By Seth Richardson
The Gazette’s new “Data Geek” Perry Swanson has taken on the important subject of the effects of race on law enforcement arrest decisions. In his April 27th article, Swanson outlines the statistics in Colorado Springs. The most significant statistic is that while blacks make up only 7 percent of the population, they account for 20 percent of arrests.
The pertinent question of course is whether or not blacks are committing more offenses than whites or Hispanics, or whether they are being arrested at a higher rate than whites because of their race? The statistics superficially suggest that officers, when initiating contacts, are racially profiling blacks, which is hardly an unknown law-enforcement phenomenon. Of course the term “racial profiling” itself is a loaded one, and carries a good deal of baggage that it may not warrant.
What would add a good deal of credibility to these statistics would be a comparison of convictions (or plea bargains) by race. Swanson points this out in his blog, but not in the article. He also points out the important question of what percentage of arrests of blacks versus whites is the result of officer-initiated contacts. It would also be interesting to see a statistical comparison of arrests of blacks by black police officers versus white police officers.
What’s important is not how carefully police scrutinize the conduct of any member of the public, because when you’re in public, the police have both the right and the authority, and indeed the duty to scrutinize you, within strict constitutional limitations of course; what’s important is whether you are engaged in illegal activity or not. Those who do not engage in illegal activity have nothing to fear from lawful police scrutiny. If you don’t want the police to be interested in what you’re doing, don’t do things that the police find interesting.
Do you get nervous when you see a police officer parked on the shoulder of the highway? Many people do because they know they are speeding. Do you become nervous when you see a police officer on the street? If so, why? And what sort of attitude do you exude if the officer approaches you to speak to you? Are you friendly, cordial and helpful, or are you hostile, angry and confrontational?
Experience tells police officers that those who are hostile, angry and confrontational often have something to hide, irrespective of their race, which makes the officer interested in finding out if that might be some illegality. It’s their job to do so, so one can hardly blame them for taking an interest in persons who show physical and emotional signs of guilt. They wouldn’t be good police officers if they didn’t pick up on such subtle clues of possible wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, the race issue is a place where guilt by association can skew the normal physiological reactions of an individual, which creates a feedback loop of increasing hostility and suspicion. And I’m not talking about guilt by association of blacks by police officers; I’m talking about guilt by association by blacks against police officers. If racial profiling of blacks by police officers is a problem in most big cities it’s as likely to be a result of institutionalized, cultural anti-police biases and open hostility to law enforcement on the part of blacks as it is racism on the part of police officers. This aspect of the problem is very often overlooked.
It’s important to note that a police officer’s response to evident postural and attitudinal hostility may have nothing whatever to do with racism and everything to do with a finely honed instinct for survival and an equally finely honed ability to sense that something isn’t right about an individual. While it may be true that police officers sometimes demonstrate heightened caution when dealing with blacks, that heightened caution may be the result of experience with hostile attitudes manifested by blacks.
Police work can be a life-or-death occupation and survival can depend on properly judging the imminence of potential threats. Making a mistake by underestimating a potential threat can be fatal, so we must allow some reasonable latitude to officers in how they act based on prior experience, and we must each do everything possible not to escalate the perceived threat level when dealing with the police. Observing the reactions of black police officers during interactions with other blacks can be highly instructive in this regard. One might say that for most police officers there are only two colors; blue and not-blue.
It could be racism, of course, as it too often has been on the part of police in the past, and it’s important to distinguish between experiential reactions to observable behavior and internalized beliefs by the officer about blacks in general that may constitute racism. Racism, you see, has a very specific definition, one that’s worth repeating: Racism is the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. So, in this particular context, unless the particular police officer can be identified as holding the belief that blacks are inferior because of their race, racism is not the proper term to use.
It may be that a particular officer is prejudiced or bigoted against blacks, but that is again is different from individual or institutionalized racism. It is important to identify officers who hold prejudiced or bigoted attitudes about any group, minority or otherwise and to weed them out of the department as quickly as possible, and it is the duty of the command structure to carefully investigate and take quick and decisive action against any police officer who manifests such prejudices. Such people cannot be tolerated in law enforcement and they endanger everyone by their presence.
But what’s just as likely is that additional scrutiny of blacks by police is related to the historical and cultural animosities towards police by blacks that manifests itself in behaviors that police officers find suspicious. This is not to say that these behaviors are entirely unjustified, given the long history of very real oppression of blacks in major cities across the nation by police. Such institutionalized discrimination has been the subject of countless investigations and remedial programs and many problems remain on the law enforcement side of the issue. However, it is equally important to acknowledge and address unwarranted hostility and confrontational attitudes by blacks towards police if we hope to create a community where law abiding people of all races have a comfortable and cordial relationship with their law enforcement officers.
Much work remains on both sides of the cultural divide between blacks and the police, and the efforts must be aimed at the deeply held prejudices and bigotries of both groups. It is wrong to blame only the police for these difficulties. Everyone has to accept their share of creating an atmosphere of hostility and animosity between citizens and police, regardless of race.
Prejudice means to form an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge or an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race or their supposed characteristics. Bigotry means an obstinate and unreasoning attachment of one’s own belief and opinions, with narrow-minded intolerance of beliefs opposed to them.
The police are our public servants. They are there to assist and protect us, and while they owe us a duty of honesty and even-handed enforcement of the law, we owe them a duty of respect and cooperation for the difficult job they do. Let us recognize that our police, as a class, are too often the subjects of prejudice and bigotry themselves, and let us all strive to judge every individual police officer on his own merits, weeding out the bad ones and respecting and supporting the good ones.
© 2009 Altnews