us vs. them” mentality is only getting stronger. Policing policies are less about understanding the community and making judgment calls, and more about arresting every infraction. Police are using more and more overwhelming force to ensure compliance with their commands and improve their chances of getting home safely. Cultural awareness has never been greater, and yet police officers have less opportunity to experience it firsthand than ever.
Giving officers the necessary training and experience is harder than ever. But it’s the only real solution.