Following George Floyd’s killing late last month, the news that former police officer Derek Chauvin had been arrested and recently charged with second-degree murder was no doubt a positive development. Many prominent national figures, including former presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have seen it as a sign of progress and a “first step towards justice.” Even though many, including Mr. Floyd’s family, believe the charges to be too minor and instead favor first-degree murder charges for the accused, this is a major improvement from previous cases of police brutality. For example, a grand jury refused to even indict former police officer Darren Wilson for murder in the infamous 2014 shooting of Michael Brown.
However, even if Chauvin is convicted of all counts and imprisoned for as long as possible, which is currently 40 years, there is no further indication that the senseless police violence that claimed the lives of not only Mr. Brown and Mr. Floyd, but many others, will end. In 2017 alone, the police killed 19 unarmed Black men. In 2015, they killed 36 human beings. Delivering justice alone is not enough. Protesting and looting in the streets alone is not enough. For there to be real change, America’s justice system must enact institutional reforms, specifically reforms on how police departments train officers on how to treat Black Americans.
In 2015, after Freddie Gray died of fatal spinal cord injuries that the media attributed to a ‘rough ride’ in a police van, the comedy talk show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah released a segment entitled “Are All Cops Racist?” where correspondents Jordan Klepper and Roy Wood Jr. interviewed multiple law enforcement officials and scholars to inquire about the source of incessant police violence against Black Americans. One person they spoke to, Dr. Phillip Goff, University of California at Los Angeles Associate Professor and criminal justice reform expert, stood out in his assessment of the sources of police brutality by attributing the violence to “implicit biases” held by police officers. These implicit biases cause the inability for police officers to distinguish between Black Americans as victims, perpetrators or bystanders at a potential crime scene and the ubiquitous harmful stereotypes suggesting that Black people are more likely to engage in violence or crime. In other words, police officers are aware of the same stereotypes that, according to Dr. Goff, “almost all people” have, and may know that they are incorrect and morally wrong. However, being active in high-stress settings exacerbates these biases to the point where they become an automatic, and often deadly, assumption of aggression that overrides better judgment.
Dr. Goff is not the only scholar to make this argument. An earlier study at the University of Colorado in 2002, where participating undergraduate students had to identify the object white and Black people were holding in their hands and then decide whether or not to shoot, backed Dr. Goff’s statements. University of Colorado researchers found that participants shot armed Black people quicker and took longer intervals of time to decide not to shoot unarmed Black subjects. Subsequent studies verified these results and suggested that “bias crept in when officers were subject to mental stress.” Even studies dating back to as early as 2001 found that both “police officers and civilians are consistently more likely to associate black faces with criminality.”
While racist notions of universal Black criminality among Americans are highly undesirable, law enforcement must be held to a higher standard than regular civilians, which makes police perceptions of stereotypes of Black Americans even more unacceptable. But the question remains: How do we reverse and/or eliminate these implicit biases? The most important thing to know about implicit biases is that they are extremely hard to remove despite “the best of intentions.” This is because they are essentially hardwired into law enforcement officers from childhood and, even if the police are taught about the importance of fairness and equality in a theoretical setting, their biases can often resurface as a reflexive action in a high-stress situation. If there is to be a chance for police racism to be effectively addressed, more practical solutions must be introduced.
The Salt Lake City Police Department is starting an educational program, teaching its police force to confront their biases by not only teaching the importance of restraint when it comes to on-site confrontations. They are also encouraging the officers to discuss and self-reflect on their own experiences and to become aware of how they acquired their biases in the first place and, therefore, how to counteract them as well. The New York City Police Department has invested $4.5 million in a similar program.
While starting these programs is definitely a step in the right direction, how effective these initiatives are is still unclear. They are only a couple of years old, so their true impact is yet to be seen and these programs’ novelty means that there is a “lack of standards” regarding what should and should not be taught. Having variable curricula across the country on addressing police bias may lead to uneven results nationwide as well. In addition to implicit bias training, more minorities, especially Black Americans, should also be inducted into law enforcement to increase racial diversity.
However, just because a police force is more diverse does not necessarily make it less prone to stereotyping. At least two of the Minneapolis Police Department officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s killing, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Keung, are minorities themselves. This suggests that these biases extend beyond the reviled presence of white privilege, a factor blamed by many for much of the apathy surrounding police killings of Black people. While the solutions may vary, the problem, unfortunately, remains the same. We need to ensure that minorities, especially Black individuals, are safe from the very authorities that are supposed to protect them from violent injustices in the first place. Bringing officers like Chauvin to justice is good, but making sure no officer ever succumbs to their racial biases and kills an innocent person out of racism again is what our society should be striving for.
Tuhin Chakraborty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.