Yes and No.
Yes, just as the way people dress, the cars they drive, etc, affect their likelihood of being stopped by the police, so does the color of their skin.
No, the police are no more racist than anyone else, but the nature of our work, and several other factors that the police can do nothing about, make it seem that way.
Why Do Black People Get Disproportionate Police Attention?
This is actually a very simple question. It is because citizens, of all races, describe criminal suspects as being black, in numbers disproportionate to their numbers in the overall population. This carries over into the officer’s later self-initiated investigations, where the officer is looking for those specific suspects.
Nothing racist here, unless you believe that there are a bunch of racists actively fabricating suspicious activities to report to the police, just to create an illusion of black criminality.
What About General “Suspicious Behavior” Investigations?
I am no psychologist, but I’d guess that, on a sub-conscious level, the disproportionate reporting of suspects as black, probably increases the likelihood of an officer’s attention being drawn to black people in general, which increases the likelihood of noticing suspicious behavior, but it may also increases the likelihood of the officer interpreting innocent actions as suspicious. In other words, constant reports of black suspects may lead officers to actually act “racist” without any racist intent.
Why Do Black People Get Cited & Arrested So Much?
It doesn’t take a genius to figure that if officers are contacting disproportionately more black people, for the reasons noted above, that they’re going to find disproportionately more law violations by black people, which leads to more citations to and arrests of black people. Unless officers give black people preferential treatment, it’s simple probability at this point.
But What About Disperate Enforcement?
Some studies claim that all other things being equal (which never happens in reality), officers are more likely to opt to take enforcement action on black people than on people of other races. I would argue that this is a combination of officer discretion and citizen reaction.
In all agencies officers are given the power to choose, in most relatively minor situations, if the community is best served by giving a citizen found to be in violation of the law mercy or a swift kick in the ass. Combine this with the response to the officer by the citizen encountered, and you have your recipie.
Unfortunately, regardless of which came first, the fact is that at this point in time black culture in the US is largely suspicious of the police, and due to the common belief that police attention to black people is racially motivated, it is often downright confrontational towards them. This means that officers are statistically much more likely to encounter a confrontation when contacting a black person. When confronted, an officer will feel pressured to take enforcement action, both to protect themselves by documenting the legitimacy of their actions, and simply in a natural fight or flight response to aggression aimed at them (Needless to say, we tend to favor fight over flight).
Why Would Citations & Arrests Protect Officers?
Because so many in the black community believe that the police are the KKK in blue, most agencies are desperate to show evidence that they have zero tolerance for racial profiling, and adopt very heavy-handed policies regarding racial profiling. Unlike in criminal court, administrators need very little evidence to punish officers with internal discipline, and a lack of enforcement action is assumed to be evidence that the officer had no legal grounds for the detention, and therefore is interpreted as evidence of racial profiling. In the case of a racial profiling, a sustained complaint will likely result in some sort of suspension, which could cost the officer hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost wages. As a result, officers concerned about a possible racial profiling complaint are effectively left with only one defense, document the legal grounds for the stop, by way of citations or arrests.
How Do We End This Vicious Cycle?
Fair or not, the only people who can put an end to it are people in the black community. We can’t demand that police not investigate reports of suspicious activity or crimes if the suspect is black. Nor can we discourage citizens from reporting black suspects. The ONLY way this cycle can end is for the black community to put forth a concerted effort to “rebrand” itself. The black community must address issues which result in its members actually committing crimes, issues which result in their being percieved as more likely to commit crimes and/or support those who do, and issues which result in confrontational attitudes towards officers during contacts.
I know it is taboo to tell someone that there is a legitimate reason for their misfortune, but unless people face facts, they can never develop an effective solution to their problems. The black community must recognize that they are not the target of a massive police conspiracy to oppress them, and that they alone can stop the cycle.
What do you think? Am I off base? What do you think could be done about this situation?