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by Peter Moskos

September 29, 2014

When police-involved shootings aren't about race

There's still the strange belief among some people that police only do bad things to black folk. When I was on Chris Hayes the other night, some commentators thought the initial stop was racially biased. Chris himself questioned whether a white person would have been stopped for a seat-belt violation. I find that crazy talk. There was so much bad going on in that shooting that to be distracted by the initial stop seems to miss the greater point. I know the vast majority of cops don't give a damn about your race. And the idea that white people don't get stopped for seat-belt violations is also demonstrably false. (If you want to download and read a large and rather academic pdf report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the matter, knock yourself out.)

Bad things do not only happen to black people. Most bad shootings don't become issues till there's unrest and/or Al Sharpton raises a fuss. And sometimes, a fuss should be raised. (And the last time the Rev tried to help some poor white guy who claimed he was brutalized by police, well, Sharpton sure picked the wrong white guy.)

I've written a few times times about police killing white people, first on this blog in 2008. And then in 2009 there was the horrible police f*ck-up that resulted in police shooting and killing Rev. Jonathan Ayers. This was never big news. (In fact, to my dismay, my limited account of Ayer's death seems to be the most extensive on record.)

I'm not saying race never matters, but cops are not shooting black people because they're black. Cops are not stopping black drivers for seat-belt violations because they're black (though police may be searching your car for drugs after that stop because you're black). To believe that race is the issue in policing ignores and won't solve the problem of people of all races who are wrongfully shot (or tased, or maced) by police. The issues have less to with race than with bad training and police officers making bad split-second decisions.

So here's a black cop shooting Bobby Dean Canipe, an unarmed white person (and a 70-year-old disabled vet at that).

Clearly in hindsight this is not a good shooting. It's a traffic stop and an old guy with a cane. And yet when Canipe gets out of his pick-up truck, on the highway, and I see a long hard object turn toward my face -- and keep in mind I'm watching a youtube video and I *know* it's not going to be a gun -- I felt my ass pucker.

Would a reasonable officer have feared for his or life in that situation? Yeah, potentially, probably, I think so.

Sure it would have been great if the cop had known it was a cane. It also would have been great if the guy hadn't gotten out of his truck and reached for his cane.

A mistake. But I think a reasonable one. I'd let the cop off.

[Hat tip to a commenter for bring this shooting to my attention.)


Nicole Stokes said...

Being taught in a classroom, one of the concepts we learn is that the police academy is the first place a person really understands what it will takes to become a police officer and what this job will entail besides being on the job. This is called reality shock. After the police academy, the warrior mindset, like you stated on the All In With Chris Hayes show, reveals itself, and shows that cadets are not prepared for the reality shock of actual policing. Police officers, as a whole, begin to embrace paranoia from the beginning; thus setting the cadets up for failure in confusing and temperamental situations where one has to make on the spot decisions. In the article Where Have All the Warriors Gone? : They seem to be lost somewhere in the abyss of Internet comments, there is a list of books and conferences just dedicated to the concepts of becoming a warrior and not giving up. Having more than a couple books dedicated to the life of a warrior mindset clearly impacts the cadets in a panic mindset, which can be detrimental situations that come up.
Perhaps, if there was a way to be taught that these situations of something extremely bad happening are rare, police could learn the mindset of taking situations as they are; not what they might be, going to the worst scenario possible. This isn’t to say that a police officer shouldn’t be ready for split minute decisions, but the way in which they are taught might be different, so they go about situations in a calmer manor, with a clearer head.

Walker, S. (1999). The police in America: An introduction. Boston: McGraw Hill College.
Murgado, A. (2012, May 24). Developing a Warrior Mindset. Retrieved from http://www.policemag.com/channel/patrol/articles/2012/05/warrior-mindset.aspx
Brocklin, V. V. (2012, March 8). Where Have All the Warriors Gone? -. Retrieved from http://www.lawofficer.com/article/training/where-have-all-warriors-gone

PCM said...

