Professor Eric J. Miller
For the past eight months, since the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man in the City of Ferguson, Missouri, the problem of white police officers using excessive force upon unarmed African Americans has gripped the United States of America The latest incident occurred last week, at a public swimming pool in McKinney, an upper-middle-class suburb of Dallas, Texas. Eric Casebolt, a police officer responding to reports of a fight at a public swimming pool, started shouting at the African American children attending a pool party. A bystander’s video shows him wrestling a bikini-clad and unarmed African American teenage girl to the ground, then drawing his weapon and using it to threaten other African Americans who were clearly disturbed by his use of force. He then kneels on the girl, whose screams of pain can distinctly be heard.
A common trope in contemporary policing is the idea that policing depends upon trust between the police and the community. Building trust between the police and communities is a central part of President Obama’s initiatives to strengthen relationships between communities and the police. But trust (and its opposite, distrust or suspicion) can be misplaced in stereotypical ways that unfairly empower or disempower people or groups. In those sorts of cases, we wrong people when we jump to conclusions based on their race, or gender, or some other superficial feature, and on that basis do afford their assertions less credibility than they deserve. In some cases, we give credence to the testimony of a witness because he is male, or white, and withhold it from another because she is female, or Latina. In countries around the world, we’ve seen, to our cost, that we tend to dismiss children when they claim abuse, but believe the priest or parent because of his position in the community.
Consider another common stereotype: that African Americans are impervious to pain. Research in the medical world revealed that doctors routinely prescribe less pain medication than normally recommended to African American patients who request relief. White patients get the recommended dose. Based on stereotypes alone, doctors assume that the black patients have a higher threshold for pain than their white counterparts. But it is not only doctors who internalize this stereotype: so do we all, and so do police officers. When an officer believes this stereotype, she is more likely to believe that she must use more force to quell African Americans than she might some other person; and she is more likely to distrust an African American’s claim that she is suffering. We keep seeing examples of this, over and over again: Eric Garner, an African American, died from a police officer applying a chokehold in Staten Island, New York; Freddie Gray, and African American teenager, died in the back of a police van in Baltimore, Maryland, apparently from police roughhousing. Or, in McKinney, Texas, it may include an officer faced with African American teenagers he believes are too slowly following his orders to clear a pool area, feeling he has to use force to get them to disperse.
So when the police talk about trust, and having the community trust their judgment, they need to recognize that trust is a two-way street. Too often, police actions reveal that they do not trust African Americans—to be non-violent, to be compliant, to be responsive to be easily subdued by batons and tasers. These stereotypical police withholdings of trust have a major impact upon the ability of African Americans to get the police to believe they are in pain, or that they cannot breath because a police officer has them in a chokehold or is sitting on their back. Police distrust prevents the police from taking seriously the information necessary to avoid the sort of serious harm the police inflict when they forcibly detain a black person. It means the police are more likely to use physically painful compliance techniques against African Americans, and use them for longer, and in the face of pleas for mercy, than the police do with other groups. This distrust of black protestations of pain killed Eric Garner, who complained that he could not breath, and Freddie Gray, who was screaming in pain when he was placed in the police van. It seems to have prompted the officer in McKinney, Texas, to treat a teenage girl like a beanbag, as her screams of distress rang in his ears.