Activists and many commentators have a quick response to the black/white disparity in police killings. They see the issue as one simply of white police racism. As with so many popular explanations of complex social phenomena it is both psychologically satisfying and wrong.
The disparity is real: 28% of people killed by police are black, even though they represent only 13% of the population. The majority of officers involved in the killings are white; of course three-quarters of all police are white. According to Charles Menfield, et al, (Rutgers University, Newark) “White officers do not kill black suspects at a higher rate compared to non-white officers.” Just the opposite occurs, probably because minority officers are frequently assigned to minority neighborhoods and police districts.
Where police action is the result of racism, the solution is simple: Identify and remove racist individuals from the police force. There should be zero tolerance of racism within departments. If police culture is the problem, or even a large part of the problem, then society is faced with a more difficult situation. Let me deal with three contributors to police violence and then briefly discuss the police culture issue.
Guns: One contributor is that the U.S. is awash in guns. In a nation of 327 million people, we have 259.4 million guns. Officers must do traffic stops, domestic violence calls and most other interactions with civilians on the assumption that the civilians are armed. Inevitably, some police are going to misinterpret some behavior and make wrong calls resulting in the injury or death of a civilian. Such bad judgments are horrific for the people involved, but the police are not to blame for society’s choices. We Americans have chosen to be a gun ridden society. Accidental violence is simply part of the collateral damage, or price that we pay, for that social decision.
Supervision: In the past several decades we have seen a decrease in the field supervision of police officers. The position of field sergeant used to be a key role in police departments. The field sergeant was usually the first back-up support when needed. With many years of street experience the sergeant was often the one who defused confrontations and, by reassuring the patrol officer by his or her presence, changed the dynamics of the confrontation for the better. Unfortunately, driven by budget considerations, the role of police sergeant has been diminished in many departments. This is a problem within a department’s ability to remedy. A good argument can be made that, next to the chief of police, the field sergeant (sometimes called patrol sergeant) is the most important supervisory position in the department.
Training: This is another area which police agencies control. Much police training, especially in the human relations area, focuses on attitudes. The pervading belief is that if only racist attitudes could be changed, then violence against Blacks will be reduced or eliminated. There is no evidence supporting such a view. Quite the contrary: Behavior must be changed, then attitudes may be modified. As a civilian I am concerned with how the police treat me, not with what they may think about me. Efforts to reduce police violence have to focus on behavior and how that behavior facilitates violent transactions with the public in general and with minorities in particular.
Police culture: I would argue that the real divide in policing is not race, but the “sworn vs. civilians” distinction. This division between the police and the people they are policing is frequently addressed by adopting a profound cultural change called community policing (sometimes called problem oriented or intelligence-led policing). This is a cultural change that attempts to create a proactive police culture. A police department that seeks information (intelligence) about community needs and responds to those needs within the framework of established law.
Community policing cannot solve major social problems, but it may reduce the impact of those problems on the criminal justice system and on the community. A current example would be homelessness. Legislatures must solve the problem, but the police usually have a choice about their response to the homeless.
They can rigidly enforce trespassing and loitering laws or they can work with community organizations to improve the safety and well being of the homeless while mitigating the bad effects of the homeless on business, homeowners, and public property. Putting human values above property values ends up enhancing both.
When dealing with violence much the same change might be expected. By valuing human life over order, the police would reduce violence and, in the long run, improve the good order of the community.
The level of violence in the U.S. is a scandal and national embarrassment. If we want police agencies to do their part in violence reduction, the public must be willing to have zero tolerance for racism, demand excellence from their police, and be willing to fund police agencies at a level that will produce wages commensurate with the level of expertise we expect of officers. The knowledge to reduce police violence is available. Making good practice an operational reality is a matter of political will.