Suspects' lives matter
Black Lives Matter has a very strong case to make that there is a serious problem in American policing.
The case only begins with the disparities in officer-involved shootings, where African-Americans (and Native Americans) are far more likely to suffer fatal violence than Caucasians (or Hispanic or Asian-Americans). It extends to a far more in-depth critique of how American policing has been transformed, from the increasing reliance on police forces to generate revenue for cash-strapped municipalities to the ways in which intensive policing strategies that appear to have reduced crime have also led to widespread harassment of African-Americans.
But at the level of public perception, much of that case isn't being heard. Instead, what is too often heard is, "police are killing black men because the cops are racist" and "white America doesn't care about that fact because too many white Americans are racist."
That's a practical problem for the movement. Not because they're wrong. Because they may be right.
Let's look at police performance first. There are some truly racist cops — just like there are bigots in any walk of life — and some cops who are sadistic or corrupt. There are also exceptionally anti-racist cops, just like there are some cops who are heroes at fighting corruption in the ranks, and so forth. But you'd expect most cops to hold fairly average attitudes on race, and to have average susceptibility to the influence of both hero cops and corrupt cops in their ranks — just because, on average, most people are average.
Assume, now, that some of these cops — not the really bad ones, but the average ones, harboring an average set of biases and prejudices — get the message that they need to distrust their instincts because their instincts may be racist. If they perceive a black suspect as a threat, they need to second-guess that perception. How will that affect their performance on the job?
It's likely their performance will get worse. Instincts are vital in any human interaction, particularly ones involving high stress. Turning them off or actively doubting them makes those interactions brittle and more tense, requiring more mental and emotional energy. That may lead to escalation in situations where no threat existed. And if second-guessing leads to a mistake where a threat is missed, the result is likely to be an over-reaction in the opposite direction — and new appreciation for the truly racist cops who think the real problem is the interfering liberals.
Why are we seeing so many brutal, terrifying, apparently unjustified police killings on camera? Isn't the awareness that they are likely being observed, and recorded, a deterrent to this kind of behavior? It probably is, to some extent — particularly with rational, corrupt, or brutal cops. But the awareness of being observed doesn't make the average person behave calmly and more naturally. On the contrary, it makes them self-conscious and tenses them up. Meanwhile, even in the absence of observation, self-doubt is like an internal camera, ratcheting up the tension in tense situations.
The very tools that are revealing to us how serious the problem is may be making certain aspects of the problem worse.
Now consider the political reaction to these events. Assume that the Black Lives Matter activists have a point, that white Americans on average care less about police brutality and unjustified killing precisely because it disproportionately affects black Americans. What's the likely white response to that accusation, assuming it's true? Scales falling from the eyes — or defensiveness? If the ridiculous #AllLivesMatter hashtag wasn't evidence enough, I think the headlines in the wake of the Dallas shootings speak for themselves.
Does that mean that Black Lives Matter is counter-productive? Absolutely not. Organizing is absolutely essential to achieving any political objective, and it makes all the sense in the world to use a slogan that has been so useful for organizing — because it speaks powerfully to those being organized.
It just means that organizers should be cognizant of the fact that what speaks to those being organized will have the opposite effect on those they are organizing against.
And it means that they may need another rhetorical strategy for making some of its most important points.
They need to supplement #BlackLivesMatter with the message #SuspectsLivesMatter.
The deep roots of the problem of police brutality and unjustified killings are complex. But some of the shallow reasons are relatively simple. Police are, increasingly, trained to treat suspects as a threat first, and as members of the citizenry they are bound to serve and protect second. Don't take it from me — take it from Frank Serpico:
I remember a guy I worked with back in the 81st Precinct, an ex-Marine named Murphy.
He would not turn out for roll call until his shoes were spit-shined, and his uniform was creased.
One night, he was called to a family dispute. There was a man waiting behind the door, and he came out with a butcher knife and slashed Murphy's face.
Murphy could have emptied his gun in him. Instead, he disarmed the man and put him in cuffs. What's happening today in the performance of some officers can only be described as sheer cowardice. They don't belong in the uniform, and they shouldn't have weapons — whether they're cops or not.
I hear cops saying all the time — and they're proud of it — "shoot first, ask questions later."
They say, "It's my job to get home safe." Yes, but not at the cost of a human being who never posed a threat to you in the first place. [Serpico, via New York Daily News]
That's something that can be changed with training. Dallas, ironically, is one city where they were working hard to change it — with measurable results. Training for deescalation — among other reforms — can work because it works with the officer's instincts, rather than against them.
Consider an officer who perceives an African-American suspect as more dangerous than an otherwise similar white suspect. Deescalation training would serve that officer well in a confrontation with a black suspect by giving him the tools to respond in ways less likely to lead to violence. He doesn't need to doubt his perception of the threat; he needs to respond to it differently, in ways that minimize the likelihood of either the suspect or the officer coming to harm, rather than placing force protection at the top of the pyramid and implicitly downgrading the importance of the welfare of the suspect, who, white or black, ought to still benefit from the presumption of innocence — and from due process even if he is guilty.
None of this is news to anyone involved in Black Lives Matter, or in any other organization struggling for police reform. It's thanks to Black Lives Matter and other activists that I've learned what little I have about the subject. But at the top level of political messaging, its not getting through the way it should. If Black Lives Matter's diagnosis of societal racism is correct, then they have a ready explanation for why that may be. And they need a practical response that will help them achieve their objectives.
The struggle to see citizens of any race as equal objects of concern is an ongoing one. But the struggle to reform policing shouldn't be dependent on victory in that ongoing struggle.