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Untimely thoughts prompted by the Chauvin verdict; and sundry digressions

The jury's verdict of guilty on all counts in the Derek Chauvin trial should have come as no surprise. The prosecution had a strong case and did not screw it up. Yet who could feel anything but uneasy awaiting the outcome? As for its significance, I imagine this represents less than a sea change, more than mere random fluctuation. A small step, but a step nonetheless to be welcomed.

You might think given events of the past year that police officers would be bending over backward and tying themselves in knots to avoid drawing a gun and pulling the trigger. This does not appear to be happening.

Some things I believe. Not every police office is racist, a violent psychopath, or merely someone not possessed of qualities and talents that should be demanded of a police officer. But some are. A few are too many. Problems with policing run deeper than a few bad apples and people unsuited for the job. Not every bad outcome is a consequence of police misconduct or policy to kill black people. Not every wrong and injustice is reducible to race and racism. It is just barely possible that not every white person is a racist devil.

More things I believe. Erasure of the distinction between racism and effects of racism is not necessarily helpful. Cultures do not exist in silos. I could be wrong.

Data on police violence is notoriously sketchy and subject to conflicting interpretations. Analysis is plagued by confounding variables.

A confounding variable is an "extra" variable that you didn’t account for. They can ruin an experiment and give you useless results. They can suggest there is correlation when in fact there isn’t. They can even introduce bias. (What Is a Confounding Variable?, Statistics How To; see also article with the same title at The Analysis Factor)

Coleman Hughes provides a fine examination of these issues in an essay at City Journal (Stories and Data). As might be expected of a City Journal contributing editor who has written for the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Quillette, Hughes does not fall in line with bien pensant narratives that posit racism as the principle, often the sole explanation for police misconduct and violence whenever a person of color is involved. Not that he dismisses race as a factor, but it is one factor among others. I remember a conversation with an old friend during last summer's unrest. I forget the particular incident. She did not think violence that occurred was a matter of racism. It was, she said, just cops being cops. She had a point. This too is grounds for rethinking how we provide for public safety and police oversight.

Hughes was one year younger that Trayvon Martin when Martin was killed in 2012. He writes that like many black men he felt that Martin could have been him. His position on Black Lives Matter is mixed. He agrees that police departments have too often tolerated and enabled corruption and that in the face of police unions that oppose reasonable reforms BLM seems a force for positive change. However, he has come to believe that "the basic premise of Black Lives Matter—that racist cops are killing unarmed black people—is false."

I still believe that racism exists and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms; I still believe that, on average, police officers are quicker to rough up a black or Hispanic suspect; and I still believe that police misconduct happens far too often and routinely goes unpunished. But I not longer believe that the cops disproportionately kill unarmed black Americans.

Two things changed my mind: stories and data.

Hughes provides eleven examples of white people killed by police in circumstances that mirror high-profile cases where black people were killed. There is even a white counterpart to the killing of George Floyd. He asserts than many more such stories can be found and I expect that is true. While these stories, anecdotal evidence, do not constitute proof of anything, they are nonetheless compelling and should be taken seriously, just as testimony about racial bias in policing from Republican Senator Tim Scott, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capeheart, and a host of others should be taken seriously.

In July 2016 Scott delivered "a deeply personal speech on the Senate floor…about the 'deep divide' between communities and law enforcement" in which he related being stopped seven times in the course one year as an elected official (Kelly, Black GOP Senator Scott Says). "Was I speeding sometimes?" he asked. "Sure. But the vast majority of the time I was pulled over for driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or something else just as trivial." He went on to say that he does not know "many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell no matter their profession. No matter their income, no matter their disposition in life.…imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops."

Tim Scott is a conservative Republican. Jonathan Capeheart, a liberal columnist, speaks of that same common experience:

You know, when I leave my home, when I leave my apartment, I know that, when I am no longer at home, I'm viewed with some level of suspicion, even as a threat, simply because I'm Black, and certainly because I'm a Black male. And that is something that I have to deal with.

And I have said often and I will keep saying it, there's no such thing as a routine traffic stop when you're African American, and particularly when you're an African American man. (Brooks and Capeheart on police shootings)

As for the data, Hughes cites four studies that control for confounding variables, none of which has found a racial bias in deadly shootings. "Of course," he writes, "that hardly settles the issue for all time; as always, more research is needed. But given the studies already done, it seems unlikely that future work will uncover anything close to the amount of racial bias that BLM protesters in America and around the world believe exists.

It is worth noting the qualifiers: "it seems unlikely" and "anything close." Other researchers come up with different findings and conclusions (see Peeples, What the Data Say). Suppose for the moment we put aside the question of racial bias in policing and instead focus on the enormous problems that remain, no matter whether racial bias is pervasive or negligible or somewhere in between. Fixation on racial bias can lead to bad analysis and wrong conclusions that take us down rabbit holes that may be good for venting anger but do little to contribute to solutions.

Guns are part of the problem. Police officers have to be aware that any person they encounter is likely to have a gun and be willing to use it. I doubt that any amount or quality of training will inoculate people from being on edge in these situations or making a bad decision if the encounter turns intense. From the other side, black people have reason to fear for their safety when confronted by police. There are too many documented cases for them not to. The impulse is to be confrontational in return, to resist, to flee. Police, fearing for their safety and the safety of others, overreact. The narrative is reinforced on both sides. It becomes a vicious circle.

The same dynamic occurs with white people who fall into certain groups, as in the stories related by Hughes. Cathy Young offers similar examples, including the one that parallels George Floyd (Bad Cops, Bad Narratives):

Some police officers can be appallingly callous toward people they perceive as worthless: lawbreakers, drug addicts, the mentally ill.… What’s more, police departments and courts routinely fail to hold officers accountable for behavior that exhibits a “depraved mind”—to quote one of the statutes under which Chauvin was convicted—with regard to human life, or for less extreme but clearly abusive behavior.

Race and racism can certainly be a part of this pattern. But they don’t explain all of it.

Police culture, inadequate training, questionable hiring practices, militarization, unions that resist reform and make it near impossible for police leadership to get rid of people who have no business being police officers in the first place are all elements of the problem. The PBS NewsHour reported on a Marshall Project investigation that reviewed ten large city departments and found that training methods are one of the biggest obstacles to police reform (Sreenivasan, Weichselbaum, Why field training officers are hindering).

So after you graduate the academy, you're not just a cop on the street, you're actually on probation. And you spend a couple of weeks or a couple of months, in some places up to a year, following a veteran officer. And that person sort of becomes your teacher of the streets. That is a person who actually tells you, hey, more or less forget everything you learned at the academy. This is the way it goes, kid. (Weichselbaum)

Derek Chauvin was a field training officer. Two of the three other officers on the scene when he put his knee on George Floyd's neck were rookies, fresh out of the police academy, learning from him. How many generations of academy grads has he shown how it goes?

What is to be done? Capeheart offers a few modest steps:

[I] you do have things like ending racial profiling, collecting data, ending qualified immunity, which makes it possible for people to hold police officers and police departments accountable when they get it wrong, those are all things that will improve policing…but will also improve the relationship between communities and police.

Because anyone who thinks that African Americans don't want protection from crime and don't want police to actually be there to serve and protect, they are suffering under a very wrong notion. (Capeheart)

Reform and its effects are sure to be painfully slow and incremental. This is maddeningly frustrating. Part of being human, some of what is best in what we are as human, is the stubbornness that keeps us trying to right wrongs as best we can, to make the world a little bit better place, something that compels us time and again to push that damn rock up the hill no matter how many times it rolls back down on us.

Keep the faith.

References and recommended reading

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