On Alton Sterling and why I will always film police interactions with people of color

A couple days ago I posted about why I will always film any police interactions with people of color. I had witnessed a black man getting arrested down the street from our house. The police were kind and respectful, and very careful as they put him into the car. But I filmed the entire interaction anyway. And will always film. I will hope for the best and assume, as these guys were, that police officers will act with integrity. But until our country's issues with unnecessary police violence against black men is a thing of the distant past, I will film. Any time I witness police interaction with black men or women I will film, and God forbid my boys ever have such an interaction I hope someone will film for them. And I will hope that, like this instance, it's uneventful footage that never makes the news.

cmpd police

Just two days after that post, there was another senseless killing of a black man by the police, that was a devastating reminder of why citizens need to record such interactions. And had it not been recorded by a bystander, the truth may never have been seen. But the video makes it clear that this man was tackled and lying on the ground pinned by officers, and yet was still shot at point blank range, first twice, and then four more times . . . execution-style. The footage captureed by two bystanders is disturbing and damning.

My post about filming the police was met with offense by many. One person simply responded with an eyeroll emoji. Because apparently talking about unnecessary death is just annoying and grating for some people. It must be nice to not have to consider the implications of these patterns on the safety of your own children. However, for many of us, watching these killings on repeat grips us with terror, because we wonder about the safety of our own loved ones.

In the wake of Alton Sterling’s death, we are now being bombared with character assassinations of this man, as if this information somehow has any bearing on the police behavior that night. His criminal record was not a known factor that night. One of the things that I found most profoundly disturbing in the case of Trayvon Martin was the way people assassinated his character as if some found defects were proof that his death was justified.

alton sterling

I feel like every time these stories emerge, I get the initial wave of fear and sadness, thinking about my own sons and the world they have to navigate. God forbid they engage in pot-smoking or shoplifting or talking back to adults as teenagers - behaviors I myself did in high school - because for them, it might be the thing that someone cites as an excuse for being shot. But then, to compound those feelings of grief, I also have to deal with round 2: the anger that emerges when our society, and oftentimes our justice system, fails to acknowledge the problem. When police officers are not held accountable. When excuses are made. When I'm told, repeatedly, that this isn't about race. When moms of black boys are viewed as too paranoid or too sensitive or too "obsessed with race."

I believe this is the root of much of the racial bias. I believe that we live in a country in which black people have been systematically dehumanized . . . and I believe we are still living in that legacy. (This reality is well documented in the book The Condemnation of Blackness.) But you don't have to believe my opinion. Nor do you have to believe the anecdotal opinion of African Americans (though you should - because they are the only people who can speak with authority on the experience of black Americans.) The bias inherent in law enforcement has been well documented with empirical research as well. In repeated psychological tests conducted by the psychology department at the University of Colorado, researchers illustrated the implicit suspicions people hold against people of color:

Participants shoot an armed target more quickly and more often when that target is Black, rather than White. However, participants decide not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly and more often when the target is White, rather than Black. In essence, participants seem to process stereotype-consistent targets (armed Blacks and unarmed Whites) more easily than counterstereotypic targets (unarmed Blacks and armed Whites).

We have a problem with racial bias and law enforcement in this country. I want to be clear - I don't think that all cops are racist . . . or bad people. My sister was on the police force for a long time. I respect what they do immensely. But I believe that naturally, police officers reflect the racial bias that is present in our society at large. And unfortunately, in their position of authority, it can have deadly consequences.

We will never solve this by pretending that there aren't racial elements to these events. Nor will we solve it by pretending that we're "over race." The only way we can address this is by acknowledging the racial bias in our society and working to solve it, and by demanding accountability from law enforcement when it comes to the treatment of black Americans. 

If the anger around Alton Sterling’s death is confusing to you, it's time to listen. It's time to research. It's time to face the cold, hard facts about racial bias and police brutality. No one is saying that all police are racists. But they were living in the context of systemic racism . . . in a country that socializes us to be afraid of black men. Whether we like it or not, society conditions our impulses. We can try to counteract the systemic racism we're living in, and many of us do, but research indicates that racial bias infiltrates our first response, before logic takes over. Please read the psychological studies below to understand more. We are all susceptible to this kind of bias, and that bias is life-threatening for my kids, and the kids of people you know. And nothing will be fixed until we acknowledge that it's there.

Further studies on racial bias as it pertains to law enforcement:

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer's dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1314-1329.

Correll, J., Urland, G. L., & Ito, T. A. (2006). Event-related potentials and the decision to shoot: The role of threat perception and cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 120-128.

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., Wittenbrink, B., Sadler, M. S. & Keesee, T. (2007). Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1006-1023.

Correll, J., Wittenbrink, B., Park, B., Judd, C.M., & Goyle, A. (2011). Dangerous enough: Moderating racial bias with secondary threat cues. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 184-189.

Ma, D.S. & Correll, J. (2011). Target prototypicality moderates racial bias in the decision to shoot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 391-396.

Sadler, M.S., Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C.M. (2012). The world is not black and white: Racial bias in the decision to shoot in a multiethnic context. Journal of Social Issues, 68, 286-313.

Sim, J.J., Correll, J., & Sadler, M.S. (2013). Understanding police and expert performance: When training attenuates (vs. exacerbates) stereotypic bias in the decision to shoot. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 291-304.




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