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police abuse

I do not in any way condone rioting and destruction of property. But I do think I have some understanding of the rage that fuels it. There is nothing new under the sun with this case. The history of black men suffering abuse and dying at the hands of law enforcement is centuries deep, and you can educate yourself with YouTube videos of examples until you just cannot stand viewing anymore.

Imagine trying to call attention to the double policing standard all of your adult life, with progress being so slow that nothing resembling justice is barely even noticeable, and then along comes a president who is a racist to his pathological core and you feel that the cause of Black Lives Matter has been set back a half century.

The emotional rage of fighting back against overt racism in policing and never ever feeling that you are gaining ground is a kind of despair that is hard to relate to unless you are personally involved. We have seen too many examples of the use of excessive force, especially with African Americans, over and over, and now instead moving toward a more just society, we are being goaded by a failed despot, outrageously unfit for office, who is trying to divide the country so he can remain in office and avoid criminal prosecution for too many crimes to mention.

Those of us unaffected by a double standard in policing with regard to our race watch the burning of buildings and the destruction of property and we are outraged by the rampant lawlessness, but I can understand that if nothing you do ever changes the mistreatment of your race, and that over and over, ad nauseum, these acts of abuse continue, then at least the damage due to the rioting, as dismal as it is, shows that there is a cost to injustice, even if it is seemingly irrational.

Hidden prejudice in policing exists because we are an incredibly immature species and we all grow up without a good understanding of how our minds work and the enormous influence our subconscious has on our rationalizations about reality. If you are thinking a hidden prejudice regarding black men does not really exist, consider the following:

“Pick a city: Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, or Ferguson, Missouri. Imagine two young black men are walking on a sidewalk in a low-income residential area, a police cruiser drives by slowly, and one of the young men says to the other, ‘Nothing for us to worry about with those guys in the neighborhood.’ Sounds hysterically absurd when you consider the reality of such a scenario. It is more likely that these young men feel like quarry, prey, a target. And this, in my view, is prima facie evidence of law enforcement missing the point of their very existence.”

The above paragraph is an excerpt from Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing. This book is based on my experience as a Dallas police officer in the 1960s and many years of research about the literature about policing and the dynamics of human behavior and especially the biological effects of frequent stress as experienced by police officers and how not thoroughly understanding these effects means that behavior will inevitably go awry.

If police management is not obsessed with ensuring that excessive force is not applied in daily policing, then policing will get out of hand. This is not an exaggeration. The truth is that, for more than a century, police officers have routinely abused their authority in no small part because of the physical changes they experience by being repeatedly in fight or flight situations and over time, it can negatively affect their tolerance in having their authority challenged, to a point in which they go ballistic. There are video examples of this on YouTube.

Body cameras and cellphones have exposed what until recently in many police departments was an unspoken but considered a grandfathered behavior in which the word of police officers was taken as the unvarnished truth, which meant they could do pretty much what they wanted and get away with it. Internet videos of these incidents pose a threat to this tradition, and yet, police accountability in a time with an Attorney General who sees himself as the president’s personal consigliere is simply not possible.

Now, despite the above, it is not my position that most white police officers are overtly racist, but that both black and white officers are likely to harbor a subconsciously assumed bias: seeing black men as representing more of a threat to them than white men. This should not be that hard to appreciate, given police statistics nationwide regarding arrest and police shooting incidents involving black men, compared to those involving white men, especially in cases in which they were shown to have been unarmed. I believe the evidence noted in Blue Bias is irrefutable.

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That white men see black men as being more of a threat than white men in our culture is a slam-dunk assumption: our entertainment media are infamous for making them seem that way. But that most white cops would be routinely afraid of anyone does not fit with my experience. Of course, any situation can escalate until one’s fear is simply a reflection of the actual danger you are facing. But peace officers are, after all, wearing a side arm, and via a radio call they can have a squad car cavalry arriving in minutes.

Even media that intends to shed light on the realities of racism and classism in our society can unintentionally bolster our biases. For example, David Simon’s series The Wire is one of my all-time favorite television series. I credit Simon for achieving a valuable public service in bringing to light a blistering array of appallingly neglected social issues. Omar Little was also one of my favorite characters, heroic in a tragic sense. At the same time, it is not entirely lost on me that Omar Little, Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, Marlo Stanfield, and Brother Mouzone also stand out as creative reinforcements of the assumption that Black men are exceptionally dangerous. This social reality is so deeply steeped in the bedrock of our entertainment industry that most often we don’t even see it so much as we just take it for granted, even though the truth of the inference is more apparent than real. Yet our whole approach to policing in so many communities is predicated on mistaking appearances for reality.

The Black Lives Matter movement in this country is not in my view anti-cop; it is instead an anguished plea to inspire a reality check and a wake-up call to the fact that implicit racial bias is a bedrock component of American culture.

It is not necessary to be an overt racist to assume that Black men pose a greater danger than white men to the safety of both Black and white police officers. All that is necessary is to judge that there is a difference in threat level, no matter how slight.

This results in viewing and thus treating Black men differently than white men. Achieving the mindfulness to mitigate the difference and eliminate the bias requires a deep understanding of the nature of bias and human behavior. If the police officers on the street do not care fervently about justice, then nothing changes.

But just so I am clear, while I do not believe that most police officers are overt racists, I am well aware that Donald Trump’s apologist attitude toward white supremacists in this country is making life unbearable for people who love this country. Hate crimes are skyrocketing.

I am apoplectic about the police murder in Minneapolis. The look in the officer’s eyes who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck signifies something to me beyond the kind of racism we are most familiar with. In his eyes, I see the analogy Martin Buber used to characterize relationships as consisting of I-Thou to an equal, or I-it as to an object. This officer was relating to George Floyd as if he were not a human being but a thing or an object and people with this kind of attitude should not be peace officers.

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A just society requires just policing and a corrupt Justice Department is, in my view, tantamount to treason to the ideals and aspirations of most Americans. Again, I understand the despair of those who feel there is nothing to be gained from civility because nothing changes. I also know the emotional damage of being the subject of racial prejudice is by orders of magnitude more hurtful than the loss in property.

This is unfortunate because the rioting will likely be used to justify the status quo and it means the people with the to most gain will lose.

Charles Hayes

Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing by Charles D. Hayes is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.