If anything I'd say the reality shock happens the other way.

In the academy you learn everyone is trying to kill you, that there are evil people out there set on doing harm. On the street you realized people can't be so easily divided between criminal and victim. There's a lot of grey.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Moskos,
I, like you, can disagree with the assumption that white officers are only engaged in unethical or biased behavior involving blacks. Would you possibly have any evidence that supports your theory that inadequate training is the most valid reason for these shootings or other instances where race may have been a factor, and not race?
The media has only encouraged white racism, hostility, and rejection toward Blacks. A random analysis of Los Angeles and Orange counties assessed these representations of blacks along with white and Latino law breakers and law defenders. The analysis found that, in comparison, blacks are overrepresented in the media as law breakers while whites and Latino’s are underrepresented.
The black man is portrayed as a violent criminal. We should take into account the underlying factors. Economical and subcultural factors play a role in the black community. Rates of violent crime are higher in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where men may not have jobs or children are being raised without fathers. These factors feed criminal activity among black people and their neighborhoods, which police officers are not oblivious to this information.
I am only asserting that, in the criminal justice system as a whole, race may not be the only factor in cases of deadly force, but cannot be excluded. From 1980 to 2008, 1 million of the 2.3 million of Americans incarcerated were black and at a rate of nearly 6 times the white American.
I can appreciate your raising awareness that this isn’t just a racial thing, but just a case of officers making bad decisions. With this being said, what is a reasonable officer? Is it fair to say that an officer can become reasonable? Or, should the officer that graduates from the academy be reasonable? We know that there are several tests that potential officers have to go through including, but not limited to, a psych testing, drug testing, and in most cases a polygraph. These tests haven’t proven to weed out those that aren’t “ideal” for the position.

PCM said...

Well said/asked.

I would never say that race isn't a factor in the criminal justice system. I think it is. A huge factor (with prisons in particular).

I think race is much less of a factor in the case of lethal-force situations. When an officer sees a lethal threat, he or she is not focused on the race of the suspect. "Into the Kill Zone" provides some interesting qualitative data.

Based on my own experience and interviews with police officers, I suspect that police in high-crime neighborhoods, disproportionately minority, are *less* likely to engage in bad shootings.

Though it is not conclusive, the fact that, compared to whites, police shoot blacks less often then blacks are shot by other black civilians (in "justified homicides") and in terms of the racial disparity in violence and homicides indicate that police are not particularly trigger happy specifically with regards to shooting blacks.

I think there is much racism in the overall criminal-justice system, I just don't see race being as much of factor in police-involved shootings.

So what to do? For starters, pay more so you get a better applicants. At some point, you get what you pay for. Then train differently. Use the academy as a weed out process. It is not that way right now. Those tests -- psych, drug, polygraph -- are all bullshit. Departments are afraid to fire somebody on more subjective grounds.

I would get rid of the polygrah. I would find a psych test that is actually effective. The current test was designed to help diagnose and categorize existing disorders. It was never supposed to be used as a hiring criteria.

None of those tests are very good. You know what could be good? Ask academy members which fellow recruits they don't trust. I suspect half would name the same bottom 10 percent. Fire them before they have civil service protection.

Also, institute a residence requirement. Maybe not permanent, but police officers should have some stake or knowledge of the area they police. They need to be able to tell the difference between the thugs and the college students.

A lot of white cops have *never* interacted with blacks until they hit street (or the academy, but the academy is not filled with criminals). Many of the white cops learn. But still, it's a major disadvantage.

I think policing would benefit from more ideological diversity in the ranks.

PCM said...

Or to put it another way, it's hard to prove bad police are a result of bad training. But training is so bad it's hard believe anything but that.

Anonymous said...

