Implicit Bias, the Thomas Theorem and Police Violence

Fear and Prejudice in Police Decision Making

Two articles that appeared in Vox, taken together, were very revealing with regard to the ongoing debate and protest on police violence. The first had to do with explaining the violent responses of police in the field. The second elaborated on a psychological phenomenon referred to as implicit bias. Both were revealing and, as is typical of Vox, not very radical in their approach. Read together against the context of contemporary concern about police over-reach, however, they could be very helpful in understanding police behavior without resorting to finger pointing and vilification.

The first article is, Why Police Officers Often Resort to Lethal Force as a First Response. The author, Dara Lind, attempts to help us understand police responses. After all, police have multiple, non-lethal tools at their disposal, including Tasers, pepper spray and batons. Why resort immediately to the gun? The answer is non-controversial. Police use their guns because they are afraid for their lives. Psychologists might suggest that there are few levels of fear registered by the human mind. To our psyches, those things that make us afraid are perceived, perhaps unconsciously, as threats to our lives. So psychologically, an offender with a gun, or an offender with a knife, may elicit a similar response. And certainly we can’t blame police officers for being afraid. Someone coming at you with a knife or gun or baseball bat is scary and, in a very real sense, life threatening.

According to police experts, though I haven’t seen the actual research on this, an officer or deputy has about two seconds to decide upon a response. Assuming this is true…though I hypothesize that it is not…then resorting to the gun over the Taser is the right decision. After all, you don’t want to be underprepared for a potentially life threatening situation. If more than a Taser is required, and all the officer has is two seconds to respond, then the gun is and should be the default weapon.

So why carry a Taser at all? Well, the article is not clear on this. Lind points out that the Taser was intended to reduce the probability of lethal force being used. However, according to this article, that has not happened. What has happened is an increase in non-lethal force being used. This seems counterproductive, but that is another issue.

The second article is called, Understanding the Racial Bias You Didn’t Know You Had, by Jenée Desmond-Harris. In this article, Desmond-Harris points out that we are all imbued with what psychologists refer to as implicit bias. Despite the psycho-speak, this is a sociological phenomenon. In short, our cultural understanding of subordinate groups in society (those who are not of the dominant group) imbues our assumptions about those groups. In the United States, this includes racial minorities, women, old people and the poor. Since these assumptions are intrinsic to our socialization, we don’t even realize that we are influenced by these biases. People may be convinced that they, “don’t even see color,” but they do. In the United States, they do.

Some questions then arise. Does a police officer’s implicit bias influence how he interacts with black suspects? Do police perceive black suspects as inherently more dangerous and threatening than they do white suspects and, therefore, more likely to use force, specifically lethal force, against them? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the answer to both questions is yes.

We can then address the interactive component of this issue. One should be able to predict that in communities with a history of racial disparities, poverty and adversarial interactions with police that negative perceptions will be mutually reinforcing. Police officers’ perceptions of black males in the community increase the likelihood of violence, which in turn influences how black males in the community perceive police officers. Black males who perceive police officers as motivated by racism or the abuse of power are more likely to resist arrest or to act belligerently toward the police, thus reinforcing the implicit bias of the officer.

This is where the Thomas Theorem comes in. W. I. Thomas posited that what people perceive as real becomes real in its consequences. Both sides perceive the other as dangerous, thus responding to each other in such a way to promote these preconceptions. As a counselor, when this happened between individuals, I referred to it as a conflict cycle. I see no reason why the same term cannot be applied to this problem.

So how does one end a conflict cycle? Ideally, both parties should come together and openly decide to end it. However, ending a conflict only requires one side to cease its part and the cycle must end. My rule of thumb is that the agent with the most power has the responsibility to end its part of the conflict cycle. In this case, that means the responsibility is on the police, as the legitimized representative of state power, the agent authorized to use violence, to end the conflict cycle. Policies must be negotiated between the police and the community, with the police taking the lead, that re-establishes the legitimacy of policing while protecting the rights, autonomy and dignity of those subject to police authority.

To that effect, whiny actions like the police turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio just recently, only further de-legitimizes the police in the eyes of those whom they are expected to serve. It is my experience that crybabies don’t take it upon themselves to resolve problems. They only make them worse.

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