Common Sense Profiling or Racial Bias by U.S. Police Departments?
February 23, 2015
With mainstream media figures such as Al Sharpton acting as race-hustlers, adding fuel to the conflagrations that grow up around police violence, the media establishment has given America’s political leaders cover to claim that last year’s Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases are evidence of endemic police discrimination. But FBI Director James Comey was supposed to strike a new, more moderate tone with his speech at Georgetown University on “hard truths” about law enforcement and race.
“In addressing race relations, Mr. Comey will be trying to do something that politicians and law enforcement leaders—including his boss, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.—have failed to do without creating significant backlash,” wrote Michael S. Schmidt for The New York Times in advance of his speech. If the Director’s speech didn’t invite racial backlash, it’s probably because most people don’t understand the parlance he’s speaking, and the media aren’t about to enlighten them as to how much Comey’s speech echoes the ongoing Department of Justice agenda to reeducate the police.
“In the past five years, Holder has more than doubled the number of police department probes compared with the previous five years, opening more than 20 investigations and pressuring 15 consent orders to stop ‘biased policing’ and other alleged violations,” wrote Paul Sperry for the New York Post last December. One such city was Seattle, where Professor Rachel D. Godsil questioned whether the DOJ-condemned excessive use of police force was due to racial bias.
“To overcome implicit bias in behavior requires people to consciously override their automatic assumptions and reactions,” wrote Godsil. “This is particularly true in policing when the stakes are so high.” She cites studies in which police reacted more negatively to dark-colored faces than white ones when making decisions.
Similarly, the Post’s Max Ehrenfreund picked up on one thing about Comey’s recent speech: the Director said that no one was colorblind and quoted from “Q’s Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” In other words, no matter how colorblind someone attempts to become, they, too, will fail at confronting their own unconscious stereotyping.
The FBI Director’s public admission that creating a completely unbiased person is an impossible goal was apparently “huge” to Ehrenfreund. And the Post reporter referred his readers to an online program which tests racial bias based on how participants sort white and black faces so that they, too, can identify their implicit racism.
“[Lorie] Fridell contrasted implicit bias with what most people think of as racism against minorities,” continues Ehrenfreud. “It doesn’t require any hostility toward those groups,” Fridell, a criminologist at the University of South Florida, said. “It can happen outside of conscious awareness, even in people who are well-intentioned and who reject biases and discrimination.” In other words, such allegations can hardly be quantified—and are therefore difficult to challenge.
“She said that her group, Fair and Impartial Policing, has received several times as many inquiries since Brown’s death as before,” Ehrenfreund continued.
Fridell has ongoing research-related contracts with the Department of Justice, though her opinions about the police are controversial.
“She [Fridell] believes legal definitions of unlawful discrimination are ‘outdated’ and should be broadened to include even unquantifiable prejudice against people of color that occurs ‘outside our conscious awareness,’” wrote Sperry.
“Social psychologists report that bias has changed in our society,” writes Fridell. “What these scientists have determined—through voluminous research on this topic—is that bias today is less likely to manifest as explicit bias and more likely to manifest as ‘implicit’ (or ‘unconscious’) bias.” The solution, she suggests, is counter-stereotyping, or exposing her participants to information “that is the opposite of the cultural stereotypes about the group.”
“By retraining cops’ minds to perceive blacks as less of a threat, Fridell hopes they’ll be less likely to use lethal force against black suspects,” writes Sperry. “Problem is, she’s never produced any empirical results to prove her theories actually work to reduce discriminatory policing. She admits it’s impossible to look at the actions of an individual cop and know for certain they were influenced by prejudice.”
As the goalposts for what constitutes racism or bias shifts in society, we are drifting dangerously toward subconscious vetting and reeducation efforts. Those efforts don’t match common sense or basic assumptions about human psychology. Should America be left with a “modernized” and “de-biased” police force whose members hesitate to make decisions based on prior life experience?
Such psychological experimentation could add a deadly edge to life-or-death confrontations, and could change the instincts of a police officer at a key moment.
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos last year, Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, said, “All I wanted to do was live. That was it.”
“And you’re absolutely convinced, when you look through your heart and your mind, that if Michael Brown were white, this would have gone down in exactly the same way?” responded Stephanopoulos, intent on vetting for subconscious bias—or, at least, securing a good headline.
The mainstream media champion assertions of widespread racism, or at least unconscious bias, because they believe such factors caused the deaths of Brown and Garner, despite evidence to the contrary. Wilson was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, and eventually of any federal civil rights violations as well.
On the surface, the FBI Director’s speech seemed to call for moderation in this debate made hotter by the media spotlight. “Debating that nature of policing is very important, but I worry that it has become an excuse, at times, to avoid doing something harder,” said Director Comey, going on to say that police enlist because they want to help people and that there isn’t a racist epidemic in that profession.
Rather, he argues, police confront “cynicism.” It isn’t racism that causes the disproportionate number of blacks to end up in jail, but because “young people in ‘those neighborhoods’ too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison,” he said.
However, “Those of us in law enforcement must redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice,” said Comey. Something “happens to people in law enforcement,” he said.
“The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up,” he said. “Two white men on the other side of the street—even in the same clothes—do not. …We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve.” But he still doesn’t think the police are racists.
No, apparently they just are unconsciously biased, jaded, or “cynics” using mental shortcuts.
This article was first published at Accuracy in Media.
Bethany Stotts is a freelance writer, and former staff writer for Accuracy in Academia. She blogs at http://bethanystotts.wordpress.com. This article is an exclusive appearing at Accuracy in Media.