Dr. Bradley R. Anders
It is a strange world in which we live and work. Unlike many people in society, we as police officers often see exactly how strange it is. I recently attended a physical surveillance school at Camp Dodge, Iowa where the instructor made the comment, “The world is backwards.” He was describing how society reacts to police and how some criminal elements lash out at not only our sworn officers but their families as well. As I have been watching the blowback from a few racially charged police shootings, I could not help but agree… the world is backwards. However, when it comes to police and race relations, the world is what those who came before us in policing have created, and unfortunately it is perpetuated by some today on a variety of different levels.
Recently, United States Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation. During one of his speeches preceding this resignation, Mr. Holder provided some anecdotal comments about his experience with racial profiling in which he recanted being pulled over and searched by police. The stories he told, mind you just after he inserted the unrelated Trayvon Martin shooting into a discussion about policing, reveal one of the main problems with not only police and racial minority relations, but police and community relations. People’s perceptions are their own realities, and we as police officers are expected to gaze into our crystal balls to identify those with whom we contact or stop. I have no doubt that the police officer to which Mr. Holder is referring on that fateful night, as he ran to the video store in Georgetown, did not know he was stopping a federal prosecutor. Nonetheless, it sounds as if Mr. Holder expected the officer to know and allow him to proceed. Much to our chagrin, this stop has been recanted as an act of racial profiling even though the Supreme Court has consistently held that a police officer has the authority to stop and investigate suspicious persons, detaining them until such time as that reasonable suspicion has subsided. It could have been any number of reasons that Mr. Holder was stopped. What do people do after they commit crimes? They run. It could have been the time of day or the neighborhood in which he was running that added to the officer’s suspicion. The question that many of us have is this: Why is it always race? The answer lies in our history of American policing, and it is perpetuated in those dreaded stereotypes of which we as police officers must strive to overcome.
Many racial minorities with whom we contact today have undoubtedly had talks with their parents similar to the one Mr. Holder referenced in his speech. They may have been told how to act when pulled over by the police, or they may have been told stories of police brutality. While these parents may think they are protecting their children by warning them, they are actually fostering the distrust that so many officers work hard to overcome. Anecdotally, just last month I was on a traffic stop in which I encountered a young Black child, no more than 10 years old. His mother had outstanding warrants and a small bag of marijuana in her possession. Not wanting to discredit the mother or scare the child, we waited for a family friend to arrive on scene before we handcuffed the mother. However, while my partner was speaking with the mother I stood by the passenger side of the car with the child. The child was obviously very nervous, and rightfully so. Despite his age he knew what was going on, but as I talked to him it became evident that not only was he afraid for his mother, he was afraid for his own life. During my one-sided conversation with the boy about sports and school, he made a statement to me that characterizes the world in which we police. After he expressed to me the fact that he was scared, the boy said, “Why do police shoot Black people?” Now, this question came just a couple of weeks after the incident in Ferguson, Missouri so I was not surprised by the question. I was, however, somewhat irritated with the mother for allowing this to fester. I spoke with the child at length about this job and the difficulties often associated with it. I also tried to let him know that we are people too. I told him about my son and his love for baseball trying to reveal some form of humanity faced with a child who thinks I am a monster. The encounter ended as best as it could considering the situation, but it left me ill at ease about the state of affairs surrounding police perception. It also reminded me that we as police officers are almost always lumped into the same category; we are often stereotyped by those who despise the practice the most. Just weeks before as I was driving through the parking lot of one of our Section 8 housing complexes, a small child of no more than 3 years old, accompanied by his father, raised his middle finger and exclaimed, “Fuck you cop!” as I drove by. Three years old! The point is this: while many of us teach our children about equality and tolerance, others are teaching suspicion and distrust, and even hatred and intolerance directed at police. But why?
Erving Goffman (1959) noted the propensity to lump people with like characteristics into known categories, thereby applying stereotypes. These categories are based on previous experience and knowledge about a group of people (Goffman, 1959). Now, Goffman speaks in-depth of roles, audiences, and perception, but here is why this seminal work is important: As police officers we have a certain role to play in our community. No matter how we go about it, our role is to enforce laws that are intended to limit and control human behavior. By definition this role is an adversarial one, but it becomes offensive when the audience perceives that role as oppressive. We have to remember that we are not that far away from a time where Jim Crow laws were enforced by police officers. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other close family members are passing down true stories of violent oppression. In this instance we are most definitely paying for the sins of our forefathers. It is because of these past practices we are lumped into an opposing group.
Gordon Allport (1958) observed that we accept those who are like us; we form groups of like-minded individuals and avoid those who are different. Group cohesiveness depends on there being an out-group (Allport, 1958). In other words, there has to be a group to oppose as it strengthens the bond of the in-group (Allport, 1958). Whether we choose to believe this or not, we must understand that we are part of a group that has a sordid history, and for many minorities the out-group is the police. I am most definitely not saying that racial or ethnic minorities oppose law and order, but many oppose the group tasked with enforcing law and maintaining order. Every one of us on the job has been in a situation where tensions were high, and every one of us has either calmed the situation or made it worse with our words and actions. Choosing the proper course of action is typically done through trial and error. The ageless advice of “Two wrongs don’t make a right” could not echo more true than in situations like these. Are police officers stereotyped? Absolutely. There are countless examples of police brutality, racism, and absolute buffoonery in our profession. The media has done a great job of reporting these issues and exacerbating the problem. We all carry the weight with each bad example glorified in the news, but the result is a reinforced stereotype for police officers. The result? We hear things like, “All cops think they are above the law.” That is ALL cops, not the sorry few who prompted the statement. Then we have events like the one in Ferguson, Missouri where it appears the police officer did exactly what he was trained to do, yet the result was socially unacceptable. The result? Police shoot Black people indiscriminately. We have chosen this profession and this sort of representation does not seem to be going away any time soon. What we should not do is respond in kind and categorize those we encounter based solely on their race or ethnicity. I have spent a great deal of time researching racial profiling, and I am confident in saying the phenomenon is nowhere near as common as some would want us to believe. It is our duty though, to convince those with whom we encounter, our audience, that we are honorable, ethical, and quite aware of a person’s individuality. In other words, even though we are categorized we will not do the same. It is part of our code and what sets us apart from the rest.
So, as I think about the instructor’s statement about our world being backwards I can say that yes, I agree, but only to an extent. When our elected officials perpetuate negative stereotypes of our police officers, I agree that the world is backwards. When our nation’s president and governors turn their backs on those who have chosen to serve their communities then yes, I agree that the world is backwards. Lastly, when our national and law enforcement leaders apologize for the actions of good police officers and revere criminality then yes, I agree that the world is backwards. On the other hand, we as police officers work in a society that is constantly changing and evolving. For most other events we witness both on and off duty, I can say that the world is just as one can expect, and we have the ability to change people’s realities through proper, appropriate actions. Do the right thing, even when nobody is looking.
Allport, G.W. (1958). The Nature of Prejudice. New York: Doubleday.
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.