I think that you raise some solid points here. I do agree that in the heat of the moment, officers don’t really have more than a split second to make these life or death choices. But, yes, a lot of this issue could stem from differences in teachings and training styles. I think that it’s important to stop and examine the role that training actually plays in an officer’s career. Training serves as the foundation of what an officer knows once they’re actually in the position and out doing the work.

However, there are such subjects that training cannot cover completely. Training can teach an officer how to fill out a specific form or how to appropriately use a gun, but there are simply some aspects of people that cannot be changed. Because training serves as this essential foundation for how an officer behaves and conduct him/herself on the job, any type of change that needs to be made can be done throughout training to stay consistent with the most current “type” of policing.
In other words, I don’t find that training is the biggest solution to this problem (sources available upon request). I think there is another part of human nature and the individual is crucial to consider here. As much as a trained officer is a trained officer, they’re still an individual with thoughts, opinions, flaws, biases, and preconceived ideas.
So, Nicole, I do agree somewhat with your claim that training plays a significant role in an officer’s actions, particularly actions such as the one that Cop in the Hood discusses; training is foundational in regards to an officer’s actions. Yet at the same time, training does not cover all the bases especially ones that are so controversial and culturally sensitive such as racial prejudices.
Moving further from this, there isn’t a whole lot of control that we have over what people can and do believe about the individuals they work with and interact with. Unfortunately, we can only encourage individuals to remain open minded and unbiased but we cannot influence ultimately what they believe about someone or something.
We can, however, hold officers highly accountable for their actions. We can provide workshops and training sessions that create this norm of remaining unbiased and nondiscriminatory.

Nicole Stokes said...

One of the hardest things, if not the hardest thing, is to observe someone’s personality and morals before one gets put on the job. The tests that are involved with the screening in and out process, such as the polygraph tests and the physical training tests, help to see the secrets that may be contained and the physical strengths of a person, but not necessarily disclose the whole personality of a person or of the morals of a person. So what are some techniques or training processes to help the police departments with this problem? With apparent observations, having to do with current events, it is clear to see that it is very difficult to predict one’s reaction to dangerous or alarming situations, especially before one gets put on the job. Therefore, having something like a training to help this weeding out process of cadets that have mal intent or and power hungry/ driven behavior would be very helpful.
Anonymous, I agree with you that workshops could be one of the answers to this problem. Unfortunately, one of the first things cut from any police budget tends to be the training and the workshops. Providing the workshops can, not only gear up a cadet to face real life situations in animated simulations, but also see a bit of what a person’s real emotions and morals might be when coming down to a real life precarious situation. The idea of providing workshops is intriguing to me. Would these workshops be a part of the screening out process? Or would the workshops be a part of the screening in process? More importantly, how would these workshops help observe and find out all of the things that we cannot see during the police academy training? Workshops within the academy are posed to be an effective way to deliver an interactive setting, preparing a cadet for the police environment. With this being said, anonymous, I agree with you that training academy or workshops cannot cover every aspect of policing, but then what can? Yes, people are flawed with opinions, biases, and preconceived ideas, but that doesn’t mean the police department can’t strive and come up with ideas to find a way to more accurately choose who becomes a police officer and who does not. The police departments must find a way to see as much as they can, with the resources they have.

Pfeiffer, L. (2012, April 23). Law Enforcement Training Crisis. Retrieved from http://www.policemag.com/channel/patrol/articles/2012/04/training-crisis.aspx
Workshops. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.lredacademy.org/workshops.htm
Goals. (1997-2014). Retrieved from http://www.nfta.com/police/Goals.asp

Chuck said...

