I recently ran across a Pew Research Center national poll about the police actions and killing of Michael Brown, the eighteen year old black male shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. The poll’s results were interesting, in that roughly 2/3 of black respondents said that the police had gone too far, while only 1/3 of white respondents felt that way. Now, many people would immediately claim that such differing reactions represent either white racism or black overreaction. While some of the white response likely is racist, and some of the black response overreaction, I have strong doubts that majority of the difference between whites and blacks represents those at all. I suspect it represents something far deeper than hatred, racism, or prejudice, not that I’m condoning or excusing any of that.

The problem with ascribing the differing reaction of whites and blacks to racism is that racism and overreaction are too simple an answer, and, more important, attacking the problem by trying to eliminate racism or overreaction won’t solve the deeper difficulty lying behind that difference in opinion.

From what I’ve observed, both directly and indirectly, over a moderately long life, and what is also revealed by various studies, is that, in general, but not necessarily in all individual cases, blacks and whites react differently to authority, particularly “white” authority. Like it or not, white authority has a history with the various black subcultures of supporting white suppression of black rights. It doesn’t matter that this white authority today ranges from not very much different than in the past in some areas to close to equal treatment in others. The perception by all too many blacks, particularly young black males, is that police authority is to be distrusted, avoided, and sometimes even flouted. Given history, and given the way the enforcement and provisions of law, particularly drug laws, where drugs prominent in the black drug culture receive far stiffer sentences than the same drugs used by whites, if in different formulations, this distrust, anger, and resentment has a basis, if sometimes tenuous, in fact.

On the other hand, whites, again in general, but not necessarily in all individual cases, have a far more positive experience in dealing with law enforcement.

This difference in outlook further gets exacerbated by economics and by reality. Again, like it or not, police are far more likely to encounter violence and life-threatening situations in economically depressed areas, and far more areas where blacks live are economically depressed. Then add to that that young males are more likely to act out and do stupid things than any other age group, and unemployed young males even more so, and add onto that the factor that a greater percentage of young black males are unemployed. All of these factors make police far more wary and frankly skeptical of groups of young blacks. That skepticism, especially when overtly displayed, in turn fuels resentment and anger among minorities, especially blacks. By the same token, the often seemingly arrogant reaction by young blacks when stopped or questioned by police doesn’t make matters any better… understandable as that reaction is when those stopped are innocent.

All of the outcry over Michael Brown also tends to ignore that being a police officer in the United States is a dangerous job. According to FBI figures, over the last ten years, on average 170 police officers died every year in the line of duty, roughly half of whom were shot. More than 50,000 officers were assaulted each year, and more than 15,000 were injured every year. With 300 million firearms in circulation and a long history of violence, the United States is not the safest nation in the world for police officers, and the majority of areas with high levels of economically depressed blacks are even more dangerous. The leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 44 is homicide, and in something like 90% of those shootings, the shooter was black.

Compounding this problem is that the statistics show police distrust, in general, nation-wide results in black arrest rates that are far higher than for whites – even when the statistics show that blacks are no more prone to certain types of law-breaking than are whites. Marijuana use rates, for example, are the same for whites and blacks, and with more than six times as many whites as blacks in the U.S, one might think that the arrest rates would be similar, but a New York Times study noted that blacks are four times more likely to be arrested and charged than whites.

In an interesting counterpoint, there have been demonstrations, but no violence to date, in Salt Lake, where last week a “non-white” police officer shot and killed an unarmed 20 year old white male. Unlike in Ferguson, the officer was wearing a body-camera, although the photos have not yet been made public. I do think that body and police car cameras would be a very good start in Missouri, and everywhere, since at the very least, they would eliminate much of the speculation about who did what and when. So would better training in how to approach individuals about whom police have concerns. Again, studies show that greater politeness by police actually reduces violence and confrontation, which actually makes the police safer as well. More ethnic balance in police forces is also useful, particularly in places like Ferguson, where only three out of fifty-three officers are black.

Nonetheless, with all these factors in play, in some respects, it’s amazing that there aren’t more incidents between police and young black males. I frankly don’t have an answer, easy or otherwise, but I do have great concerns that the extremists on both sides are making matters worse, one side in demonizing the police and the other in demonizing young black males. Both sides have legitimate concerns and worries, but a “them” versus “us” confrontation isn’t going to do much to improve things in Ferguson… or anywhere else.

