Police, Race, and the Media: Everything You Did and Didn’t Want to Know by Jeff KrasnoMay 13, 2021
Police, race, inequality, and social justice — why is it so hard to have a thoughtful, nuanced conversation about these topics? This episode seeks common ground by examining the recent Derek Chauvin verdict, police shootings, and Black Lives Matter protests through the lens of data, history, and our modern media landscape. Because we cannot talk about these issues without also discussing the ad-driven media model that pushes us toward oppositional extremes.
I have written extensively about socio-political polarization over the past year. It seems as if virtually every prescient societal issue in America pushes us toward oppositional extremes – often based on political identity. We have experienced this phenomenon with the legitimacy of the presidential election, with COVID and the acceptance of the vaccine, with guns and gun reform, with cancel culture, and, of course, with social justice and its relationship to police brutality. One need only glance at Facebook or Twitter to witness the invective, the hurling of vitriol and ad hominem attacks and the utter lack of discourse.
With specific regards to the police, there seem to be two primary echo chambers. The left posits that the police are inherently racist and indiscriminately shooting and killing Black people in large numbers. And while the right might concede to the “few bad apples” theory, it increasingly views the Black Lives Matter movement as an attack on American values and prone to violence, rioting, and looting.
We just cannot seem to have a thoughtful dialogue on this issue. There are some meticulous conversations happening but those are transpiring on the margins. So, I am trying to find some common ground. In the process of research and contemplation on this issue and others, I tend to immerse myself in heaps of empirical data. And this process can often be dispassionate which belies the emotional signature of this topic. I suppose this position itself could be considered privilege. I acknowledge that my assessment of this profoundly complicated situation is highly observational and not lived. My personal interactions with the police have been minimal. I have friends who have experienced violent confrontations with the cops and I know how traumatic and scarring those experiences have been for them.
I am a life-long liberal and overwhelmingly support progressive policies. However, I also try to remain independent, unbiased and have thoughtful conversations with people across the political spectrum. I have used this platform extensively to excoriate Trump on a regular basis. I don’t need to spend any more time doing that here. Still, I am flabbergasted by the Republican party’s embrace of QAnon and other collective fantasies including Stop the Steal.
However, despite this apparent derangement, I am deeply concerned about the Republicans retaking Congress in 2022. I just don’t think America will survive a government full of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s. Certainly, if you believe in climate change, it won’t.
Part of me is simply incredulous to the reality the Republicans have as much political support as they do. They lose on virtually every major issue except two: Law & Order and the culture wars. And, in some ways, I suppose you could conflate these matters into one issue.
There is a segment of the left, mostly white, that incessantly fuels and motivates the Republicans around these issues. This group appears obsessed with injecting race and identity politics into every possible crevice of American political life and seems to think that abolishing the police is a good idea and a profitable political strategy.
Now, I do believe that most of these folks are well-intentioned and, candidly, I count many as friends. Anti-racism emerges from a sincere desire to see a more equitable world. I deeply share that goal. I don’t think the cult of wokeness, if you will, is equivalent to the derangement that we see on the right. But there is often an absence of self-awareness and self-criticism among white liberals accompanied by a knee-jerk tendency to scream racism before any critical analysis of an act or event. And, again, this penchant is really animating for Republicans and even centrists and it risks our chance of long-term progress.
So, this is why I think it’s important to have these conversations.
There are vast areas of inequity in the United States with regards to access to education, health care, quality food, credit, and housing. The economic disparities between Black and white Americans are nothing less than astonishing. The median net worth of the white American family is $170,000. The median net worth of the Black American family is $17,000. A recent Boston Globe study found that the median net worth for non-immigrant African-American households in the Greater Boston region is $8. That’s not a typo.
Now, if you have the disposable time to listen to this podcast, there’s a decent chance you’ve already spent $8 since it started. That’s obviously a generalization. But $8 is basically covering the heat in your house for thirty minutes or the cost of a pint of beer. Clearly, as my wife will attest, I value both heat and beer. The fact that $8 is the median net worth for Black families in a wealthy city like Boston, or any city, should scandalize anyone.
It needs to be our communal project to eradicate racism wherever we find it. And part of that project is to hold racist people accountable for odious behavior and address systems that produce inequity. But there also seems to be a lot of confusion about where racism actually exists and where societal inertia has simply produced unequal outcomes. Are there reprehensible racists in this country? Well, we’ve seen them carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville and wearing Six Million Wasn’t Enough t-shirts while attempting an insurrection at our Capitol. But are we getting distracted and confused by horrific events amplified by algorithms and ad-driven media? Well, this is what I want to explore.
