By David K. Shipler
The most racist institutions in America are police departments. Decades after the military launched sophisticated efforts to train and educate in cross-racial interaction, long after colleges and corporations saw their interests served by diversifying and managing relations within their communities, many police forces remain impervious to revisions of attitude that followed the civil rights movement. Especially in small cities and counties, but even in pockets of larger urban departments, racial stereotyping governs many officers’ assumptions and behavior.
So the Justice Department’s devastating report on the department in Ferguson, Missouri, comes as no surprise to anyone who has researched the problem or, more vividly, has lived it. African-Americans who encounter white cops—and sometimes black cops—have been telling the rest of us horror stories steadily, in between the egregious beatings and killings that periodically prompt us to rediscover the affliction, conduct investigations, promise reform, and then move on.
If the Justice Department wants to make real change this time, it would take a leaf from the Defense Department’s book. At Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, the Pentagon runs a sophisticated set of trainings for officers and enlisted personnel at the Defense EqualOpportunity Management Institute (DEOMI), which also conducts surveys into the climate between races and genders in military units. Nobody would pretend that DEOMI has erased racial tensions in the services—or sexual assault, obviously—but it has helped open the lines of confrontation with those issues, and it has populated the ranks with people who get it.
When I spent time years ago observing at DEOMI, where some courses are open to civilians, police departments occasionally sent officers to be trained. They ought to send everyone, or to equivalent institutions that could be established at the state and federal level, preferably as a requirement for getting the badge in the first place, or at least as in-service training. Police academies obviously don’t do consistently good jobs in this area.
Nor does their instruction on the law and the Constitution appear adequate. The report on Ferguson documents the police department’s routine violations of the Bill of Rights, particularly the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, whose essential provisions are ignored or wished away by aggressive, hot-tempered officers. A driver or pedestrian who objects to a search without the probable cause or reasonable suspicion required by the Fourth Amendment is shot with a Taser, handcuffed, arrested, and charged with multiple offenses. A citizen who exercises his right to speech under the First Amendment, or silence under the Fifth, is treated as hostile and threatening.
Furthermore, the report found, racist emails circulated with impunity among officers and ranking police and court supervisors. One showed President Obama as a chimpanzee. Another, a photograph of bare-breasted African women dancing, was captioned, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.” Another said that an African-American woman who had an abortion received a $5,000 check from “Crimestoppers.” Emailed jokes also smeared Muslims. No evidence could be found that anyone was disciplined for trading in the slurs, which officers evidently felt comfortable spreading through the official communications system.
This kind of toxic culture is not unique to the Ferguson police department. Incidents of racist emails, racial assumptions made at roll call, and racial comments on police radios have long been reported in other departments. The environment explains the readiness of many cops, who can face sudden danger, to see a black man as automatically threatening: Violence is a staple of anti-black stereotypes; it runs through the whole society, and there’s no reason why police officers should be immune. That’s why they need special training. Even undercover black cops have been shot by white colleagues who didn’t know they were carrying a badge.
But racial attitudes are complex and often encrypted, so how much weight do they have in a particular encounter? Darren Wilson, the white officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, was exonerated by the same Justice Department that pictures the poisonous environment of his department. Did Wilson share the anti-black bigotry that surrounded him, and how much impact did the atmosphere have on his split-second conclusion that Brown was a true threat? That’s hard to measure. The evidence led federal investigators to the same finding as a grand jury: that the officer had feared for his life when Brown reached into his car, tried to grab his gun, then after being wounded turned and headed back in his direction. Juries tend not to convict cops in such cases.
That’s based on the external evidence. What about the internal, invisible assumptions that Wilson carried with him into the confrontation? It is not hard to imagine a different kind of police department with a different culture producing an officer who acted differently. I’ve spent a good deal of time with cops, primarily for books I’ve done on race relations and civil liberties, and they’re a varied lot. They see the worst of humanity every day, and some take shortcuts in making assessments. They can be judgmental or judicious, quick to anger or professionally patient. Individual temperament has a lot to do with how good they are at defusing confrontations.
In the middle of many nights with two mixed-race units in Washington, DC—one a narcotics squad, the other a force that searched pedestrians and vehicles for illegal guns—the only racial bias I witnessed was built into the system: The units operated in black neighborhoods, while guns and drugs surely could have been found in white parts of the city as well. But in middle-class communities, unwarranted frisks and searches would have triggered an outcry. Among poor blacks, they provoked seething resentment at most, and usually just resignation. So accustomed were citizens there to the disappearance of the Fourth Amendment that when uniformed officers pulled up, young black men hanging out would lift their T-shirts without being asked, to show that no guns were stuck in their belts.
Occasionally residents talked back to the officers, raised their voices, shouted, objected. Some cops, who would have appreciated thanks for clearing the streets of dealers and weapons, took personal offense and got hot. A black officer in one unit, nicknamed “the reverend” by his colleagues, cooled both sides down. So did the white sergeants in charge, veterans who could read the streets as cannily as scouts in combat.
Leadership, from the top down, works in setting the tone on racial matters. So would union cooperation, if it occurred. Too many unions representing police officers and prison guards reflexively defend any officers charged with using excessive force. Unions rightly demand due process before anyone is fired, but they might also recognize that racism and brutality don’t do their own members any good. “The police are the biggest gang of all,” a medical receptionist in Los Angeles told the Washington Post years ago.
Law enforcement need not be the enemy in tough neighborhoods. Strict rules of conduct are required, and they don’t have to be overly ambitious. The proven approach in the military could apply to the police: We don’t care what you think. Think anything you like. We care what you do. And if you do racist things, then you’re in violation of your oath and your mission.