Race, ethnicity, and policing

Last year, the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers—the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City—sparked massive protests and a politically-charged debate on race, policing, and the use of force that continues across the country today.

Here at NYU Press, we rounded up a few experts on the topic, including co-editors Stephen K. Rice and Michael D. White and contributors Amanda Geller, Matthew Hickman, Robert Kane, William Parkin, and Ronald Weitzer of Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings (NYU Press, 2010).

race
Hands up, don’t shoot

One of the responses to the recent police-involved killings of unarmed black men has been a call for police departments to diversify. If police forces were more racially diverse, do you think this would alleviate tensions between police and communities?

MICHAEL WHITE: Racial diversity in a police department is important. The Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) recommends that a police department be representative of the community it serves. On conceptual and perceptual levels, the arguments favoring representativeness are persuasive. Representativeness can demonstrate to a minority community that their police department cares about their needs, interests and well-being. Perception matters a great deal in this regard. The conceptual arguments are equally compelling. Presumably, minority officers will have a better understanding of the cultural norms and beliefs of the residents in a minority neighborhood. Presumably, citizens will feel better about police officers who look and think like them; and who have an understanding of the issues in their community. Presumably, minority officers will be better able to manage difficult encounters with citizens of their own race, because of their more intimate understanding of the background, history and experiences of the people in those minority neighborhoods who may require police service. Though the empirical evidence supporting these perceptual and conceptual arguments is mixed, police departments should be racially and ethnically diverse.

AMANDA GELLER: Diversity among police officers can certainly help improve community relationships on some fronts – resolving linguistic challenges in immigrant communities, for example. To the extent that officers have personal ties to the communities they police, that can also help to establish and reinforce community trust. But diversity alone won’t alleviate tensions if the officers are behaving in ways that the community finds illegitimate. In order to alleviate police-community tensions, community members will need to believe that the police will deal with them in a constitutional way, and treat them with respect.

RONALD WEITZER: Racial diversification of police departments is endorsed by the vast majority of Americans. Some departments have made substantial progress in diversification, but many others are out of sync with the local population.Officers of different racial backgrounds generally behave similarly when they interact with members of the public. They are trained similarly and differ little in performing their duties. But because diversification is popular with the public, it can have intangible, symbolic benefits: helping to build trust and confidence in the police. A police department that reflects the composition of the local population can enhance its reputation and status among residents. A diverse police force can also help to decrease the sense that people are being stopped and questioned solely because of their race. In a majority-black city like Ferguson, where 50 of the 53 officers are white, it is not surprising that African Americans who are stopped might feel like they have been racially profiled.

ROBERT KANE: Diversity is crucial to achieve a well functioning police department. Indeed, as police departments diversify, they tend to become better “behaved” (that is, organizational rates of misconduct decline). To reap the full benefits of diversity, however, police agencies must open all ranks (e.g., detective, supervisory, command, administrative) to minority officers, so that minority officer influence doesn’t just come from the bottom-up, but also from the top-down in the form of policies, practices, and procedures. This shift in organizational culture can only occur if minority officers advance beyond line level ranks.

Amid the multitude of public protests across the country, what do you think is the appropriate role of the media? 

STEPHEN RICE: I’m feeling somewhat optimistic about how well the media’s been drawing on empirical evidence in framing their stories. Sure, there are still a multitude of media outlets that sing the ‘song of sexy’ anecdote, but there are also outlets that attempt to explain crime and criminal justice in serious ways. For example, in recent months, WNYC’s John Hockenberry has invited scholars to speak on a wide range of topics surrounding the issue, including Dennis Rosenbaum on police oversight and accountability, Jon Shane on police organizational culture, varied compelling experts on Ferguson, and George Kelling on broken windows. The next step will be to see how well practitioners such as police leadership work to better integrate empirical evidence into their operations. When corporate America came to realize that evangelizing products and services were key differentiators, they hired CEOs (Chief Evangelist Officers). Why not consider evangelism marketing in police departments by senior-level leaders whose principal task it is to explain how operations are informed by what we know, empirically, about crime and place, community policing, police legitimacy, and competing models of officer engagement?

WILLIAM PARKIN: One can talk about responsible journalism and its role in reporting on and framing the public protests. However, I prefer to put the onus on the public. The media, like most businesses, is driven by the need to supply a product that their audience will consume. It should be of no surprise, then, when media outlets produce sensationalized, polemic pieces that superficially discuss these issues. They present easy-to-understand, black-and-white interpretations of the perspectives of those who support or oppose the viewpoints of the protestors and law enforcement. These stories cater to their typical audience. There are, however, media outlets that provide thoughtful, balanced reporting that attempt to dissect the complicated issues that have brought the country to where it is, in relation to law enforcement, accountability, and the use of force. Instead of discussing the appropriate role of the media, I encourage the public to understand their role and to consume media that attempts to find a solution, not sensationalize the problem.

How would you propose police go about changing their image to that of an effective and legitimate agency of authority?

AMANDA GELLER: Public perceptions of the police are largely shaped by personal experience, and what’s known as “vicarious” experience – the experiences of friends and family, and what people witness in their communities. We also know that this legal socialization is shaped not only by whether people have been stopped by the police (or witness the stops of others in their communities), but also by what happens in these encounters. If people feel like they’ve been treated fairly – that they were stopped for a legitimate reason, treated with respect, given a chance to explain themselves – and if they feel that decisions were made through just procedures, these types of encounters can help to restore a sense of police legitimacy among community members.

To ensure accountability and transparency, how can police corruption be monitored or prevented?

