Often the concerns of abuse of power by law enforcement are related to the collective group of law enforcement and not simply one racial demographic within the profession. One point that gets thrown under the bus often by people. Is when a controversial incident occurs, that doesn’t involve a white officer and a black suspect. Often this is immediately used that as evidence to dispel systemic racism or police abuse.
Now, what is lost by in the populous’ desire to use the incident mentioned above as proof against police biases in the treatment of the public, that it ISN’T the police officer’s race that is the dependent variable. Rather, it is the position of authority and power that is the dependent variable, and the race of the officer is merely a categorical influencer. In light of that, however, does not mean that race of the citizen is not an influencing factor.
The population of America is 318.9 million people. Out of which, 63% are non-Hispanic White, 12.3% are African American, Hispanic-Latinos represent 17%, Asians account for 5% and 2.7% can be lumped into “other” covering Native American, Pacific Islander, multiracial, and Alaskan Natives.
The Department of Justice estimates that the total number of police officers in America is 1.1 million or .34% of the entire U.S. population. Out of those figures, 72.7% of officers are White, 11.6% are Hispanic-Latino, 12.2% are African American, and “others” account for 3.5%.
Based on these figures, .34% of the population have the authority to enforce laws, detain, use force and arrest 99.66% of the population. De facto, a very tiny portion of the population has a very significant power over a vast portion of the population.
When you consider things in this perspective, the power provided to us in our profession is almost superhuman in strength. Look at it this way, if America were driving a Hennessey Venom GT, the world record holder for fastest car with a top speed of 270.49 mph, based on the significant in the difference amounting to the power available the American police car would be capable of running 26,957 mph.
Does this significant difference in the authority inherently mean it is problematic? No, not fundamentally. Given the same comparison, I hope we can all agree that a large portion of the population probably shouldn’t have the ability to drive 26,957 mph. However, does this much power by a few, over many, cultivate an environment that can lead to problems? Especially, if the wrong .34% are given power? Absolutely!
Which brings us back to the topic of discussion, of how race can be an influence on the public’s treatment and simultaneously not be an impact on the actions of the officer.
The racial demographics of law enforcement concerning the statistics of those within the profession stay the same. The only remarkable difference is that there are more white police officers in the population of police, then there are white people, proportionally in America. However, the biggest difference regarding racial shifts in power is that 300,300 minority police officers now have authority over 99.91% of the population, when they come from a demographic that is only representative of 37% of the total population.
Now, regarding a use of force, a highly controversial, yet scientifically valid 2016 study conducted by the Center for Policing Equity found that police were 3.6 times more likely to use force against black citizens than white residents, and 2.5 times higher than the populous as a whole. However, research has shown that there is no real difference in the number of use of force incidents or arrest by white officers or minority officers. Additionally, some studies have concluded that black officers are more likely to arrest black suspects than white officers under the same set of circumstances.
So what is going? It would appear there is a host of data to substantiate that there are racial disparities with how the police enforce the laws. Additionally, there is a multitude of data to suggest that the race of the police officer is not a significant, rather it is only the race of the citizen that is lop-sided. Essentially, it would appear that indeed the police could be considered an ethnic group that supersedes one’s racial background, and it indeed could be at least implicitly racist. But why?
Enter, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, and Dr. Stanley Milligram’s important research experiments. First, in 1961 psychologist Stanley Milligram using a single blind experiment proved that people would obey authority, even if that meant one had to harm another person. His research involved three participants, a teacher acting in the capacity of the authoritarian, a confederate pretending to be a volunteer, and a true volunteer who was unaware of the exact nature of the experiment. During the experiment, volunteers were told to ask a series of questions to a confederate who was concealed in another room. If the confederate got a question wrong, the volunteer was told by the teacher to administer an electric shock to the confederate. For every wrong answer, the voltage of the shock was increased.
The idea behind the experiment was to see if the volunteer would continue to administer electric shocks to the confederate based on the fact the “teacher” justified the shocks necessity. The confederate would be theatric in expressing pain as the shocks were increased. Ultimately, the researchers wanted to see would a seemingly random average person harm another person based solely on being told to do so by a person in authority. The results of the experiment demonstrated that 65% of the participants were willing to administer up to the last potentially fatal 450-volt shock. Alarmingly, even with the 45% who refused to deliver the final high-voltage shocks, not one person checked on the health of the confederate actor, or would leave the lab without permission from the “teacher.”
Milligrams experiment and have been replicated globally with similar results. Ultimately, this landmark study proved that the average human being would indeed turn against their moral or ethical code, and harm others rather easily provided they believe a person of authority is telling them it is ok.
