Yet again, I’m called upon to redress strawmen, because unfortunately many reasonable people seem, against all efforts to the contrary, to hear something that those of us fighting for social progress aren’t saying.
But first, an analogy.
When someone dies of an infection after contracting HIV and thereby acquiring full-blown AIDS, most of us are able to recognize that it was AIDS that ultimately claimed that life.
We understand that the vulnerability that AIDS created was the true problem, and that any individual bug that ultimately claimed the life of that patient was merely the final step in a process that was only going to end one way.
And yet, when it comes to institutions and to people, we so very rarely are able to recognize that individual bad actors in an organization are less important than the fact that the organization has those bad actors within it in the first place.
Recently, I discussed the reality that people of color are arrested beyond any sensible connection to actual crimes (as seen most clearly by the disproportionate arrests and convictions of blacks for drug use even when whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate). An intelligent interlocutor responded, sarcastically, as if I and others in the discussion were saying that white cops were effectively all white supremacists.
But not only was I not saying anything of the sort, but even if I were, my focus would be on why that reality had come to pass.
In business school, students are often taught the “Five Whys”: the idea that, when you diagnose a problem, you try to figure out at least five aspects of the problem or five steps in the causal chain so that you can understand something like the full context and the basic root causes.
Even if police departments in the United States had huge swaths of their membership being overt neo-Nazis, Klansmen, or other sorts of extreme bigots with an excessive racialized hatred of non-white suspects, that too would only make me ask, “How did that happen?” Why did the selection criteria for who was employed so badly steer clear of hiring people who could actually competently serve and protect the entire populace rather than merely 63% of it? Why did the culture of the police department not gravitate against those people coming to it but rather caused them to arrive and not to wash out or have their opinions moderated?
In reality, of course, most cops aren’t extremely overt racists. Sure, there have been individual cops who have probably been white supremacists in recent years. Sure, the FBI warned of white supremacists infiltrating law enforcement in 2005 and did so again in 2015 according to The Intercept. But there’s not substantial evidence that there’s some serious epidemic of extreme racial hostility in police departments to the point of that kind of overt, ideological bigotry.
But there is a broader problem that we can see. It can be sociologically difficult to measure this kind of cultural issue, especially in trying to compare it to the level of racial animus and fear in the general public, but we don’t need to in order to see that a problem likely exists and should be addressed.
Repeated investigations of multiple police departments have found racist and sexist e-mails to be commonplace. Similarly, we’ve seen racist texts and racist radio messages. Now, to their credit, many departments react strongly when this occurs to the proximate offender… though oftentimes it’s discovered that that particular officer had done similar things in a previous job, and in many cases the department is clearly only ejecting the most overt individual problem rather than embracing systemic change.
And that’s sort of the point: the problem isn’t that one cop sent those texts or got onto the radio or sent those e-mails. It’s that the cops in question had a reasonable expectation that those e-mails would remain private, would be approved of or at least ignored, and that their behavior would never be corrected by management. Being a cop and being a racist was not so contradictory that, even when they were clearly both, no management made clear that they had to make a choice between the two. Even when departments aren’t creating a “revolving door” by just booting bad cops to the next precinct, or the next state, or to correctional facilities, or to a different kind of uniform (e.g. from municipal officer to sheriff), they’re not doing their job at intelligently correcting this kind of conduct and speech.
I’ve discussed before that, in my mind, one of the big aspects of police culture comes from the broader culture of mass media that creates an idea of the avenging cop or vigilante. Now, of course, a critic might point out that we all get that signaling in American (and even international) culture, and that’s true. But that signaling not only is even more dangerous when a police officer acts according to it, but it can become entrenched by the real lived culture of police and their socialization. Those values and worldview assumptions can become schema that guide new officers to think in particular ways then confirm those biases with their on-the-job experience.
Racist attitudes among officers have been common place for some time. Studies in the 1960s and 1990s confirmed that many officers are willing to admit to negative stereotypes of blacks. Diversity training as currently implemented empirically doesn’t tend to break color-blind ideologies which will tend to lead officers to be inattentive to racial discrimination and injustice as context. Bias studies using implicit bias methodologies, where participants are given a test of their subconscious reactions to various groups, indicate that police officers are likely to be more biased than the average member of the population, and that there is a selection process where those already predisposed to biases are more likely to be cops.
Remember that, while only about ten percent of Americans can admit to deeply racist attitudes and even fewer tend to admit to a belief in bona fide genetic inferiority, the portion of the population that will admit to individual biased attitudes or show bias when studied is much higher, up to seventy-five percent.
And all of this helps to indicate a few key points.
First: The number of “bad apples” in a police department doesn’t have to be high to create pretty noteworthily different outcomes, especially when paired with implicit bias among judges, DAs and juries. Let’s say that only .5% of cops in the United States had truly pernicious, deeply-held racial beliefs (akin to a member of the alt-right), while only 2.5% (less than the population) had consciously-held racial attitudes. Those 3% of cops could still encounter thousands of suspects, leading to more stops, more arrests, more trials, and ultimately more convictions for people of color. This would also lead to more situations where people of color were killed, beaten, held without a charge, given a “rough ride”, intimidated, or otherwise abused.
When combined with the class reality that black and Hispanic people are less affluent and thus less able to defend themselves when accused of a crime, less likely to be able to afford the best counsel and less informed as to how to navigate the legal system, and with other factors of structural and institutional racism, it’s clear that this would inevitably lead to disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system.
A few bad apples really can spoil the bunch. Even if police departments could detect racist cops rapidly and prevent them from socializing new recruits to any substantial degree, those few bad cops that made it through would lead to disparate harms and mistrust.
Second: The reality is not that white supremacist cops are overtly engaging in some kind of grand conspiracy, but that at each step of the interactions between the police and the public racial bias combined with institutional problems like profiling policies will cause the negative outcomes that those concerned with police brutality, overreach and misconduct identify.
Finally, and most importantly: All of these realities require institutional response. That institutional response doesn’t mean that we suspect all cops of being bad cops, or that we want to demonize hard-working and diligent officers.
Bias training can work. It turned Las Vegas’ department from an embarrassment into a model.
Social investments into better public defenders, fairer municipal offenses and treatment, etc. can all be used to improve outcomes and to bleed off some of the excess harm that the poor and people of color face.
Ending the racist drug war alone would take pressure off of police departments, allowing them to focus on harmful crimes. So too would fixing mental health infrastructure and training officers on how to deal with the mentally and physically disabled.
When departments take their commitment to socially just outcomes seriously, the results can be staggering. And that’s precisely because the problem isn’t some kind of white nationalist infection of police departments, some kind of individual vice, but rather because there is a police culture and institutional issue that requires collective reform and improvements in civil-police relations.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.