So, this episode is a deep dive into the use of deadly force by the police, obviously spurred on by the counterpoint of the Derek Chauvin verdict juxtaposed against a number of tragic videos that have recently flooded the internet. In this inquiry, I examine the role of the media and how it shapes public perception, especially around matters of race. I investigate the nature of public outrage and fear and how it influences behavior. I talk about police training, or lack thereof. I touch on the history of the police and incarceration. And I humbly offer some suggestions for moving forward toward the society that most of us envision.
Obviously, this is a sensitive topic and I do go into some fairly graphic detail as it pertains to the videos of the recent police shootings of Daunte Wright and Ma’Khia Bryant. So, if these topics are too raw and triggering right now, or if you don’t want to listen to a white guy dissect these issues then just skip this one.
If you do stick around then please know that my inquiry springs forth from a sincere desire to better understand the true nature of the world, outside of bias, with the goal of bettering the human condition. In a way, this inquest is very connected to meditation which I consider to be simply an examination of the mind with the goal of gaining greater insight. I also believe that the mass adoption of meditation will yield better outcomes for all people including marginalized communities and cops. So, if you feel like you could benefit from a free meditation course that you can pull out of your pocket at any time, simply email me at [email protected]
History of the Police
Ok. So, I don’t believe one can honestly address police brutality without understanding the history of policing in the United States. It would require multiple volumes to fully unpack it, however, even a superficial autopsy of the history of American policing, which I will provide here, reveals its deeply rooted racism. Woven into the historical fabric of policing is the perpetration of horrific violence on and mass incarceration of Black Americans. For anyone interested in going deeper on this topic, let me recommend Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad and his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.
We assume that organized policing has been an institution since the country’s founding. However, that intuition is incorrect. Policing in the South began as slave patrols comprised of groups of conscripted white men and militia members geared to enforce slave “codes” that prohibited Blacks from gathering and limited their movement. These groups formed principally out of fear of slave revolt or escape. The slave codes restricted rights to marry and made it illegal to teach slaves to read. They also prescribed corporal punishment often specifying the number of lashes to be administered by slaveowners who received immunity through these statutes for the accidental killing of slaves. Slave patrols could be considered the beginning of the deputization of white people to explicitly administer physical punishment on Black people.
In 1865, after Emancipation, Southern whites took advantage of a loophole in the 13th amendment which freed slaves unless they were criminals. Pay close attention to the verbiage of Section One:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Slave codes transformed into black codes, the defining feature of which was broad vagrancy law, which allowed local authorities to arrest freed people for minor infractions and commit them to involuntary labor. This period was the beginning of the convict lease system, also described as "slavery by another name." In short, incarceration replaced slavery in the post-Bellum South as means to continue forced labor.
The South had anemic public infrastructure and little means of enforcing these new black codes so they empowered vigilante groups to do so. Essentially, the slave patrol transformed into the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee. While occupying Northern troops stifled the Klan’s activity for a time, its popularity crested again in 1915 in the wake of D.W. Griffith’s silent film, “The Birth of A Nation” which depicted the KKK as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values and a white supremacist social order. The Klan was the primary perpetrator of lynchings. These public hangings, which took 3,446 Black lives, were used to terrorize Black people and deter them from voting.
In the early 20th century, Southern state legislatures also passed Jim Crow laws. These laws were an attempt to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by Black people during Reconstruction. As a body of law, Jim Crow institutionalized economic, educational, and social disadvantages for African- Americans living in the South under the banner “separate but equal.” These laws were enforced until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As part of the great migration, Blacks held hope that the North would provide greater freedom and safety. The Chicago riots of 1919 dashed any optimism. This deadly event was precipitated by the inadvertent drifting of 17-year old Eugene Williams’ raft over an imaginary aqua line that separated Black and white beachgoers during a heatwave. One white beachgoer began throwing rocks at Williams who apparently slipped off his raft and died. This led to a clash on the beach which spilled over into days of brutal beatings, shootings, and arson that became known as the Red Summer. In the mayhem, police sided with white gangs. In the end, 38 people died (23 black and 15 white), 537 were injured (mostly Black) and somewhere between 1000 – 2000 Black families lost their homes.
