Most of the public discourse concerning police brutality and abuse is framed in terms of a Black and white issue. But what if it really is a matter of Black and Blue? A new study suggests exactly that.
As Frank Vyan Walton reported in the Daily Kos, a study of 259 cases in Chicago from 2006 to 2014 found that incidents of police violence and excessive force are not merely white officers shooting Black victims. Rather, the officers’ race closely matches the demographics of a given police department. However, these unarmed victims are typically African-American and live in poorer, less-diverse communities.
These findings would suggest that efforts to increase diversity on the police force — putting Black faces in high places — could amount to mere window dressing and fail to solve the systemic problems with policing in Black spaces. For years, people in the neighborhood would speak of the “blue mentality” that pervades police departments. Police are known as a “gang in blue” with its own culture of silence, corruption and even criminality. Those cops who cross the line and speak out against the gang are shunned, punished and can no longer seek protection from their department.
The study, called “Blue on Black: An Empirical Assessment of Police Shootings,” was authored by Nirej Sekhon, assistant professor of law at Georgia State University. Sekhon noted that in Chicago, not unlike “other large cities, shooting victims are overwhelmingly minorities, with Black persons constituting over 80% of victims. Contrary to intuition, many of the officer shooters are minorities as well. The analysis here suggests that neither racist malevolence nor unconscious bias afford complete explanations for why officer-involved shootings occur.”
He adds that there is too much focus placed on the decision-making process of individual officers rather than larger institutional issues and other dynamics. Rather, scholars and policy makers should address bad practices as opposed to merely disciplining officers whenever these outrageous incidents take place.
“Shifting focus in this way will help identify connections between everyday policing tactics in minority neighborhoods – such as plainclothes policing and aggressive stop and frisk – and officer-involved shootings,” he wrote.
Interestingly, Sekhon’s research, which uses data from Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, debunks many of the myths floating around when such excessive force incidents occur. For example, such shootings are often found to be “justified” because the officer thought the suspect had a gun. It turns out that in 40 percent of cases there was no gun, and police officers believe there is a gun 20 percent times more often than when a gun is actually present:
Studies have consistently reported that officer-perceived gun threats are the most common proximate cause for officer-involved shootings. Officers reported a perceived gun threat in more than 80% of cases and recovered a firearm attributable to the victim in nearly 60% of incidents.Similar was true for incidents in New York City and in Philadelphia. In nearly half of all the IPRA Reports, the gun threat occurred in conjunction with or immediately after a suspect fled on foot from police officers. In roughly three quarters of those cases, the involved officers reported that the suspect pointed a firearm directly at them during the chase. More than a third of the shootings that occurred during or immediately after a foot chase began as proactive encounters.
Moreover, even as the law professor’s study punches holes in the argument that police shootings are a result solely of the racism of white officers, the research also challenges the notion that such incidents are par for the course in violent communities of color. Professor Sekhon argues that the police officers themselves are the problem in these shootings.
“Nor is it true that officer-involved shootings are simply an unfortunate, but inevitable byproduct of crime in poor, minority neighborhoods. The IPRA Reports reveal that most shootings occur in such neighborhoods,” he writes. “But the reports also suggest that enforcement choices may make shootings more likely – for example, choices to rely on plainclothes policing, encourage aggressive stop and frisk tactics, and leave foot chases unregulated. These enforcement choices warrant careful scrutiny even if they are not unconstitutional or otherwise illegal,” he added.
Sekhon goes a step further by noting that in nearly a quarter of the cases he examined, the police stirred the pot in very concrete ways, forcing us to question why these stops even occurred at all. And even if we conclude that the initial stop was warranted, then we must ask why a foot chase resulting in a fatal shooting was necessary, given the innocuous nature of the conduct that led to the initial stop:
These police-civilian encounters began as traffic stops for minor violations, because someone made a “furtive movement,” or just looked suspicious. Many of these stops were likely of the “stop and frisk” variety that have been controversial in New York City, Chicago, and other cities. The shootings that occur in the course of these kinds of encounters follow a general pattern. One of the stopped civilians flees and the police give chase. During or immediately after the chase, officers shoot in response to a perceived gun threat.
Finally, the study emphasizes that because many of the police officers who shoot Black victims are themselves Black, police shootings cannot be reduced to a case of white-on-Black racism. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the “Blue vs. Black” phenomenon.