As protests flooded the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I pulled together a stream of thoughts in my weekly letter. One of the questions I wondered aloud about was what standard police should be held to. In tweet form:
So you've heard "not all cops are bad."
This is true. But it would also be true if half the cops were bad.
Defect rates in manufacturing are measured in PPM. Parts per million! We have high standards for widgets
What defect tolerance will we accept for our armed enforcers?
— Kris (@KrisAbdelmessih) June 3, 2020
One of my readers who I chat with responded with illuminating insights on the topic. It turns out he/she had quite a background in law enforcement with a good view into local and Federal practices. As is our national habit, the discourse on police has quickly become politically polarized. Polarization is obscuring the massive degree of nuance endemic to the rich topic of law enforcement. This friend felt compelled to write down his/her thoughts and iterated on the essay over many sessions. I pushed for it to be published but the demands of this person’s current profession require anonymity. So I asked to share it on Moontower preserving anonymity. I don’t have a big platform but I’m happy to share this with those of you who do follow. Thanks to my guest and of course to you for reading.
We have a valuable opportunity to change right now but we are running the risk of not realizing powerful change due to a false equivalency in the dominant narrative.
1. What Can You Do Today to Help Create a More Just Society
2. What is the False Equivalency and Which Key Stakeholder is Missing?
3. Worldview and Caveats
4. Race and Fatality in Police Encounters
5. A Baseline for Police Violence
6. Understanding Violent Encounters and Human Limitations
7. Societal Considerations
8. Concluding Thoughts
What Can You Do Today to Help
Before expanding on the false equivalency and its effect, here are some initiatives that I think will, you know, just help make society a little bit better for everyone. No need to look at it through a political ideology, just look at it and say gee, this would help a lot of people. Think of it as trying to move society closer towards John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness without making any normative judgments about the current state of affairs.
- Immediate: Help support bail for underprivileged people. Poor people that can’t afford bail often lose their jobs while waiting for trial, even if found innocent later. I recommend the Bail Project.
- Immediate: Support legal assistance so that disadvantaged groups are more likely to get good legal representation. Anyone who has ever seen Lionel Hutz in action knows what I mean.
- Medium Term: Anything that helps support educational and healthcare disparities between communities. If you aren’t sure, go to CharityNavigator and sort by 4-star charities.
- Medium Term: Take away the power police unions have to protect police officers from losing their job even after multiple complaints. This is a sticky situation because it then brings the wider circle of public unions under scrutiny. Here is a nice overview of the potential problems.
- Policy questions to ponder: ending the criminalization of drugs. Over policing of disadvantaged areas. The militarization of the police.
- I also feel the need to caveat this with the following: When I first wrote this, I forgot to say anything about George Floyd? Why? Because I’ve thought about this problem deeply for years, so Floyd might be the catalyst for me sharing my thoughts, but not the catalyst for me taking an interest in this narrative, that happened a long time ago. Every cop that I know thought the murder of George Floyd was just that, murder. It was heartless, bizarre, and without explanation.
What is the False Equivalency and Which Key Stakeholder is Missing?
We have a valuable opportunity for change and we might fail to capitalize on it. We are missing a critical opportunity to communicate about some very real issues as a society. What’s happening instead? We are screaming past one another with ideology and frameworks. Some very positive changes have occurred but what I fear is that the current narrative completely alienates and vilifies one key group that’s going to be needed in our fight for a more just society.
On a national level, what is the false equivalency? It is the following: “a complex and long line of historical inequalities and oppression have created a system with inherent racism” is considered equivalent and just as true as the following state “the police are racist.” The first statement is substantiated, the second one really is not. Why do I think this clarification is important? Because you can disarm a lot of hostility in the discussion between the left and the right once you tweak the narrative to allow for this nuance, and maybe we can work on changes that in theory many of us support. The heart of the argument is thus bound up in these three points:
- Is there a complex and long line of historical inequalities, oppression, and racism that have surreptitiously and latently made the experiences of minorities in the legal and law enforcement realms to be different than mainstream populations? Yes. This is racism.
- Are police officers en masse a group of racists proactively attempting to discriminate against minorities solely due to their minority status? No.
- If you accept both points 1 and 2 it allows for constructive dialogue. Also, if you want real reform it makes a whole lot more sense to have the police as partners in that effort and not adversaries. If you vilify the police and blame them for every ugly aspect of the system, threaten their lives, and cut their funding etc. are you going to on average get better or worse qualified people applying to be police officers?