The next pivotal study that could help explain some of the issues we see today was psychologist Phillip Zimbardo’s 1972 Stanford Prison Study. Zimbardo’s experiment was designed to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power over others. In the study, Zimbardo created a replicated jail in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Using volunteers, a group of individuals played the role of prisoners, and another group played the role of correctional officers. Dr. Zimbardo acted in the capacity of the Prison Warden. The entire experiment was staged to be as realistic as possible with the “prisoners” being arrested at their homes by the Palo Alto Police Department, with full booking procedures, before being transferred to the mock prison. The “prison guard group” was briefed before beginning the experiment that they could “create in the prisoner’s feelings of boredom, and some sense of fear.” Ultimately, the test was supposed to create a sense in the prisoners that their lives were in total control by the system and they had no individuality. The experiment was intended to last two weeks. It lasted six days.
Almost immediately, once the “prison guards” tasted power, some of them became sadistic and inflicted significant psychological torture on the “prisoners.” For the most part, the “prisoners” passively accepted the abuse and reserved themselves quickly to a sense of learned hopelessness. Within three days, two of the “prisoners” had to be removed from the program as they began to exhibit extreme psychological distress. By day six, it would take Dr. Zimbardo’s girlfriend, a Ph.D. psychology student’s intervention to have the experiment terminated, a full eight days before the trial was supposed to end. Later reviews showed that even Dr. Zimbardo himself had adopted the role of the warden to such an extreme that he was allowing the abuse to go on if not himself at times encouraging it. Dr. Zimbardo would later publish a book on his groundbreaking study called ‘The Lucifer Effect.'
I believe both studies demonstrate how quickly and easily the average person can become sadistic, even without realizing what they are doing. I would say that both studies can indeed help provide some insight into why the public has a perception of implicit or systemic racism within American policing. In essence, what these studies suggest is that there indeed may exist an underlying issue that develops a problematic culture within policing.
Part of the most valid reasoning for me to suggest this is the fact that studies have shown minority officers being more likely to mistreat minorities than white officers. In essence, what this may demonstrate is that when you take a member of the minority populous and place them in a position of power over a significant majority of the populous, they can become more susceptible to what Zimbardo proved with “The Lucifer Effect.” It is important to note, though. Indeed, race is a confounding variable, and the actual influence is based on one’s ebb and flow of power and authority. In effect, a white person who has felt powerless much of their life is as easily susceptible to “The Lucifer Effect” as anyone else.
However, if indeed the law enforcement officer’s race is only a “side-effect” of being granted a position of authority. That now makes me consider Stanley Milligram’s experiment. In effect, are the disproportionate treatment of minorities that scientific research has shown us is indeed a valid concern, does this them imply that underlying policies or cultural norms influence the police officer to being implicitly biased? This becomes a significant question to consider if one happened to read the article I wrote a couple of weeks ago “What the Hell is Wrong with Us?” In that article, I pointed out that if criminal behavior was considered an ethnicity, then there is no data support that African Americans or other minorities are any more criminal than white persons are.
Again, I have to look at the data regarding minority officer’s treatment of minorities as potential evidence for systemic racially-biased practices. In essence, just like Stanley Milligram proved in 1961, minority officers are unable to override their personal experience of being a minority and adhere to biased practices because the “authority” tells them it is ok.
Ultimately, by examining all of this it suggests that, anyone who says there is no organized racist effort against minorities by the police is indeed correct. However, it doesn’t mean it does not exist. The biases in policing are not based on explicitly racist policies or procedures. If that were the case, minority officers would immediately cry out in support for their communities. This is the same thing that would have happened had the participants in Milligram’s experiment been told up front, “Hey, you are going to be asked to electrocute someone to death. You cool with that bro?” Instead, these issues potentially arise from implicit, or unconscious hidden biases that are contained in how policing is practiced.
In the end, how do we fix this? Well, first of all, we have to stop denying that the potential exists for the law enforcement to be cultivated into a separate culture which represents almost a quasi-ethnicity within itself. We must investigate the current culture, training, and practices to determine where these problems may stem from. Additionally, we must accept that it is NOT ALL THE POLICE’S FAULT! The police are the people, and the people are the police. Implicit racial biases are rampant in all of American culture. Going all the way back to the 1950’s with “Blockbusting,” the 1960’s Civil Rights Activist=communist, and the war on drugs, Black America has been depicted as criminals for quite some time. Therefore, it is difficult for anyone to enter the law enforcement profession and be devoid of the implicit cultural biases Americans grow up with.
Therefore, to fix this problem, I need my fellow law enforcement officers to demand that these issues be looked into so that we can represent fairness, equality, righteousness and justice for all people. Additionally, I need every single individual to demand that the American stereotype of minorities as criminals must end! Every person walks through life with two notes in their pocket. One note says the universe was created for just me. The other note says I am nothing more than dust and ashes. We all are that important as individuals that we can indeed influence and change the world for better. However, none of us are more important that any of the rest of us.