Unlike the South, the history of policing in the North was more rooted in gangs of rival ethnic groups, particularly Irish and Italian immigrants. The post-Prohibition era saw a “professionalization” of Police departments that unified many of these rogue groups into an institutionalized police force that excluded Blacks who continued to suffer gross mistreatment and violence.
Despite the brutal killings of many of its leaders including Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement of the ’60s ushered in new laws and opportunities for African-Americans. In many ways, however, racism shifted away from overt acts of violence and discrimination to subtler, more insidious forms of oppression.
The Southern Strategy marked the commencement of modern-day dog-whistle politics as Republicans courted southern voters who had opposed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Issues like busing, states’ rights, and “law and order” became central to the Republican platform as a way to shift the South away from its long-term fealty to the Democratic party. First employed by Nixon, and subsequently by Reagan, this code language was used to pander for votes by characterizing Blacks as criminals.
This strategy went hand-in-hand with the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the eventual emergence of the private prison industry. In 1971, Nixon declared drug abuse America's public enemy number one and launched a new offensive. The novel anti-drug focus was a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise and incarcerate Black people.
John Ehrlichman, who had been Nixon's domestic-policy adviser, admitted as much in a 1994 interview. Ehrlichman is quoted as saying the following:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.
Anti-drug fervor led to the enactment of the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York which created Draconian sentencing guidelines for drug possession. This was a precursor to Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that imposed different mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, including marijuana. This law created asymmetrical sentencing parameters between crack which permeated Black urban areas and powder cocaine which was more popular in white communities. 50 grams of crack resulted in a minimum sentence of 10 years. 50 grams of powder cocaine carried no minimum sentence. In fact, one needed to be caught with 5,000 grams of cocaine to receive the same sentence as 50 grams of crack.
In order to compete electorally, Democrats jumped on the law & order bandwagon in the 1990s. In 1994, Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, commonly known as the Crime Bill. This law was established in parallel with the habitual offender laws known as “three strikes” which increased sentences for multiple offenders. While the Crime Bill banned assault weapons, it also funded the militarization of the police and the expansion of private prisons. States that followed harsh “truth-in” sentencing provisions qualified for federal grant money to expand their prison infrastructure.
A significant portion of this legislation was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization comprised of legislators and private sector executives to write and pass laws. One of ALEC’s funders was the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest operator of private prisons in the United States. Other supporters of ALEC include a wide variety of vendors that service prisons. In essence, private corporations that stood to financially benefit from incarceration wrote the laws that imprisoned more people for longer sentences.
So, let’s take a moment and examine the impact of these laws and initiatives?
In 2009, 2.3 million people were incarcerated in the United States and almost 7 million people were under some type of control by the correction industry, mostly on parole. At that juncture, Black males accounted for almost 40% of the total male prison population.
By age 23, 50% of Black men have been arrested. There are more African-American men incarcerated in the U.S. than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel, and England combined.
The impact of mass incarceration is multifarious. Overwhelmingly, Black kids grow up in broken homes. In 2019, a staggering 64% of Black children were growing up in a single-parent home. Because of arrest records, many Blacks are disenfranchised by laws that deny suffrage to felons. The existence of the convicted felon “check box” that appears on myriad applications diminish the procurement of employment and loans. These factors contribute to the devastating economic indicators that I alluded to.
Despite this history, there has been significant criminal justice reform in the last ten years. The incarceration for Black men has actually been reduced by nearly 33% since its high in 2006. There is increasing bipartisan support for reform. In 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act that made Obama’s Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. This resulted in the release of 3,000 inmates many of whom had done decades of prison time for minor drug offenses.
Last year saw significant declines in the national prison population. Thirty-one states reported decreases. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York State would close three prisons. The overall prison population decreased to 1.8 million in 2020 from a high of 2.3 million.
We have also seen the legalization of marijuana pass in many states. Of course, there is a gruesome irony here. As suburban moms browse the aisles of Apple Store-like, VC-funded weed stores to find the perfect THC stress reliever, there are still 40,000 prisoners languishing in prison for marijuana-related crimes.
Still, the trend over the past 10 years is positive both in terms of reducing the prison population and in staunching violent crime with one exception which I will explore later.
Analysis of Chauvin
With that context, let’s examine the murder of George Floyd.
Three weeks ago, a jury in Minneapolis found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of all three charges levied against him in the case involving the death of George Floyd last May.
