Phoenix Police and a Doll from the Dollar Store

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Screen capture from social media

Yet another story made national news. Officers going from zero to two hundred in two seconds flat. Why? They responded to a report that a doll was stolen from a dollar store. The video of the interaction hit social media, and national news soon after. The family is in the process of suing the department for excessive force. If you have watched the video, it has the usual components. In this case a black family, including a pregnant woman, two children including a four-year-old, and officers drawing guns.

They did not approach this calmly. They did not ask any questions. They surrounded the vehicle and aimed service guns at minors while shouting orders, some of which were contradictory. Why? Well, to quote Kamau Bell, it was another episode “of living while black.” Fortunately, none was injured or killed, and yes, the department is going to get sued. It was a textbook example of implicit bias. This is not limited to the police, and all of us have it. Here is a nice little tool for you to test yourself. We see it often with officers who confuse cell phones for guns and believe a ten-year-old is an adult.

These stories are not rare. If you talk to members of minority groups, officers tend to do this, often. In the age of video, we get to see it. And full disclosure, since I have an accent, the moment I open my mouth and speak, officer’s demeanors tend to tense up. Why? I went from the nice white lady (the in-group) to the other in an instant. The only saving grace is that my heavy accent passes for Eastern European, so I am not as bad as I would if my accent was true to where I was born and raised.

Regardless, when this is something one experiences it is obvious that people who cannot pass will have a more difficult time. Which brings me back to how police react to minorities, and in particular black people. As I have written before, we live in a caste society. Our society considers the children of slaves to be the bottom of the system. Police internalize this as well. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of money, or if you have a Ph.D. in anything. If you drive a nice car in the wrong neighborhood, you have a higher chance of a police stop, on any excuse. If you happen to live in what once was a red-lined neighborhood, your police department will patrol more aggressively. We have the data.

It matters little what department you are speaking off, or what city, minorities are targeted more often for stop and frisk, and for higher traffic stops. And if you happen to live in those neighborhoods your insurance rates will be higher and good luck getting a loan from the bank to buy a house or start a business. Yes, this is technically illegal. However, the practice continues fifty years on when legislation forbade these practices.

This leads to a vicious cycle, of which the police are but one leg. The ability to accumulate wealth among minority communities is low. Therefore levels of poverty remain high. Starting businesses, which lead to positive job creation, is not easy. Again, this leads to poverty. Moreover, good industrial jobs moved outside of city cores, to either periphery, other states, or other countries. The police though is an important leg in this. They are patrolling areas where they have little if any, social solidarity. While some officers are recruited from these neighborhoods, many of them move out as soon as they can.

Then there is the age of officers in the force, and where they are assigned patrol. According to the Marshall Project:

The divide between the police officers who patrol Garfield Park and Jefferson Park reflect divisions that hold true across Chicago and in police departments across the country, where high-crime areas are frequently staffed with rookies while the veterans flock to safer districts. Policing experts say that the practice is commonplace, since senior officers usually get priority when they ask to transfer, though Chicago’s union-mandated transfer process exacerbates the situation, tying the hands of commanders in deciding how to staff their districts. And while some say that the divide has its benefits, citing younger officers’ energy and ability to connect with at-risk youth, there are also significant risks — to the safety of citizens and officers, and to police departments that already struggle to forge lasting connections in many communities.

“You’re putting your least experienced officers in the situations that really call for the most experience and best judgement,” says Sam Walker, a professor and policing expert at the University of Nebraska. According to Walker, younger officers are more likely to engage in overly aggressive policing, particularly if not given proper training.

A lack of experience can also have deadly consequences. Last year, a Buzzfeed News analysis found that younger officers are more likely to use force — a finding also backed by a 2008 study of 186 officer-involved shootings. In Chicago, a database of police shootings compiled by the Chicago Tribune showed that the average officer who opened fire had about nine years of experience, compared to 15 for the department as a whole.

This is also affected by something else. Officers are influenced by the areas they patrol. How they respond and how they act comes with the territory. This is a serious problem since officers will follow what is called broken windows policing more often in less prosperous, and minority areas. These patrols also tend to encounter people with mental health issues more frequently, and they tend to be more violent encounters. This affects officers attitudes as well. This is worst when officers encounter people with mental health issues.

In better, more stable, neighborhoods those responses tend to happen as 911 dispatch calls. They also tend to occur in private residences, leading to more referrals to mental health or transports to emergency rooms.

There are different perceptions of law enforcement, and the conservative CATO Institute found this:

Americans do not believe the US justice system treats everyone equally

65% think police officers regularly racially profile Americans and 63% oppose the practice.

Nearly two-thirds (65%) say police commonly “stop motorists and pedestrians of certain racial or ethnic backgrounds because the officer believes that these groups are more likely than others to commit certain types of crimes.” Another 63% also oppose police using racial profiling for traffic and pedestrian stops.

Majorities of whites (62%), Hispanics (62%), and blacks (77%) oppose racial profiling by police. Republicans stand out with a slim majority (51%) in favor of racial profiling and 49% opposed. Black Republicans, however, disagree, with 65% who oppose racial profiling and 35% who support it.

This brings us full circle to what happened in Phoenix, which is hardly a rare event. We live in a society where awareness is there. We know implicit bias is a reality. Hopefully, this will start to change attitudes. But we are going to continue to see these videos because we still have a problem.

Police need training, but they also need supervision. There is the matter of department culture, which may at times go fully against training, or procedures. Why? Departments tend to circle the wagons anytime there is an incident. There are phrases officers use, such as “I feared for my life.” Also, reports do not conform to the reality of the encounter, in some cases.

It’s true that there are situations where officers should fear for their lives. If somebody comes out at them with a gun or a rifle, they must assume such item is loaded. Truth be told, some toy guns are way too realistic and even the orange tips are not enough to avoid tragedies. However, officers in other parts of the world are able to deescalate situations where somebody is holding a knife. And if officers keep distance, then that knife will not be effective. That takes time and training. This is a commodity that many departments do not have. Why? Part of it is a lack of enough officers to be able to handle a critical call, this is, and keep patrol levels up. So officers are in a rush to chase the radio.

There is also another reality. In the United States police departments have become the first responders in mental health cases. Police officers are not equipped to handle this. And when they respond to a store robbery at a dollar store, involving a black family, it has all the ingredients for a tragedy.

In my view, videos from bystanders are helping to highlight these issues. Why? They are showing encounters that we all know happen but had no real evidence they did. While dash cams and body cams should have gone a long way in settling some of this, and make officers calm, some departments have yet to adopt, one or both. And officers are still in a “us v them” mentality. This makes it hard for officers to police themselves, no pun.

But this goes beyond the police. We may not like it that officers use racial profiling in traffic stops and other situations. (Phoenix was a classic example because I am betting if the family were white the demeanor would have been different, and at no time did this family pose an actual threat to the responding officers.) It includes us. We all have some bias, and it comes from the society in which we live. We are trained to fear black bodies. We are also taught to fear brown bodies and those with an accent.

The first step is for all of us to realize how much of a problem this is. We may want to blame the police. In reality, officers grew up and came from our society. They did not come from the moon, or mars, or another country. While we need better supervision and training. We must ask, what are the structural reasons behind this, even if we do not like the answer.

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