I think most people right now agree on point #1 above, so let me spend some time on point #2 and help explain parts of the law enforcement job that often go unexplained to the general public, to the detriment to all of us in this discussion.
Worldview and Caveats
I’ve already shared some of this writing with friends and was attacked for it, so let me try to be clear upfront and say: I think there are very real problems in society. The outcomes under the current state are discriminatory and there are entire segments of the population crying out saying they haven’t been heard and have been suffering from racism. We should do everything we can to help them. The pain and psychological trauma of literally living one’s entire life in this manner is are burdens that I cannot even begin to fathom.
Race and Fatality in Police Encounters
Three studies from progressive academics concluded the following:
- Journal of Politics, research from Shea Streeter of Stanford University1 has shown that, if you compare blacks and whites coming into contact with the police under similar circumstances, they have a virtually equal likelihood of being killed. “The reason why so many police killings of African Americans have sparked outrage is that, at least to many, the circumstances of those interactions did not appear to warrant lethal force. A jarring implication of my research is that an analogous proportion of white decedents are also killed by police under similarly dubious circumstances.”
- Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences – Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings2. “We did not find evidence for anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparity in police use of force across all shootings, and, if anything, found anti-White disparities when controlling for race-specific crime. While racial disparity did vary by type of shooting, no one type of shooting showed significant anti-Black or -Hispanic disparity.”
- Ronald Fryer of Harvard University – An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force3: On the most extreme use of force – officer involved shootings – we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.
- Unrelated to fatal force situations, but also worth reviewing4 if you are interested in these meta-studies: 85-90% of all racial groups who called 911 for help felt they behaved properly
I think this broadly helps frame a discussion where we can dispense with the false equivalency and agree on points 1 and 2 above.
A Baseline for Police Violence
There are over 800,000 law enforcement officers in the US5. In any given year there are approximately 63 million unique interactions between a civilian and a police officer in the United States (source: US Department of Justice6). Police shootings are cataloged and scrutinized by media and the Department of Justice. The FBI has entire divisions dedicated to investigating civil rights violations of local police departments. The Washington Post has a widely publicized police database7 which broadly proclaims that “black Americans are killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans.”
If we are looking for clearly objectionable police behavior and bias let’s filter this down and specifically look only at shootings of unarmed people and not shootings involving some kind of weapon. Filter the database for 2019 and we see 1,004 people. Filter it again for “Unarmed” and the number drops by 99% to 56 people. Of those 56 people: 25 were white, 15 were African American, 11 were Hispanic, and 5 were other.
There are pretty broad studies from Harvard and Michigan State University that conclude that at least when it comes to fatal force the police are not biased by race8. What I think is clear is that minorities are more likely to have contact with police, and more likely to be prosecuted for a crime than white people under similar circumstances. So here you have the paradox of points 1 and 2 on display: as a minority you are more likely to have a police encounter purely based off the demographics of communities and deployment of police assets (point 1 above systemic factors) but once that encounter starts you are of equal or even less likely to be killed than a white person (see footnote 4) i.e. point 2 above police officers, in general, aren’t biased in their application of fatal force.
Everyone forgets to look at police officers though – the other side of the coin. 48 police officers were killed in 2019, 40 were white, 7 were African American, and 1 was Asian. This means that if you are an unarmed African American as part of the general population in 2019 you die at the hands of police at a rate of approximately 15 per 37.1 million compared to African American police officers who died at a rate of 7 per 106,400. (800,000 police officers, of which 13.3% are African American9, compared to 12.6% of the general US population).
So even if you assume every unarmed killing (more on that later – use of force, tactics, and the fact a police officer never knows who is armed or not) is entirely without any reasonable cause you have a fatality error rate in 2019 for all citizens, regardless of color, of 56 people per 63 million unique police to citizen interactions per year. Or a rate of .00009%. I think one is one too many but when you have 800,000 people making decisions in 63 million encounters some of which are bound to involve making decisions under conditions of risk, violence, and uncertainty, I would imagine that error rate is broadly representative of the error rate in any human endeavor.
Understanding Violent Encounters and Human Limitations
“As your heart rate goes up, your tunnel vision can get narrower and your auditory exclusion can increase.”
— Dave Grossman, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace
Everyone sits back and looks at the situation and likes to think about what they might have done. Here are some realities for the people that have seen too many movies. You can start with the first 3 listed in this article: 15 Things The Police Wish The Public Knew About Law Enforcement10:
- The police aren’t martial arts or even hand to hand combat experts.
