Police

Sure, Black Lives Matter. But The Police Pose No Special Threat.

Watching Terence Crutcher walk away from armed police officers and back to his stalled SUV where he then put his hands down was a bit like watching a B-rated horror flick. You know the kind. One of the many protagonists or otherwise dispensable characters walks into a dark room, warehouse, forest — you name it — only to get bludgeoned, eaten, or sawed in half. All the while you’ve been yelling at the TV, knowing full well what was in store and marveling at the irrational behavior of the poor victim (which you, of course, would never be guilty of yourself). We think this way fairly often, recognizing that bad decisions often lead to bad outcomes, and I suspect that most of us feel completely justified in such considerations. Yet somehow it has become impossible to apply this same logic to real life situations involving real life people without hearing those trite and fashionable accusations that we’re now beginning to “blame the victim”.

I don’t think anyone in his right mind believes that Mr. Crutcher, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, or any of the others who died at the hands of the police deserved to be killed or can be considered wholly responsible for their own untimely deaths. But I also don’t understand how anyone in his right mind can note the behavior of these individuals and then still be surprised at what finally transpired. In virtually every publicized case over the past few years there almost always existed some form of aberrant conduct (or at least questionable conduct) that certainly should have been handled better by police, but which also never should have occurred in the first place. And yet to draw attention to this factor is immediately to brand oneself a racist, as if we don’t apply this same standard to white men as well. Spare me, please. We’re all perfectly happy to tell you that we do. It’s what led police to shoot an unarmed Dillon Taylor as he kept one hand hidden behind his back. It’s what brought about the demise of Devin Guilford after a church basketball game. It’s what got Andrew Henson killed back in June, and then Dylan Noble just over two weeks later. And it’s what got the deaf Daniel Harris shot dead this past August, and shot by a black trooper to boot. And this is only a partial listing. In all fairness to Harris, I might add, one does need to recognize that he may have been attempting to use sign language when he was killed, which may or may not be true. But even assuming for the moment that it is, our principle here remains the same: belligerence and unconventional movements often lead to unfortunate results.

I’m reminded of a portion in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, where he addresses the caution with which policemen approach drivers, usually advancing from the rear and shining their flashlights during those stops which take place in the evening. “Why can’t the officer stand and talk to me face-to-face, like a normal human being?” he asks.

The reason is that it would be virtually impossible for me to pull a gun on the officer if he’s standing behind me. First of all, the officer is shining his flashlight on my lap, so he can see where my hands are and whether I’m going for a gun . . . The police procedure, in other words, is for my benefit: it means that the only way the officer will ever draw his gun on me is if I engage in a drawn-out and utterly unambiguous sequence of actions.

Of course, this is what happens in an ideal situation where the officer supposedly has complete control and is engaging his suspect properly. In those cases where protocol isn’t followed or where uncooperative suspects have brought about increased tensions, there then exists a chance that something somehow may go horribly wrong — fatally wrong.

In explaining the perils of excessive stress upon the brain, Gladwell appeals to, former military man and author, David Grossman who suggests that when under pressure we think most clearly when our heart rate is somewhere within the range of 115 to 145 beats-per-minute.

“After 145,” Grossman says, “bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult . . . At 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing . . . The forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain — the part of your brain that is the same as your dog’s (all mammals have that part of the brain) — reaches up and hijacks the forebrain. Have you ever tried to have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being? You can’t do it . . . You might as well try to argue with your dog.” Vision becomes even more restricted. Behavior becomes inappropriately aggressive . . .

It would be interesting to know where Betty Shelby’s heart rate was at a time when she had ostensibly never been so scared in her life. And quite frankly, if she really was that scared, then we can probably all agree that Bill Maher is right: she’s in the wrong line of work.

None of this is to suggest that the archetypical racially-prejudiced dirty cop doesn’t exist. Quite the contrary. One study, in fact, which found that officers are no more likely to use lethal force against African-Americans also found that officers are more likely to use non-lethal force against this same group — a study carried out by Roland Fryer from the National Bureau of Economic research, himself a black man, should you insist on making that an issue. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know it’s entirely probable that some — certainly not all, but undoubtedly some — of this non-lethal force must have been the result of biased authority figures abusing their power. People are people, after all. And if cops are people, then it’s reasonable to suppose that they too are subject to many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the population at large.

