Two shooting deaths of Black men by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota within 48 hours have once again reignited debates about law enforcement’s treatment of Black people. And once again protests about race and police officers’ far-too-frequent deadly encounters with Black men and women have become a predictable response.
But while racism among some police officers is no doubt part of the problem, it is not the only problem.
In the case of Alton Sterling, the responses from the #PoliceLivesMatter advocates include the usual playbook of assassinating the victim’s character and blaming the victim’s actions as justifiable reasons for the use of deadly force. On the other hand, the responses from Sterling’s family, friends, and #BlackLivesMatter advocates focus on yet another Black man murdered by the police.
In the case of Philando Castile, a character assassination will be more difficult. He did all the right things: He informed the officer that he had a weapon, and he was attempting to produce his license and registration per the officer’s request. Yet his law-abiding behavior was not enough.
We should not allow ourselves to fall prey to this distracting narrative. This is not about Alton Sterling’s character, and certainly not about Philando Castile’s character, no more than it was about the character of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland or so many more Black people killed by the police.
And while race is almost always the subtext, police killings of Black individuals cannot always be attributed to the race of the police officers. The deaths of David Joseph, James Brissette and Freddie Gray, among many others, all came at the hands of black police officers.
But regardless of who is doing the killing, Black males are still 21 times more likely to be killed by police compared to their White male counterparts, according to ProPublica.
Why? All one has to do is look at social research.
In one psychological review study, researchers found several factors that contribute to these tragedies. First, police officers that are less likely to acknowledge the humanity of Blacks may be more likely to use excessive force with Black males. This belief may not necessarily be explicit, but rather implicit and below the awareness of the police officer.
Second, the stereotype that Blacks are more prone to be criminals also contributes to the targeting of Black males. Researchers have found that Black people were more likely to be associated with crime related objects, such as guns. Other researchers found that Blacks are perceived as more violent, as evidenced by innocent victims such as Trayvon Martin being conceptualized as “thugs.”
But perhaps the most pressing factor is a belief that Black males in particular are superhuman. Some people perceive that Blacks have a higher pain threshold than other racial groups and therefore can withstand and overcome extreme force. This specific belief contributes to the fear that some police officers have of black men. It’s an automatic, unadulterated, base response of fear. And this often-unacknowledged fear of Black men can result in unjust and horrific tragedies.
Therefore, it’s imperative that police training not only focus on de-escalation of conflict, but also the reprogramming of the automatic fear response that some police officers may have toward Black men.
Law enforcement agencies across the country should utilize social research and the assistance of social scientists. There are measures designed to assess one’s implicit biases. In fact, one such test, called the Implicit Attitude Test, is designed to capture the strength of associations one has about people or objects. While there are certainly ongoing debates to the scientific validity of such tests and what the results actually mean, it is nonetheless a useful tool in helping someone identify possible negative or positive associations he or she has toward different races. These measures can help police officers assess their level of implicit bias so they can address it before something happens.
We are at a critical junction in this country. Each loss of life at the hands of police diminishes our collective humanity and causes racial disharmony and mistrust. Police killings have to stop. Changing training tactics so more police officers can overcome their potential biases is a good place to start.
This post was originally published in the Dallas Morning News.
About the Authors:
Kevin Cokley is a professor and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Germine Awad is an associate professor of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. Email: email@example.com
Tags: Diversity and Social Justice, Race Ethnicity