“People have been conditioned by TV to believe that a properly trained police officer of any size can take down a person of superior size and strength11, quickly, almost effortlessly, without the use of weapons, and without any injury to either party. This is not true. Few cops are expert martial artists. The defensive tactics training12 they receive is fairly perfunctory. Struggles often result in injured joints, lacerations, concussions and other injuries to both parties. There is lots of cursing and screaming involved. The cops usually win, but only because they can get enough cops on the scene to overwhelm the adversary.
The reality of it is this: if you get physical with a police officer they are going to assume their life is in mortal danger. If at any point you can hit them hard enough to stun them, or are able to grab their weapon, their assumption is that you are going to kill them. So this is why you see multiple police officers tackle and hit people at times – they aren’t experts in hand to hand combatives, they are going to use numbers and brute force to bring the situation under control as quickly as possible.
- Performance Under Stress: During a stressful event the human capacity to think and even respond with coordinated physical movements is reduced.
What you get is brute force gross motor function moves. Let’s talk about people’s reaction under stressful situations13 for people who have never been a knockdown drag-out fight or have not been shot at:
- During a stress event, the SNS is activated and adrenaline, chemicals, and hormones are dumped from the adrenal glands and immediately sent out to the areas of the body needed to primarily support the survival effort. At 145 heart beats per minute (BPM), most people lose complex motor skills, meaning those manual dexterity skills necessary to do several things at once or in unison.
- At 175 BPM, the pupils dilate and flatten and visual narrowing occurs – or what is referred to as tunnel vision – and since the visual system is the primary sensory system for the brain it becomes increasingly difficult to focus and track objects and targets.
- In the auditory system, hearing shuts down or is diminished significantly at around 115 BPMs and that is why many people say they didn’t hear anything during a life-threatening stress event.
- The brain is ultimately affected as well. At 175 BPM, it is not uncommon for someone to have problems recalling what just occurred. This is sometimes referred to as “critical stress amnesia.” Immediately after an event, a person may only recall 30 percent of what happened with memory gradually increasing over many hours.
- At 185-220 BPM, most people will go into a state of “hyper-vigilance.” This is also commonly known as the “deer in the headlights” or “feedback mode” where a person repeats non-effectual actions or having irrational behavior like moving from behind the protection of a building during a gunfight.
- Lastly, at a mere 115 BPM, fine and complex physical motor skills become less available and effective. Pulling the trigger of handgun correctly, aiming on target or manipulating handcuffs or other tools becomes increasingly difficult to do. This is in direct contrast to the gross motor skills which become enhanced such as those parts of the body needed to fight or flee.
- Split Second Decision Making14: Why It Can Look So Bad After The Fact
- Go back and re-read the effects of stress on the body and the impact on motor skills and brain function. The average gunfight is over in seconds which means there is not often time for conscious thought. When people receive weapons training they are usually taught to 1. Aim center mass of a target because even when you are aren’t under stress it’s nearly impossible to hit an appendage such as an arm or leg and 2. Keep shooting until the target goes down. Why? Because sometimes getting shot actually doesn’t stop someone from coming at you. I refer to this Apple podcast: Mike Day: Navy SEAL, Shot 27 Times and Never Quit15 who was shot 27 times and still managed to take out his attacker.
- So when you read some incendiary article that police shot someone 30 times, what they aren’t saying is that it’s not like the police had a meeting before and decided how who was going to shoot how many bullets, the entire event probably transpired in 5 seconds with no time to coordinate, and each officer drew their weapon as they were trained to do and shot repeatedly until the individual went down. Furthermore, given the effects of stress on the body, each officer was probably not even aware of what the other people around them were doing at the time.
Examples of the Types of Decisions Officers Make: I’ve spoken to people about the death statistics for police officers and the response is so what, they signed up for that job. Well, the counterpoint is that you’ve implicitly admitted then than it’s inherently dangerous and violent. Why is that an important acknowledgment? Because to understand police violence you need to understand what kinds of situations they are confronted with and how they are trained to react.
- Hint: it’s not easy16 and unless you’ve undergone the training17 it’s really easy to read an after the fact headline and become enraged. Footnotes 8 and 9 are really worth going to in order to get a feel for this.
- Two quick summary stories from my use of force training: in one class we watched bodycam videos of police shootings and voted after on if the use of force was appropriate. On one of them, the person was running, stopped, turn around really quickly and pulled a gun out. He was shot and killed. 100% of the class voted it was an appropriate shooting. They slowed the tape down and showed us the pictures after, it was a very young man and the gun was actually a cell phone.
