There is Only One Solution to the Problem of Police-Minority Relations in the United States

The murder of George Floyd was unusual in the history of police-minority relations in the United States. For one, when Black men are killed by law enforcement agencies, as they disproportionately are, they are usually shot to death. Some 1,254 African-Americans have been gunned down by police officers since January 1, 2015 when the Washington Post began keeping records. This is a matter of grave injustice to the Black community in particular and all right-thinking people in general. It is also a crisis for law enforcement agencies. The Minnesota Police, and the powers that be in general, do not want to attract the kind of attention that comes with officers shooting Black men to death. Yet, they seem to be powerless to do anything about it. So what should be done?

The challenge to any protest movement is that, because the forces that are mobilized are dispersed and uncoordinated, they can be contained and neutralized by the considerably more organized institutions of the constituted authorities. Even if they prevail in a direct confrontation with the authorities in the short run, the superior organization of the state is likely to prevail sooner or later. More importantly, precisely because distributed protest does not have a strategic brain that directs its operations, the demands of protestors are bound to be either incoherent and/or purely destructive — like the ouster of a sitting official (eg, Hosni Mubarak). What comes after cannot be specified by a distributed protest movement because there is no way to aggregate protestor desires into concrete demands on constituted authority. And precisely at the point at which the protest movement succeeds in its purely destructive demand (eg, charging the officers involved the killing of an innocent man or kicking out a brutal dictator) it is likely to be outmaneuvered by institutions that are more organized (as when the Muslim Brotherhood prevailed in the elections brought about by the urbanite anti-Islamist protestors).

Tens of thousands, if not millions already, are rightly protesting against the brutal murder of George Floyd. It’s obvious that, at the minimum, everyone wants justice for Floyd’s extrajudicial killing — the prosecution of the officers involved in his murder. It is fair to say that everyone involved also strongly desires that the killing of Black people at the hands of law enforcement officials stop; both in the state of Minnesota and in the United States at large. But that is not something that an attorney general, a mayor, a governor, or even a president can credibly promise to deliver. What, then, should be demanded of the authorities?

We can demand that society itself become less racialized. But that is probably not going to happen for some time. And it is not within the power of the authorities to deliver in any case. The concrete action that ought to be demanded of the authorities in this case can take one of three forms:

(1) Demand that the authorities reform the practices of law enforcement agencies so that they become considerably less likely to use force against racialized minorities when the use of force is unwarranted.

(2) Demand that the authorities make an example of the officers involved in this egregious violation of justice in order to deter similar violations in the future.

(3) Demand that the authorities enact special laws that safeguard the physical security of racialized minorities.

Here’s the dirty little secret of all the research that’s been done on police-minority relations. We do not know of any reforms at all that are known to work. Diversity training works just about as well in the police as it does in any other institution. Police training to encourage peer intervention — telling the cops that they ought to intervene when their colleagues use force unlawfully —  sounds hopeful, but there is no evidence that it works. Introducing more Black officers sounds like a solution. But evidence from New York City data shows that, conditional on incident, officer race has the opposite effect — Black officers are more likely to shoot than White officers. The one thing that seems to work somewhat is prior complaints against a police officer, which turns out to be a significant predictor of future “officer-involved shooting” incidents. This has implications for what should be demanded of the authorities.

Source: Ridgeway (2020). Risk of shooting and number of rounds fired by officer feature, conditional on incident. 

We should therefore demand that, not just Derek Chauvin, the officer who had his knee on Floyd’s neck, but all the officers involved in the incident must be charged with first degree murder. And if that is beyond the possibility space legally, then we must pressure the authorities to (3) enact special laws that make it mandatory in the future to charge all officers involved in unlawful police shootings of members of the minority with first degree murder. That would be a measure commensurate with our demand for justice for the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd and others victims of police brutality.


Postscript. I wanted to make three points in this piece. (1) That it is well understood that there are no known reforms that work. (2) That deterrence is known to work in general, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t work for police officers. And (3) that the way to implement deterrence is to mandate stiff penalties for officers shooting members of the minority. If you buy 1-3, then the question of implementation is a matter of detail. I am not a legal scholar but it is my understanding that Congress has the authority to mandate minimum sentencing laws for any crime — in this case defined as racial violence by officers — and that they can be pretty severe indeed. That, I think, is what should be demanded of the authorities.

Postpostscript. European police forces are far less trigger happy than American ones. So why can we just copy them?

Actually, the United States and other developed nations are not comparable on this question. Nowhere else do you have the potent mix of a large, restive racialized minority and a toxic history of race relations. So raw numbers cannot be compared. That being said, US police is much more heavily militarized than its counterparts elsewhere in the rich world. Demilitarization of US law enforcement is certainly a worthy reform, but it doesn’t get you close to solving the problem at hand because most black men are shot by cops on patrol in routine encounters, usually with handguns.

Incidence rates differ not only between nations but also between states; indeed, even within cities. Because exposures differ by precinct, even beats and time of day, it is very difficult to identify officer features, city features, or precinct features that can give you a handle on the problem. That is why Ridgeway conditioned on incident — by looking at which officer feature predicts the probability of shooting and the number of rounds fired during the same incident involving multiple officers, you can identify risk factors that would be otherwise impossible because of confounding. These risk factors can then help you flag problematic officers early in their careers, and then retrain, discipline, or remove them from patrol. It can also help you screen problematic candidates before they’re allowed to join the service.

But, again, these are all minor solutions that don’t go nearly far enough precisely because the problem is not a few bad apples but a culture of power, impunity and racialized oppression. That is why deterrence is absolutely key if we are to make any headway into the problem.


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