MATTHEW HICKMAN: There are several levels of monitoring that need to be considered. First, we expect police departments themselves to provide some degree of internal oversight. Over time, there has been a steady trend toward emphasizing external oversight bodies as a compliment to internal review functions. There are many different models of civilian oversight, but all recognize that a greater role of civilians in oversight is fundamentally democratic and seeks to ensure some level of responsiveness to community concerns. Most important is the vigilance of community groups and organizations, such as local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union. When all else fails, the U.S. Department of Justice has authority to pursue criminal action against officers and civil litigation against police departments that evidence behavior infringing on constitutional rights.

Given the attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher market, some have argued that ethnic and faith-based profiling will rise in Europe and/or the United States. How do you feel we should frame profiling in a broader, global context?

STEPHEN RICE: No matter how strenuously one might feel that differential attention is warranted in neighborhoods or airports, a simple fact remains: profiling is fraught with error (Type 1 error, or false positives), a condition which fundamentally undermines public trust and its willingness to impart authorities with the power to exercise discretion. When one speaks of Muslim Americans—a group estimated at 2.5 million nationwide—perceptions of profiling is very serious business. Judgments people make about the fairness of their experiences condition views regarding the legitimacy of authority, and these views shape compliance with the law. In Europe, future perceived attacks on civil rights under the banner of assimilation (e.g., banning of the hijab) may come to be framed concomitant with a “war on terror,” hence as structured anti-Muslim discrimination. There is a critical relationship between interactions with agents of social control, the emotions that can manifest as a result of these interactions (e.g., anger, rage, humiliation), and an individual’s willingness to accept the legitimacy of authority.

WILLIAM PARKIN: As humans, we are forced to generalize, stereotype and make assumptions about people and places based on limited information. Most of us have few, if any, meaningful interactions on a daily basis with people of different races, ethnicities, cultures or religions. Therefore, when profiling based on race or religion is presented as an option for combating crime or terrorism, it seems like a practical solution to the majority (i.e., those not being profiled). A deeper analysis of the issue, however, leads to questions around whether profiling is a fair application of justice: Does it undermine the legitimacy of the criminal justice system? Could it actually alienate—or increase the risk presented by—these profiled groups? Does it even work? In many ways, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack where, to you, every piece of hay also looks like a needle. Law enforcement would be better served, both from an ethical and practical perspective, by implementing policies that encourage hiring minority candidates and strengthening and increasing positive dialogue with minority communities. Just as law enforcement officers should be judged by their individual behavior, not profiled because of the actions of a few, so should the public that they serve.

Some members of the public feel strongly that stop-question-and-frisk is an appropriate strategy for policing in the United States.  What are your opinions on this approach?  

ROBERT KANE: The original intent of “stop and frisk” was to allow police officers to pat-down the outer clothing of a suspect for weapons. The major problems with using stop-and-frisk as a crime detection strategy are, (1) officers usually don’t find contraband or weapons, and (2) stop-and-frisks are generally concentrated in the parts of town (or city) characterized by racially-concentrated structural disadvantage. Thus, the crime-reduction benefits seem greatly outweighed by the social costs: Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters grow tired of watching their men and boys being “put against the wall” whenever they leave their dwellings. As a consequence, aggressive stop-and-frisk strategies tend to erode public trust in the police, which ultimately leads to a lack of legitimacy. In the end, police departments would do themselves a lot of good if they simply remembered: A little coercion goes a long way; and in the most disenfranchised communities, too much coercion can backfire.

Do “body cams” worn by police officers offer a solution to ending police misconduct?

MICHAEL WHITE: Police officer body-worn cameras (BWCs) are not a silver bullet. But the technology can serve as an important tool in the larger package of accountability mechanisms that a department can put in place. Relatedly, the technology may serve as a solution to the split-second syndrome. Police-citizen encounters are transactional events, with each participant making decisions and responding to the decisions of the other participant. As a result, use of force by a police officer is the culmination of a series of earlier actions and reactions. However, review of force incidents traditionally ignores earlier stages of an encounter and focuses entirely on the final-frame decision. James Fyfe called this the split-second syndrome, and he argued that this narrow focus excuses unnecessary violence resulting from poor decisions made by officers at earlier stages of the encounter. BWCs represent an opportunity to overcome the split-second syndrome because the technology allows for a full review of all decisions made by the officer during an encounter, from start to finish.

MATTHEW HICKMAN: It’s still too early to tell. Many scholars and practitioners are referring to the Rialto study, which provided some of the first strong evidence about the positive benefits of body cameras, and there are studies going on in other cities, such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. But we need to be patient and wait for the evidence to accumulate from these studies before we start subsidizing the purchase of body cameras and changing policies. Recall what happened with the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment: a lot of media attention and proselytizing about the deterrent effects of arrest, and then we started to see widespread policy changes toward mandatory arrest. Five subsequent replications of the Minneapolis DV experiment in other cities yielded a relatively mixed bag of results, with arrest having varied and weaker effects than in Minneapolis. Subsequent reanalysis has tended to confirm the deterrent effect of arrest. But let’s be careful not to put the cart before the horse with body cameras, and allow the evidence to accumulate. Patience!

Stephen K. Rice is Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Seattle University and co-editor of Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings (NYU Press, 2010). Michael D. White is Associate Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. He is co-editor of Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings (NYU Press, 2010) and co-author of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department (NYU Press, 2012). Amanda Geller is Clinical Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University. Matthew Hickman is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Seattle University. Robert Kane is Professor of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University. He is the co-author of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department (NYU Press, 2012). William Parkin is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Seattle University. Ronald Weitzer is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University and author of Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business (NYU Press, 2012).

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