6 thoughts on “Ferguson”

  1. alecia says:

    Having experienced police ‘over-reaction’ personally, I can attest to the factual basis of such actions. As a (mostly) law-abiding white female – it was a huge shock, if not just a learning experience. The officers with whom I was involved turned out to: one who had a spousal restraining order against him; and the other – a just-made-the-height requirement park policeman with complaints against him for the over-enforecement of park rules. My take-away was that there are many in law enforcement who should never have that job. I believe Fergeson is another example of this ‘career misplacement’: the videos of a policeman yelling “Bring you effing animals, bring it”, or another pointing an automatic gun at non-violent protestors yelling “I’ll effing kill you” are just two of the examples that we saw. For me, racism is something with which this country still hasn’t addressed properly, but that wasn’t the root cause of what happened in Missouri; there were bad cops, because most of them shouldn’t have been cops in the first place.

  2. Robert Zeh says:

    Being a police officier in the United States is *not* a terribly deadly job (I’m going with death instead of danger because it is easier to quantify). For the past few years, being a police officer hasn’t even made it into the top ten list of most dangerous jobs.
    You’ve stated the number of police deaths out of context, not mentioning the number of police officers, the number killed driving, or comparing the death rate for officers to more dangerous professions like logger, roofer, or construction worker.
    I’m not saying that police work isn’t stressful, frightening, or terrifying. Or that is it commonly perceived as dangerous. But a police officer is more likely to come home alive to his or her family at the end of a shift than a roofer is, and we don’t go gaga over the dangers of roofing.

    1. I don’t think you quite understand police work. It’s not the danger; it’s the constant uncertainty, of knowing, and knowing with absolute certainty, that you could be attacked at any moment, that the most innocuous-seeming scene or situation could turn deadly with minimal or no warning. This isn’t hyperbole, except perhaps in high-class residential neighborhoods. Police who aren’t hyper-aware end up either causing trouble or injured, if not dead. Hyper-awareness takes a tremendous toll. According to the statistics I’ve seen, farming is the most dangerous occupation, but I’ve known more than as few ranchers and farmers and enough police officers to understand the very real difference in the nature of their dangers.

      1. D Archerd says:

        I had the opportunity to undergo a brief law-enforcement “shoot – don’t shoot” training exercise several years ago as part of my military reserve training. It was a real eye-opener and IMHO should be required of every citizen. The perspective of just how quickly an apparently innocuous situation can go south and how little time an officer has to decide to draw their weapon and use it is something everyone needs to internalize. The press and subsequent inquiries have days, even weeks to evaluate and second-guess what the officer in a shooting incident should have done, whereas the officer in question probably only had seconds or less to decide on the proper course of action.

        As one of my fellow reservists who was also a full-time policeman put it, “If I decide to shoot and am wrong, I’ll be put on administrative leave and at worst, lose my job. But if I decide not to shoot and am wrong, I’ll be dead and my family left destitute.”

        None of this excuses excessive use of force by police or the disproportionate enforcement of laws on minorities, but everyone needs to understand just what a risk they’re taking when they decide to react with aggression or belligerence in a contact with a police officer. As the great SF writer, Robert Heinlein, put it in another context, “Never frighten a little man. He’ll kill you.”

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    One interesting takeaway is that even those far enough apart on the left-right spectrum that they really can’t stand each other seem to agree that the transfer of excess military equipment to police, particularly without a clearly defined use and appropriate training, has gone too far.

    In general, I don’t have a problem with their having defensive equipment: a few unarmed armored vehicles for example; or non- (or less-) lethal equipment like water cannon; although riot (as well as SWAT) tactics should IMO be specially trained, select for suitable people, and generally neither such tactics nor associated equipment allowed to be routinely used nor except in a crisis situation, used to intimidate.

    But I suspect used _personal_ protection gear isn’t worth much, and at this point, there’s probably not a whole lot of non-lethal military surplus (although from articles I’ve read, the military is at least looking into equipment that could be used in situations where hostiles and bystanders can’t be sorted out, to neutralize without killing; so surplus more suitable to police may exist some years in the future).

    There are actually some such that have been around for a long time (indeed developed for civilian use) although I’ve not heard of them being used: a lightweight barrier and a vehicle that can fill an area enclosed by the barrier with a massive amount of foam. If you can’t see, and have to clear some space around your face to breathe, there’s a limit to how much trouble you can cause.

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