But however true this supposition might be, however many rogue patrolmen like to rough up suspects of color (or unjustly profile black men in general for that matter), we ultimately find ourselves faced with a narrative that is quite different from the one being told by those involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has often implied (or in some cases maintained quite explicitly) a concerted effort on the part law enforcement to exterminate the African-American male. Given the data in Fryer’s study, however, the psychological research, and the existence of similar incidents perpetrated against white victims, it seems entirely disingenuous to assign this kind of blame to the responsible officers as if we can assume that these officers intentionally singled out minority victims simply because, well, “they’re racists and want to kill black people.” To do so is no better and not much different than convicting an innocent African-American for a crime simply because “he’s black and must have done it” — a travesty of justice which is part of what got us into this situation in the first place. More likely, various psychological stressors are at play which have continuously been exacerbated by the egregious rates of crime within the black community and which have been further aggravated by growing anti-cop sentiment. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, at the number of shaky trigger fingers. We should expect them. And in the absence of more complete evidence, we should simply assume that mistakes were committed, not murders.

Thoughts in the Wake of Eric Harris’s Death

If I were to imagine a police sting gone wrong, an operation wherein the victim was accidentally killed by one of the officers on duty, it would probably unfold in a manner almost identical to what we’ve seen in the Eric Harris footage that’s been in the news lately and making rounds on social media. You might speculate that racial motivations lay behind the execution of Walter Scott or, to invoke namesakes, the strangling of Eric Garner, no matter how much and how deeply I hope to the contrary; but as far as I can tell, everything in this most recent travesty points to an unfortunate, though honest, mistake, plain and simple, albeit the kind of mistake one would expect to see when some geriatric rent-a-cop (actually, I think it’s called “pay-to-play”) is given permission to handle a deadly weapon that looks all too much like a taser.

Perhaps I should be a bit kinder to Mr. Bates as the immediate disposal of the still smoking gun and concomitant apology strikes my eyes and ears as nothing less than a sincere expression of shock and disbelief at what had just happened, while the aggression, brutality, and callous disregard exhibited by the accompanying patrolmen bring to mind a passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

David Grossman, a former army lieutenant colonel and the author of On Killing, argues that the optimal state of “arousal” — the range in which stress improves performance — is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute . . .

“After 145,” Grossman says, “bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult . . . At 175, we being to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing . . . The forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain — the part of your brain that is the same as your dog’s (all mammals have that part of the brain) — reaches up and hijacks the forebrain. Have you ever tried to have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being? You can’t do it . . . You might as well try to argue with your dog.” Vision becomes even more restricted. Behavior becomes inappropriately aggressive . . . [emphasis mine]

This is precisely the reason that many police departments in recent years have banned high-speed chases. It’s not just because of the dangers of hitting some innocent bystander during the chase, although that is clearly part of the worry, since about three hundred Americans are killed accidentally every year during chases. It’s also because of what happens after the chase, since pursuing a suspect at high speed is precisely the kind of activity that pushes police officers into this dangerous high arousal. “The L.A. riot was started by what cops did to Rodney King at the end of the high-speed chase,” says James Fyfe, head of training for the NYPD, who has testified in many brutality cases.

However one feels about the previous law enforcement encounters that have made headlines over the past couple years (and weeks), I find it remarkably difficult to interpret this one as anything more than a mishap of the most tragic kind, fueled by the incompetence and poor judgement of whoever decided it would be a good idea to send an elderly reserve officer into a high pressure and volatile situation. Robert Bates deserves the conviction of second-degree manslaughter since “culpable negligence” is precisely how his behavior ought to be defined. The real responsibility, though, lies with the Tulsa County Police Department who should have never allowed this situation to happen and should have been far more diligent in assessing the type of work Officer Bates was being assigned.