Sense and Nonsense About Police Behavior and Racial Profiling
The increase of accusations by the African-American or black community that white police officers disproportionately target black residents has become the focus of recent and current nation-wide protests – both violent and non-violent. News media coverage of the choking death of an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, during an arrest by New York City police officers followed by the shooting death of a young unarmed 18 year-old black man, Michael Brown, by a white patrol officer in Ferguson, Missouri have resurrected the issue of police brutality and racism across America. Protests have occurred in the streets of New York City blocking traffic and disrupting businesses. Just days ago two NYPD officers were shot to death execution style by a black man with the intention to “take out” two police officers. Interestingly, both officers were minority officers – one Hispanic and one Asian. Similar protests have occurred in cities across the nation to include here in Alabama. The Grand Jury’s decision not to bring charges against Ferguson City Police Officer Darren Wilson sparked violent protests by primarily black residents along with divisive groups from other cities. This violence included the deliberate burning of businesses, looting, disorderly conduct, assaults and property damage.
Ferguson’s population is sixty-seven percent black residents. Ferguson’s Police Department is comprised of 54 sworn police officers 4 of which are black. There is no empirical evidence to substantiate this is the cause of alleged targeting of black residents, it does speak to the disproportionality of the general population’s racial make-up compared to that of the Ferguson Police Department. Of New York City’s population 56% is white. Interestingly, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) patrol division is made up of approximately 53% of African American and Hispanic/Latino patrol officers and 47% of white officers. The race/ethnicity of known Murder and Non-Negligent Manslaughter suspects is Black (55.0%) and Hispanic (35.5%). White suspects account for (5.8%) of all Murder and Non-Negligent Manslaughter. Murder and Non-Negligent Manslaughter victims are most frequently Black (62.9%) or Hispanic (25.2%). White victims account for 7.2% in this category.
Most white police officers do use excessive force when arresting black suspects. Most police officers have an inherent prejudice against all black citizens. Most police officers target young black men without probable cause. High-crime areas present no more threat to the safety of police officers than low-crime areas. All African-Americans hate white police officers. Police departments have done nothing to increase racial diversity among their officers. Excessive force in arrest situations by some police officers does not exist. All white police officers respond with more excessive force to predominately high-crime black neighborhoods than when responding to high-crime white neighborhoods. Racial bias no longer exists in the U.S. All civil rights leaders are instrumental in resolving and calming the black communities when a white police officer is required to use deadly force involving a black suspect. All nonsense!
Most serious crimes (murder, manslaughter, rape, assault) are usually committed by offenders on victims of the same race – black-on-black crime and white-on-white crime. A 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found the rate of black homicide victims and offenders were disproportionately represented compared to the general population. The black victimization rate was six times higher than the white victimization rate. Black offending rate was almost eight times higher than whites.
One valid research study suggests that police are more likely to use force in high-crime areas regardless of race. In responding to calls for service where the neighborhood is known for frequent violent incidents officers may arrive on the scene with a high level of stress prepared for a violent confrontation. Patrol officers in some jurisdictions are predisposed to race-based bias. Some officers are prone to excessive force without regard to race. Efforts to recruit hire more culturally and racially diverse police is advantageous to police-community relations as this can reduce tension between all community populations and police officers. Studies have repeatedly shown officers with some college are, in general, less likely to use excessive force in making an arrest than officers without any college.
Significant progress has been made over the past four decades as the basic law enforcement screening process has been improved by police agencies. Most law enforcement agencies now utilize a personality assessment in the screening/selection process such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2). This is used to assess psychological stability in “high-risk” professions.
Basic police training for newly hired officers has improved nationally. Alabama’s basic law enforcement training has doubled from 6 weeks during the 1970’s to the current minimum of 12 weeks. There are 10 police training academies in Alabama all which are under the auspices of the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (APOSTC). Some academies provide training beyond the APOSTC 12 weeks. The Birmingham City Police Academy requires approximately 20 weeks of basic training. Police academies also offer on-going advanced training for topics to include diversity training, use of force training and leadership training. Despite a few reported drawbacks, police departments should consider the optional means of force in effecting arrests other than deadly force. These options include Tazers. An analysis of 12 police agencies with more than 24,000 use-of-force cases in which Tazers were used showed the odds of suspect injuries decreased by almost 60%. Another alternative to deadly force when dealing with a dangerous suspect is pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum). This causes inflammation to the eyes, nose and throat. The circumstances in which an officer has to make an immediate decision are always different and difficult. Life-threatening confrontations depending on time, distance and the level of threat of the suspect determine how police officer must use the option he/she has been trained to use for the unexpected. One final statistic should emphasize the high risk all police officers in any law enforcement agency face each time they put on their uniform: In 2013 there were 237 police officers assaulted while in the line of duty (APOSTC).
David Nichols, Ed. D., is veteran law enforcement officer, police administrator and author. His career includes being a patrol officer for municipal, county and universities. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, he taught criminal justice courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, he published widely on law enforcement issues, presented to several Alabama regional police academies and conducted organizational assessments for municipal and university police departments.