- It’s not easy when it’s happening in real-time speed and your stress hormones are flooding your system – vision narrows and your brain just reacts at times without time even for conscious thought. In the virtual simulator, I was in a shoot or no-shoot decision and I shot a lady. To me, it looked like she was pointing the gun at another officer to her right. They let the video play through and it turns out she was putting the gun down, I just had a bad angle. It’s terrifying to me how hard it is to make decisions in these scenarios.
- Look at this scenario18 and how fast it plays out – and the officers have the benefit of daylight and helicopter telling them what the person is doing. The reality is you never know who19 has a gun – I carried a concealed weapon and was able to draw it and fire two shots into a target at close range in under 2 seconds
- What is the takeaway when you combine these split-second scenarios with human decision making under stress: Police officers are taught that action beats reaction – so if he/she even thinks you are reaching for something that might harm them they are going to attempt to react faster than you and shoot. If you want to see why officers often react the way they do, or attempt to react with a strong level of force to head off any resistance right up front just go on youtube and drop in something about traffic stops gone wrong. Things go from okay to getting shot at in a literal second. A lot of the posturing and domineering behavior is done in hopes to dissuade someone from even thinking about taking that road.
- The Damage of a Bad Media Narrative20 “Atlanta Police Officer Shoots a Black Man Dead at the Fast-Food Drive-Thru” That’s the headline, people are already protesting. The police officer has already been fired and the mayor forced the police chief to resign. You read further details: the man had passed out in his car and was blocking the drive through so police were called. He got out of his car, started wrestling with the officers, managed to take one of their tasers, and was firing it at them, and only at that point did they shoot him. None of that is in the media, instead the officer is fired and the police chief is forced to resign. Any intelligent police officer that can find work elsewhere right now is going to do so and you are going to be left with less qualified and capable candidates. This entire narrative is making the situation more volatile and more error prone rather than the opposite.
Large datasets and false homogeneity: First point and counterpoint: Large sets of numbers hide the truth at times. If you have never worked in law enforcement it’s hard to realize that the police are not a monolithic organization. Police departments are like church parishes – each one has its own culture, leadership, training department, demographic make-up, funding sources, etc. This view enables the following conclusions 1. Don’t just look at the national level averages and say there is no problem. On the other hand 2. The fact that departments vary widely should also make people hesitant to condemn the police en masse as some collective hive mind bent on discrimination. What is clear is that you give police departments a lot of power and authority – hiring practices should come under the ultimate scrutiny.
Lack of Narrative and Effect: Well what about the other side of the story when police are entirely wrong in their actions? I think that is put on display every day, what people don’t understand is what police officers are confronted with daily and just how quickly they have to decide under pressure. When you routinely vilify the police and incite hatred towards them without understanding the demands of their job and how these kind of things can occur you are creating a real problem in the sense that no reasonably intelligent person is going to want to become a police officer and the quality of your candidate pool is going to go down drastically. This will likely make all of the above problems worse over time and not better. There is a very real human element to this that is hidden by the dominant narratives.
“All Cops Are Bad Because They Don’t Turn in The Bad Cops”: People are dismissed from law enforcement agencies all the time – it’s just not publicized. I worked for a smaller agency and over the course of four years just in my local office we dismissed 4 individuals from internal investigations, from low ranking to very high ranking. They didn’t do anything criminal, or even overtly wrong in some cases, but they were judged to have a character not appropriate to law enforcement. That being said, there is a lot of evidence piling up that police unions are a very large problem because they protect officers from complaints and the officers cannot get fired. So even if a fellow officer or citizen files multiple complaints, nothing happens21. We didn’t have a union so people could be dismissed at any point.
Let’s stop turning police officers into the scapegoat for all the underlying societal problems that nobody wanted to address before. You need a holistic and systemic approach. Reach out to local police departments and include them in the discussion, support politicians to change the laws they have to enforce, support charities that help ensure equal treatment in the justice system. But if you keep vilifying and blaming the police for the entire system you are only going to get less qualified and less astute police officers moving forward, and that will be to the detriment of all of us. The current narrative is largely inaccurate, it’s also damaging.
Breaking Barriers United on Defunding The Police (Link)
Jay Stalien on Being a Beat Cop in Urban America (Link)
Humanizing the Badge (Link)
- https://www.pnas.org/content/116/32/15877 & https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/upshot/surprising-new-evidence-shows-bias-in-police-use-of-force-but-not-in-shootings.html