The debate over police reform shouldn’t be so contentious. On the surface it seems agreeable — government employees shouldn’t kill anyone. It’s only when you throw race into the mix that the waters get murky and an otherwise easy conclusion gets confusing for some.
Serving as the latest example in the practice of obfuscation on the issue, The Conversation, a nonprofit news source, recently published the findings from a study conducted by University of Maryland Researchers to discern whether white officers actually pull the trigger on people of color more often than officers of color. In what appears to serve as an effort to debunk suspicions, this study only perpetuates the problem that exists in the debate on police reform — it focuses on people, and not systems.
Let’s be clear, the system of police needs to be reformed because it supports and implements problematic practices that disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities — read, people of color. Any suggestion that the call for police reform is solely as a result of implicit biases from individual officers misses the point, much like the researchers asserts.
Implicit bias is a rightful concern from many communities that feel over-policed, but it on its own would not create or explain the broad sweeping systems of inequities we see in police practices throughout the country.
The study, which collected data on 917 shootings from 650 departments, concluded that police shootings happen the most in like-raced encounters, meaning that white officers are most likely to shoot on white people, black officers on black, and Hispanic on Hispanic. It goes on to suggest the pattern is only broken when the incident occurs in communities where violent crimes are predominately committed by a particular race.
At first read, it all sounds like victim-blaming without context, so I followed up with the ACLU of Connecticut for a gut check.
“Whenever we talk about policing at the ACLU, we try to focus on the system and the culture and not individuals,” said Dan Barrett, Legal Director for ACLU-CT. “When you focus on individuals you lose meaning. Anyone of any race or ethnicity can hold implicit bias. We start there. We’re all capable of it, we all do it. After that you can begin to look at the system in which people work and policing in America is chock full of racism.”
By “chock full,” Barrett cites how communities of color are over-policed, which naturally increases officers’ exposure to people of color and heightens the potential for fatal shootings. Next, it’s worth considering the predictors of violent crime. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program offers several variables that impact crime: population density, youth concentration, residents’ mobility, commuting patterns, education and economic conditions including median income, poverty level, and job availability, etc.
Race isn’t mentioned – but it almost doesn’t have to be. Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by nearly every variable on the list because of a history of negligent policies and practices that either unintentionally disadvantaged people in poverty and people of color, or (in most cases) has historically intentionally oppressed them.
“To say that it’s driven by violent crime is to once ignore the fact that [people of color] in Connecticut, again and again, are playing against a stacked deck. This is the way white supremacy works” Barrett said. “You can’t keep people in a situation where their life expectancy is shorter, they get worse education, their household wealth is a fraction of what white peoples are and then over police them and say violent crime is what’s driving it. Talk about missing the forest through the trees.”
Data without context (or subtext) is nearly always misleading. Even the FBI, in listing the variables, asserts that ‘it is incumbent upon all data users to become as well educated as possible about how to understand and quantify the nature and extent of crime.’ But sometimes in the pursuit of unbiased reporting, we miss the mark.
In my gut check conversation, Barrett offered a perspective that I think everyone should consider as we reenter our various social media debates on police reform: in any police-involved fatal shooting asked yourself whether you think the potential charge would have warranted the death penalty if the deceased got their due process.
Locally, I don’t think simple data on the number of incidents matters as much as the perceptions of officers’ ability to work with the communities they serve. A Quinnipiac poll released in May offers insight into those perceptions, following the April 16th shooting of an unarmed New Haven couple by Hamden and Yale officers.
The poll found a racial divide in whether Hamden residents worry about being victimized by police with 66 percent of black residents expressing concern, compared to 12 percent of white residents and 39 percent of Hispanics.
These concerns, whether they’re perceived as justified or not, impact community relations with officers and perpetuate a problem that already disproportionately impacts low-income areas and people of color. And when criticism of the system is returned with officers telling community members to refrain from calling the cops when they’re in trouble, such as an officer told me after my commentary on recent police-involved shootings in Danbury, it does nothing to remedy an already contentious debate.
So, let’s simplify the debate. All figures and variables accounted for and with a focus on systems instead of individuals, should we accept and normalize fatal shootings by government employees? The need for reform might be in your answer.
Mercy Quaye is a social change communications consultant and a New Haven native. Her column appears Mondays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. Contact her at @Mercy_WriteNow and SubtextWithMercy@gmail.com.