The questions about race we need to answer following Ferguson

Law enforcement should recognize the close connection between use of force and officer integrity as well as the reality that there does have to be meaningful discussion about race in America


It’s too early to draw any meaningful lessons for law enforcement from the Ferguson tragedy. Emotions on all sides have remained high and will continue to do so for some time. However, there are a couple of observations that law enforcement agencies — and individual officers — throughout the country should recognize. 

The primary narrative from the Ferguson shooting was all about a white cop killing an unarmed black teenager. Though many in law enforcement believe that it was only about a cop shooting a criminal in self-defense, ignoring the racial aspects of the shooting would be shortsighted. 

Countless citizens believe that the entire incident was about race, while many police officers contend that there is absolutely no reason to connect the event to anything related to race relations. Both views are flawed. We have to have a responsible conversation about race in America, but up to now, very few people have been doing that. 

Cries for Reform
Both President Obama and the UN’s Jordanian human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein have suggested that American law enforcement should take a closer look at the death of young African Americans who die during police encounters, or what some of the most vocal critics believe to be extrajudicial executions. These sentiments reportedly reflect concerns that have been prevalent throughout minority communities, all well before Ferguson.

Further, if (and it should be a really big “if”) it’s true that the shooting was more about race than criminality and the suspect’s behavior, then reports that the whole criminal justice system is biased as a result of institutional racism should concern everyone. These sorts of conclusions likely contributed to the belief — reportedly expressed by Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal — that the incident in Ferguson will become St. Louis’ version of a “race war.” To make matters worse, some critics maintain that it’s impossible to indict a police officer in the first place.

Those interpreting public opinion polls — or expressing opinions about allegations of police wrongdoing — can easily misrepresent the results in one direction or another. Police critics will continue to beat the drum of systemic bias regardless of contrary evidence that shows police may be less likely to erroneously shoot unarmed black suspects than white suspects. Dueling studies will never end the debate.

If one combines the race issue with the reports that officer deaths from felonious assaults have dropped from 49 to 27 in the last year, one is clearly left with the misleading impression that law enforcement as a profession must not be that dangerous and clearly the police overreact and too readily resort to deadly force when confronted with an African American suspect. 

Officers make shoot/no-shoot decisions under stress, and their decisions are better than shoot/no shoot decisions made by ordinary citizens (training, practice, situational awareness skills, and visual attention determine such judgments). Officers are able to overcome a bias that may be more profound within the community they serve.

However, even these studies can be presented in such a way as to suggest otherwise, and the social scientists involved in the studies rarely venture far from their data to offer suggestions on the wider policy implications of their research. 

The issues of “officers shooting too many suspects” and “officers shooting too many minority suspects due to racial bias” are distinct use of force discussions. 

In the press, these issues are readily conjoined with concerns over “militarized” departments and police corruption, all of which paint a generalized picture that law enforcement officers throughout the country wrongly and indiscriminately use force and therefore the whole “system” is begging for some sort of national reform

Unasked and Unanswered
Several questions remain:

  • How many minority officers shoot white suspects, and how does that compare with the rates of white officers shooting minority suspects?
  • Does the hiring of minority officers in communities of similar ethnicity make a difference? If so, how?
  • Does the hiring of minority officers raise a department’s expectation of civil liability protection?

A second — and much less debated — issue has to do with eyewitness accounts. Officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys have all recognized that eyewitnesses rarely agree in the context, substance and details of what they’ve observed. The grand jury report from Ferguson only reflected the realities of such ambiguos testimony. 

The two apparently unrelated issues of use of force and eyewitness accounts come together with the individual officer, and especially patrol officers, who daily represent governmental authority to the public.

If the whole issue is so complex and solutions are not readily apparent, why should cops worry? They should, after all, just drive on and do their jobs. Right? 

Not necessarily, simply because social media and the Internet have meant that the action of an individual officer can affect the reputation of law enforcement nationally. The vast majority of officers work daily (and it is work) to build a reputation of integrity despite the lack of evergreen attention from the mass media. 

A good reputation is critical, especially when some citizens who may be ill-informed incorrectly infer from past actions (probably reported incorrectly) that an officer in Duluth or an officer in Waco will respond to a superficially similar situation the same way. Not everyone is equally informed, and every officer must take every opportunity to explain the role of law enforcement to the citizens they’re sworn to protect and serve. An officer’s individual reputation, and that of the profession, depends on a knowledgeable citizenry.

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