Just a few comments that I would like to make regarding the previous posts. Firstly, I would just like to address the comment that Nicole made when she said that “Perhaps, if there was a way to be taught that these situations of something extremely bad happening are rare, police could learn the mindset of taking situations as they are; not what they might be, going to the worst scenario possible.” I would just like to state that, in my personal opinion, Making the mistake of not seeing a situation for what it might become is a life-changing and often, life-ending mistake. Just look at the police fatality rates. 20% of the police killed in 2012 were all killed at simple traffic stops. Situations change so rapidly that taking a situation for what it is and not what it could become could be your last mistake.
Another thing that was brought up is in-service workshops or the lack-there-of. Anonymous, you say that “We can provide workshops and training sessions that create this norm of remaining unbiased and nondiscriminatory.” I just want to point out that we already do hold in-service training and racial equality training for Officers. I just want to note that 88% of academies provide in service training for officers and 96% of academies address racially biased policing as part of training. I will have to agree with you partially when you both say that training is an issue though, because I know that training is not uniform and this is one major issue that comes about during instances of police-involved shootings, but I can’t agree with you fully.

Anonymous said...

I see your point about the offering of in-services and training classes specifically to handle these types of issues and problems. However, I’d like to raise the idea that said trainings may not be all that effective. It’s not enough to just have the training available, but rather to have that training be as effective as possible. A big part of this is trainees’ attitudes. If you have someone coming in who’s already committed to a certain belief or concept, they are most likely not going to be all that open minded to changing that based on their job position. The reality of the matter is that there are people who are wholeheartedly set on a judgment or perception and there’s a good chance that training won’t ease that characteristic out of them. On the flip side, selection and screening of officers could also be improved. The issue standing with these types of evaluations is that officers will be tempted to act different when they know they are being evaluated. (There are other outstanding issues with evaluations, but for our argument here we’ll just let those be). This being said, we can only evaluate officers for so many things; there is no explicit test to see if an officer will make decisions based on discrimination. Based on all of this, training nor selection will particularly “solve” the issue at hand.

Red Raider said...

Chuck and Anonymous,

I like how you elaborated on the on the fact that Anonymous said “We can provide workshops and training sessions that create this norm of remaining unbiased and nondiscriminatory”. I think it you (chuck) put things into perspective with statistics proving that training workshops such as those already exist. I would like to point out a couple things about what Anonymous said while replying to your response.
Anonymous: you stated “However, I’d like to raise the idea that said training may not be all that effective. Let’s take a look at America’s history of policing. When you say it’s “not all that effective” I would assume you mean since it started when Police Departments adopted these workshops and training seminars. Obviously since these have been adopted the training has lowered the amount of racial bias incidents. Government founding’s has allowed this to be instilled in departments across the country. Going back to when you said “not all that effective”- I think it would have been better if you said something like ‘needs improvement’.
Police officers train for the predictable; however, it’s impossible for a police officer to handle ever situation that’s ideal for him/ his department and for the community. I think reform is always needed to adapt to the changing life in societies in America, but no matter the day and technology, situations out of the officer are out of control- Departments can’t train a rookie officer for the unpredictable.
I strongly believe that policing will never be flawless, reform is necessary but the only outcome will be a decreasing statistic. Once society feels that problem is lowered substantially, some new epidemic will need reform. We will never have perfect/flawless policing in the United States of America.

Goff, P. A. (2009, November). Racial Bias in Policing. Retrieved November 4, 2014, from http://www.russellsage.org/awarded-project/racial-bias-policing

Nicole Stokes said...

