Monday, July 11, 2016

The Relationship Between Police Officers & African-Americans: Can The Rift Be Mended?

This past week was immensely jarring in terms of interactions between African-Americans and police officers. Alton Sterling, who was an African-American male, was shot by Baton Rouge police officers. Less than 48 hours later, Philando Castile, another African-American male, was shot by police during a traffic stop in the Minneapolis area. These two shootings, one of which was perpetrated by a Caucasian police officer, caused an uproar about police misconduct towards African-Americans. To make matters even more jarring, an African-American decided to go on a sniper attack and murder five police officers that were trying to keep the peace during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

Before delving into some of the finer points surrounding police misconduct, I would like to start with the prevalence of deaths caused by police officers, especially since the Black Lives Movement primarily started based on the protest of law enforcement officers killing African-Americans. The Washington Post (WaPo) released some 2015 data and 2016 data for deaths caused by police officers.

We'll look at 2015 and 2016 since the data are most recent. In 2015, there were 990 police shootings, and 2016 has 513 people shot as of date.  Looking at the 2015 WaPo data, 79 percent those shot were armed with a deadly weapon (a tenth of those killed were unarmed). Three quarters of the incidents involved police officers that were under attack. Also, there were about twice as many Caucasians killed as African-Americans. African-Americans, however, do not make up nearly as much of the population as Caucasians. When adjusted on a per capita basis, African-Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than Caucasians.

On the other hand, we cannot expect these rates to line up with general population demographics. After all, police follow crime and work to stop it, which leads them to high-crime areas. Arrest rates come into play here because it provides a solid proxy for the extent to which police interact with others while on the job. As of 2014, African-Americans account for 13 percent of the population (Census) while accounting for 27.8 percent of the arrests (FBI, Table 43). While this could be an issue of these shootings taking place in areas with higher rates of crime, it could also be argued that there is a systemic bias against African-Americans, a concept that is often referred to as implicit bias. However, the Washington Post sheds some light on the topic (James et al., 2016). The research from Washington State University does show a racial disparity, but ironically enough, the disparity is in the opposite direction: officers are three times less likely to shoot an unarmed African-American than an unarmed Caucasian.

[As a side note, I would like to dispel the notion of a "war on police." As the American Enterprise Institute points out, there isn't a "war on police," either. Both in terms of raw number of police deaths and rate of police deaths, the figures have been on an overall decline since the mid-1970s.]

Even with facts refuting the narrative of "the police are out to disproportionately kill black people," the racial tension in this country is much more profound than police shootings. When it comes to treating people equally under the law, the issue of racial disparity is not that of mere perception (see Pew Research findings here and here), but an issue that has been ongoing in American history. With slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and even today with such laws as stop-and-frisk [that disproportionately affect the African-American community], it can hardly be said that the United States legal system has treated African-Americans fairly. The Mayor of Dallas did not hold back when talking about the complications of race in this country, and said that we need to tackle the issue of racism in this country.

There is something to be said regarding police misconduct in this country, particularly when discussing racial disparity. Take an example like stop-and-frisk: it is ineffective, it is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights, and it disproportionately affects African-Americans. Even with issues of police misconduct in the United States, it provides zero excuse to go on a shooting rampage against police officers for revenge. More violence is only going to send this country in a downward spiral towards further divisiveness and violence, which, as I will cover momentarily, is not the ultimate goal.

While one could get caught up in the debate between "black lives matter" and "blue lives matter", what I want to do here is put more emphasis on criminal justice reform. Why? Because among other reasons, police officers are to be held to a higher standard for the power they hold. Police officers are meant to protect and serve, and when there is an abuse of power that takes place, such imperfection should come under greater scrutiny.

As for how to move forward, I would first like to touch upon the issue from a public policy standpoint, and provide a few solutions regarding policing reform:

  • Demilitarization of police force. I covered this topic when the Ferguson altercation took place back in 2014. To summarize, the police force is overly militarized. By ending the federal government's 1033 program and limiting local police officers from purchasing military equipment, abuse can be scaled back by "taking away their more harmful toys." 
  • Disarmament of police force. An extension of the former recommendation is to completely disarm police officers of firearms. While this might seem counterintuitive, there are five developed countries that have successfully implemented this policy. However, given how gun culture is in the United States, I have to retain skepticism of how successful it would be in the United States. 
  • Police Body Cameras. While the implementation of police body cameras are in their infancy, they seem to have an overall positive effect on police officer transparency so far. 
  • Citizen Oversight Panels. "All politics is local," and considering that police forces tend to be localized, this cliché holds true. This is a measure that not only gets citizens involved, but  increases accountability over police officers. Increasing community policing would also help police officers feel more connected to their community, and vice versa. 
  • De-Escalation Training. This is an idea that seems to have worked for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. Essentially, officers undergo [annual] training using real-life scenarios that are controversial and vexing, thereby helping officers learn from others' past mistakes, thereby providing a basis to avoid future altercations. 

Implementing these policies would help reduce the rate of altercations that cause these irksome scenarios to come into fruition. However, I think something else needs to take place that cannot be enacted by public policy, and that is inculcating a sense of human decency across the board. To put it in Jewish parlance, we need a stark reminder that we are all created in G-d's Image (בצלם אלהים), regardless of race. Although this series of tragedies has put the emphasis on the African-American community (which it should, given the circumstances), I also think the end-result and overall message need to be that of unity. As President Obama stated a day before the Dallas shooting, "When people say 'Black Lives Matter,' that doesn't mean blue lives don't matter; it just means all lives matter, but right now, the big concern is the fact that the data shows black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents." Comedian Trevor Noah echoed Obama's sentiment by saying that "if you're pro-Black Lives Matter, you're assumed to be anti-police, and if you're pro-police, then you surely hate black people, when in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be." Yes, all lives matter, and I think that in spite of the political rhetoric on all sides, I don't think that point was being denied. At least from what I have gathered, those of the Black Lives Matter movement had not been saying "only black lives matter."

Aside from public policy that would reduce police shootings and police abuse, what needs to be done is to express solidarity with those who are hurting from all that has transpired. As my rabbi suggested during services last week, we need to make connections with people to help heal the wounds in this country to emphasize our essential humanity over differences we have. Ultimately, we have to send a reminder that because all lives matter, that does mean that by extension, black lives matter, and we need to show that in word, thought, and deed.


  1. Clarification: Philando Castile was not killed by a Caucasian Minneapolis police officer. The officer is a Latino St. Anthony police officer. He was killed in a traffic stop in an extremely low crime area.

    I agree on the body cams for police officers. This officer may also wish his department possessed any. As it stands based on this agencies track record, it appears public sentiment that he was pulled over for Driving While Black is hard to disprove.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Jeff. I have since corrected the blog entry.

  2. Again, a very detailed and quality analysis. I have a basic idea which is sort of implied by what your rabbi said about "connections." Perhaps in areas with significant distrust between officers and citizens there should be conversations and meetings between the two parties with a mediator. Both sides could air their concerns in a constructive, non-violent way. I think much of the issue stems from a lack of communication (obviously not all cases) and it is hard to demonize someone who is listening to you, face to face, with a mediator. A roughly analogous example is the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions from South Africa. What I am proposing already could be a part of the civilian oversight panels, I am not sure.