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For police accountability, look beyond individual racial bias

Addressing a department’s labor and identity issues can be just as key in decreasing officer misconduct

September 12, 2014 6:00AM ET

Few social problems have been as challenging to resolve as police violence and misconduct. Within weeks of the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, four other unarmed black men died at the hands of police in New York, Ohio and Los Angeles. Organizations have long fought to increase police accountability on this front, often with frustrating results.

There is no simple solution. However, recent efforts by research and community groups to address racial profiling and the excessive use of force have employed a more systematic approach to determine whether and how racial bias plays out in a particular police department. While media queries tend to blame individual racist cops for deadly violence, additional factors such as how they view themselves and how the department treats them can also matter. Police departments must drill down into the mundane details to determine the causes of biased policing.

Case studies reveal that a fuller examination may lead to a more accurate accounting. “Because of the way the media and popular discourse treat civil rights and social justice, we assume the problem lives inside somebody’s mind or heart,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) at the University of California at Los Angeles. “But then we get stuck in conversations about character rather than solutions.” In other words, to stop police violence, focusing on individual bias among officers is not enough. Rather, a “race and …” approach that tackles problems at a granular level holds the most potential for change. 

What we already try

A handful of remedies routinely arise after an incident such as the Brown shooting, from investigations to criminal or civil lawsuits. But investigations don’t often result in the disciplining or firing of individual officers. In fact, most officers are never charged in criminal courts, according to one study. Civil suits often result in significant cash penalties — in 2011 alone, Philadelphia paid out $13 million in legal settlements in police-related cases. But settlements seek to deliver justice after the fact; they don’t deter harmful police behavior.

To that end, more systemic changes are typically proposed, such as the establishment of civilian police review boards, which investigate complaints of misconduct before making nonbinding recommendations to police departments. 

But even these steps haven’t always proved effective. Many civilian police review boards are populated with friends and relatives of police officers; police unions have also sought to limit the power of such boards to subpoena or discipline officers.

“A weak civilian complaint review board is worse than no civilian complaint review board because it gives the impression of oversight but in fact provides little to none,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. He said there are three signs of a strong board: independent subpoena power, independent disciplinary power and a robust budget. New York City’s civilian complaint review board, considered the current gold standard of review boards, has investigative power and a generous budget but no independent disciplinary power. Recent data show that Police Commissioner William Bratton has declined to implement 25 percent of the board’s recommendations. Historically, Ofer said, even when the NYPD does take up disciplinary recommendations, “it amounts to a slap on the wrist.” 

Evidence-based remedies

After a deadly incident, moral outrage applies crucial public pressure, particularly in the face of explicit bias or apathy from a department. For instance, responding to the widespread protests in Ferguson, the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the practices of the city’s police force. Indeed, community anger has to be followed by rigorous research.

“If there might be other factors besides race, then you need evidence,” Goff said. “We cannot limit ourselves to a narrow set of solutions suggested by an individual bias frame alone.”

Once the heat dies down, actually transforming a department requires impartial — and to the extent possible, voluntarily imposed — study of a force’s daily practices. Hiring, for example, is a consistently thorny issue. Without good tools for screening out people with racial biases, Goff said, those in charge of hiring for police departments are genuinely flummoxed as to how to fix the problem. 

After the moral outrage, it is the rigor and openness of the inquiry that follows that may determine how often communities will repeat funerals for unarmed black youths slain by the police.

The CPE works with police departments across the country to research patterns and causes of excessive use of force and to come up with evidence-based remedies. (It is, for example, working with the St. Louis metropolitan and county police departments, though not specifically with the Ferguson force.) A two-and-a-half-year study of the Las Vegas Police Department included a survey of 2,200 officers and a review of the department’s history of civilian complaints and use of force incidents. The study found some negative feelings toward blacks among some officers, but it also found that officers who felt well treated by the department used less force, as did those whose identities as cops were very important to them. 

Lt. John Farrell, who oversees quality assurance in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said that one of the most effective interventions focused on retraining officers to avoid mistake-of-fact shootings, in which officers think they see a weapon when none exists. “We did a reality-based training and taped it,” he said. “So the officer says, I thought I saw a knife. We rewind the tape, turns out there is no knife. Then we can talk about how to have our officers think a little more before they shoot.” 

Rejiggering masculinity

Another key consideration is how important masculinity is to an officer’s sense of self. Jackson Katz, a scholar and activist who has created effective anti-violence programs focused on changing male behavior, has studied how media images of white men in particular consistently link masculinity with the use of force. As he put it in “Gender, Race and Class in Media,” in an era of loosening gender norms, one of the ways media create and maintain gender difference is to “equate masculinity with violence, power and control (and femininity with passivity).”

Goff’s work has shown that masculinity factors into police violence as well. “An officer who feels a need to demonstrate his masculinity may be more likely to use force in general, but particularly against people who threaten his self-concept as a man,” he said. “If African-Americans are seen as hypermasculine, then the officer will feel more threatened. ” This can be true whether or not the officer exhibits clear racial bias. In studying the San Jose Police Department, the CPE found that in addition to explicit and implicit bias, “concerns about one’s self-image — specifically concerns with one’s masculine self-image and one’s image as a nonracist — predicted racial disparities in police use of force.”

One way to address the masculinity issue is by hiring more women as officers. For instance, mentorship programs for female — as well as black and Latino — recruits can help balance out a police force.

What all this means is that, yes, race is a clear factor in policing patterns. But in the long run, addressing these other factors is just as important — and ideally police departments will confront them in tandem.

Moving forward

Whatever the role of racism in a particular police incident, increased activism by the public indicates that communities won’t be long pacified by surface measures. Such activism may motivate local police forces to more holistically assess their practices.

“It may not have been racism that caused this officer to shoot or no one to check Mike Brown’s pulse for three hours or for people to leave his body on the street for half a day,” Goff said. “But for a city that felt aggrieved like that, these were one sign too many. [Riots are a] natural human response to feeling like you’ve been occupied and dehumanized.”

What happens after that natural human response — the rigor and openness of that inquiry — may determine how often communities are destined to repeat funerals for unarmed black youths slain by the police. 

Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of Race Forward and the publisher of Colorlines.com. The author of "The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization," she has been a leading voice in the racial justice movement for the past 20 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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