All lives matter, but all are not taken equally

I saw this picture posted on Facebook recently and it struck a chord with me. It was uncited, so if anyone knows the artist, please comment so I can credit it. (The original is a Norman Rockwell called “The Runaway”)

Just to recap if you don’t know, when you adjust for their proportion in the population, it is fairly unambiguous that black lives fall to police gunfire more frequently than others in the US. The debate is spirited and evolving (see this article on the premature report of a  Harvard economist refuting the claim). I’ve also read some compelling research that claims little (if any) of this is due to higher levels of crime in those communities. Are there racist cops? Of course. In a country of 400 million or so, every side to every story is probably true, and sometimes broadly so. Are they the main reason we are where we are? Probably not. Are people who get shot just not obeying fast enough? Also doubtful, and here’s why I think that. Any allegation that any shooting is unjustified is intrinsically frightening. The “just don’t resist” argument lets us quickly shut that fear up, and is therefore suspect. I think other explanations are more compelling, and this photo illustrates one of them.

I don’t think the officer on the right intended to present this image. I don’t think he understands or even sees the reaction of the boy. I don’t think wearing this gear was his idea. Police have been swamped with surplus military equipment over the past 15 years of overseas warfare. As in many professions, I believe your uniform in subtle ways shapes your behavior, your attitude, and your fears. At a time when police are generally safer than ever before, and crime is lower than ever before, many have come to believe in their hearts that the opposite is true.They get this message from their bosses, the media, their friends, and perhaps also by their training.

I’m convinced this belief is bolstered when you are issued surplus military hardware, something all too common over the course of two Gulf wars (see John Oliver’s excellent piece on Last Week Tonight). Just issuing the gear and training police to use it carries an authoritative assertion that the risk in the community warrants it, even if no leader says that explicitly. From there, it’s a short step to incorrectly believing that subgroups in this dangerous community are even more dangerous than others. From there, it’s becomes easy for the trigger decision to be unduly influenced a predictable fraction of times and, without any racist cops, you arrive at disproportionate use of lethal force.

Since it can happen without any overt racism, it remains even after reasonable  measures have been taken to keep racists out. It completely breaks rational discussion on the topic, since much of white resistance to the idea that there is a problem is rooted in the fundamentally incorrect notion that racism must always be deliberate and conscious in order to kill someone. It can simply be embedded in the structures built around officers, where it is very hard to detect. It can be as simple as what we make them wear.

In most cases I don’t think people purposely walked down this path. But we all got sold a giant fear ball after 9/11, and we’ve been too scared to scale down our defenses even faced with overwhelming evidence that the country has by and large gotten safer (I understand how not universally true that has been lately). When presented with an option that increases our subjective sense of safety, we still desperately lunge for it and spend little time asking what it will cost us.

Police training, far more than personal safety decisions, needs to reflect the most realistic view possible on the risks inherent in the communities it is assigned to protect. It cannot be responsive to the “fear of the other” that has been pervasive since 9/11 and which, while perhaps initially justifiable, has grown vastly out of proportion to any rational view of our current state. Just like the military in which many of them served, police are a cross-section of us, a product of the same society, with the same rational and irrational fears. Yes, bad cops need to be prosecuted (and I hate that I feel like I need to include such a ridiculously obvious point). The rest need a system that does more than it does to protect them from subtle inflation of risk when they are looking down their gunsights at another human being, making that horrific choice: my life or his. 

It’s a noble profession because they do this, because they put their lives on the line for us. They trade their safety and security for ours. They sometimes give their lives defending us. We can’t let that nobility be tainted with fear and doubt that isn’t based on truth, and that causes them to afford their protection and service differentially. More specifically, we can’t allow the structure of police leadership, training, and equipment to falsely inflate their sense of risk in the use of lethal  force.

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