Seeing the humanity in others
“We know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day,” said Jesse Williams during his BET (Black Entertainment Television) award speech. Data gathered by the Washington Post show that fatal police shootings across the country within the first six months of the year have risen from 465 in 2015 to 492 in 2016. African Americans compose about 13 percent of the US population but make up over 24 percent of the people shot and killed by the police.
Are some police less likely to de-escalate, disarm, and not kill African American people? If so, why? Research shows that implicit bias toward and stereotypes of African American people affect some police officers’ actions, perhaps preventing them from seeing an African American person as a 12-year-old child, a husband and father, or a cherished member of a family and community.
Minnesota governor Mark Dayton acknowledged that he did not believe Philando Castile—who was stopped for a broken taillight while driving in a predominantly white suburb of St. Paul—would have been fatally shot by the police if he had been white. “So I am forced to confront, and I think all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront, that this kind of racism exists,” Dayton said.
Professor john powell writes that “The fear of the racial other and the ‘law and order’ advocated by presidents Nixon and Reagan continue to pick up steam even as the crime rate falls.” He cites a report on racial profiling by the Institute on Race and Poverty that assessed self-reported police practices in Minnesota and found that African American and Latino drivers were more likely than white drivers to experience traffic stops and searches in communities with higher shares of white residents. This was the case even though the rates of found contraband were higher for white drivers in most jurisdictions.
Often, the response to police killing African Americans has been to provide more training to police forces. Recent research indicates that training may be having an impact. One study indicates that in a simulated environment, police were less likely to shoot armed African American suspects than armed white suspects and less likely to shoot unarmed African American suspects than unarmed white suspects. Another study found no difference in the fatal use of force between African American, Latino, and white people. But the study did find that during encounters with police, African Americans and Latinos are 50 percent more likely than whites to have police use nonlethal force against them, including being slapped or pushed against a wall or to the ground.
While training is necessary and may be having a positive effect, it is clearly not sufficient given the increase in fatal shootings by police that disproportionately end African American lives. And it’s not for police officers’ lack of experience: 41 percent of the fatal shootings in the Washington Post study were committed by officers with 10 or more years of experience. Change on a deeper level is needed to transcend bias—implicit or explicit—connect with shared emotions, and disrupt this pattern of killings.
When Mamie Till-Mosely made the decision in 1955 that her 14-year-old son, Emmitt, would have an open-casket funeral with his body viewed by thousands of people, she exposed the brutality of the murder of her African American child by two white men and helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
Cameron Sterling is the 15-year old son of Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the aftermath, Cameron stood next to his mother while she read a statement to the press about the effect of the killing of her husband on their family. This child tried bravely to support his mother as she spoke but succumbed to his trauma and grief and wept in soul-wrenching pain.
Diamond Reynolds exhibited incredible presence of mind and emotional strength as her loved one, Philando Castile, lay dying in the car with her and her 4-year-old daughter after he was shot repeatedly by a police officer. She ensured that there was a public record of what was happening to her and her family by live-streaming the tragedy. She simultaneously talked down the police officer—who was still aiming his gun and yelling at them—from doing further damage. Reynolds’s little girl comforted her mother saying, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”
These raw emotions and the violent deaths that evoked them moved a nation to protest. Change occurs when one sees himself or herself in another person and feels that person’s pain. Certainly, many police already connect with the humanity of the residents they swear to protect. But police involved in wrongful deaths must be held accountable. A recent Urban Institute report on creating a road map for safer communities offers some recommendations, such as using data to hold police accountable and to help police departments build relationships among the communities with which they work.
Pastor Johnny Young blesses Kaleigh Yates, a first cousin of Alton Sterling, outside the the convenience store where he was shot and killed, July 7, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisianna. Sterling was shot by a police officer in front of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, July 5, leading the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation. Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images