Living in America, which is a racial and social class based society, influencing one to be racially and socially unbiased is important, particularly in trainings of authority. I completely agree with Red Raider when you stated that Anonymous’s comment about the trainings not being affective could have been better worded as “needs improvement.” I also agree when Anonymous stated that, “it is not enough to just have the training available, but rather to have that training be as effective as possible.” I do believe that these trainings are needed, especially when the trainings pertain to racial equality.
Both, race and social class, go hand in hand when dealing with the experiences and perceptions of the police. Statistical data done in 2008 showed that, 23% of people with an income of less than $20,000, had no confidence or very small confidence in the police, compared to 6-7% of people with an income of %50,000 or greater. Also, in another study done by Weitzer, the data showed that African Americans, living in the lower class were 7X more likely to believe that the police really do stop African Americans for no good reason, compared to African Americans residing in the middle class. Seeing this connection between race and social class, one can understand the importance and how influential community and public police relations are within neighborhoods.
Going a step further, connecting the data to my original topic, the police teachings within in the service trainings and workshops are critical to a police officer’s perceptions and judgments. These trainings are beneficial to the cadets, the police officers, and the citizens. In a police training blog by Andrew Hawkes, he wrote, “The better training the police have, the lower the risk that an officer will bring down civil or criminal liability upon himself or his police agency.” It is a learned trait that people, as a whole, are flawed with biases and pre-judgmental assumptions about race and social status. If parts of the trainings and workshops are geared towards the outcome of unbiased behavior, I would say these trainings and workshops are geared to be helpful. Whether they are effective or not is on an individual basis. Like Red Raider stated, “We will never have perfect/flawless policing in the United States of America.” But that doesn’t mean we cannot strive to progress and be more effective.

Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend. (2005, January 01). Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/3518560
Walker, S. (1992). Police-Community Relations/ Social Class. In The police in America: An introduction (p. 380). New York: McGraw-Hill
Hawkes, A. (2014). The History and Importance of Police Training. Retrieved from http://policelink.monster.com/training/articles/143993-the-history-and-importance-of-police-training

Anonymous said...

Mr. Moskos,
First, thank you for your response. Of course you have raised great points. I found it particularly interesting that while discussing a different approach to police training, you mentioned asking recruits which of their fellow recruits they don’t trust. Isn’t the academy where the comradery begins?
The police academy is where group solidarity is initiated. New recruits form relationships with each other in the academy and are socialized into the occupational norms or risk being shunned from the group, which could then lead to job dissatisfaction, stress, and in some cases career deterioration. Breaking down the “blue wall of silence” will also fore officers to be more accountable for their actions. In the 1990’s a survey found that 52.4% of police officers agreed that it wasn’t unusual for officers to overlook the misconduct of other officers. With this information, who’s to say that recruits, although new, will be willing to challenge the status quo?
I’m concluding that training shouldn’t stop once the recruits graduate the academy as officers. More law enforcement agencies should have early intervention systems set up and better analyze complaints filed by citizens.

PCM said...

Don't overestimate comradery. You don't want to be working with someone who may end up getting you hurt of killed. The Blue Wall of Silence is vastly over-rated and over emphasized. It's not a cult. It's a job. And cops testify against other cops all the time.

That said, I suspect 100% of cops know it's not unusual for officers to overlook some misconduct of other officers. But it's just mild misconduct. Breaking rules, not the law.

See, the system is rigged so that cops can't *not* violate some of the rules some of the time. So all cops live in glass houses.

I'm not talking criminal misconduct. Though too often these two issues get conflated. Cops get clickish when outsiders say, "you were rude and that looks like brutality." Cops don't mind at all when bad cops actually get caught and busted. Because most cops are clean. And proud of it.

And yes, use citizen complaints as a red flag. Complaints are often not justified.... And if you don't work you can't get in trouble. But a cop who has a shitload of complaints in a short time? Come on, now.

Anonymous said...

You made a valid point that a job position can’t be a factor in changing racially biased attitudes.
A study shows that 79% of recruits enter into the academy with an attitude of “us vs them” and exhibit and blindness to institutional discrimination, but consider superiority over racial minorities and a connection between them and crime. Only 21% entered the academy expecting a positive outcome on this diversity training. The study indicated no significant changes in attitudes after 12 weeks in training.
So, we know that the new recruits familiar with diversity, however, I don’t believe that we can call it training. As you stated, selection and screening can be improved; this study tested recruits before and after the training to see if there would be any change in how they felt about race and police before and if they learned anything afterward. Training by definition is making proficient by instruction and practice, as in some art, profession, or work. Were these recruits trained before or after the academy?