These charges included second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Sentencing will take place in mid-June and while cumulatively the charges could add up to 75 years in prison, the judge will focus on the most serious charge of second-degree murder, which carries a maximum of 40 years behind bars. For the conviction of second-degree unintentional murder, the state's prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin caused Floyd's death while assaulting him.
The verdict was a particularly rare one against a police officer. There have been only seven murder convictions of officers for fatal police shootings since 2005. The trial was also unique in that it featured testimony from other police officers who crossed what is known as the “blue wall of silence” – the informal code of trust among cops to protect each other despite knowledge of misconduct. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, among other cops, testified that Chauvin broke department policies on use of force, used a restraint that was unsanctioned and against training, and had violated his sworn duty as a police officer to serve and protect.
All of the metaphors around how the country let out a giant exhale or how Americans are all breathing a little easier in the wake of the verdict have a twisted irony given the specific fate of Floyd who was held down, handcuffed, and prone on a city street as he gasped 27 times that he could not breathe.
Medical Examiner Andrew Baker testified that the way officers held Floyd down and compressed his neck while restraining him caused hypoxia, the deprivation of adequate oxygen supply. Similarly, an independent autopsy commissioned by Floyd's family ruled "asphyxiation from sustained pressure was the cause" of Floyd's death.
The defense argued that Floyd’s death was incited by the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system but, in the end, the prosecution held arguably the most damning piece of evidence. On May 25, a 17-year old passer-by, Darnella Frazier courageously and steadily filmed the 9 minute, 29 second affair.
It was an important verdict for the country in that it communicated a number of clear messages: 1) due process functions 2) no one is above the law and 3) bad actors (even police) will be held accountable for their actions.
Anyone watching Frazier’s video can witness how overtly odious Chauvin’s behavior was. As described, Floyd is prone for over 9 minutes. He is completely subdued, cuffed, and eventually loses consciousness.
However, upon close examination, it is unclear that Chauvin’s appalling actions are grounded in racism. To my knowledge, he never once utters a racial epithet. Over the course of Chauvin’s 19-year police career, there were at least 18 complaints filed against the officer (as well as numerous medals of commendation). However, while some of these complaints foreshadowed the callousness with which Chauvin murdered Floyd, none of those complaints appear to be founded in racism. That being said, since the verdict, a 2017 incident has surfaced in which Chauvin apparently struck a 14-year old Black boy after being called to resolve a domestic dispute.
Chauvin is certainly the kind of guy who physically fits the stereotypical mold of the tough, white bully who might not like Black people. But, of course, to indict him as a racist for his appearance is, in and of itself, racist. He appears to be more psychopathic than anything else and his continuation as an on-duty in-service officer points to the utter failure of the Minneapolis Police Department. On Wednesday, the day after the verdict, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a sweeping Justice Department probe into the practices and culture of the Minneapolis Police Department.
There is certainly a voice in my head that is conditioned to say, “that kind of deadly police brutality would never happen to a white man.” But, inconveniently, it did. In 2016, Tony Timpa, a white Dallas resident, was body mounted by police for 13 minutes as they cracked jokes. Timpa also died of asphyxiation.
Of course, if you watched CNN or MSNBC or spent any time on social media during the months after Floyd’s murder, you would be absolutely convinced that this was a racially-oriented hate crime. In article after article and tweet after tweet, the murder of Floyd was portrayed as a blatant example of racism.
There is a very real, and understandable, desire to overlay the history of police brutality against black Americans over every discreet case of police violence that is brought before the court of public opinion. But, as with any other court, we must hold ourselves to the higher standard of adjudicating each case as they come.
One of the collateral tragedies of Floyd’s murder involved Alex Kueng, a rookie Black cop who held Floyd’s back as he struggled to breathe. Kueng is now charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. His trial, along with the trials of two other Minneapolis police officers, Thomas Lane and Tou Thou, an Asian officer, are now imminent in the wake of the Chauvin verdict.
Long before Mr. Kueng was arrested, he had wrestled with the issue of police abuse of Black people, joining the force in part to help protect people close to him from police aggression. Why he engaged in subduing Floyd on the ground can only speak to how complicated and nuanced these fluid situations are. One can only imagine Kueng’s inner monologue in the moments leading up to Chauvin’s verdict. If Chauvin had gotten off on murder two, the severity of the charges levied against Mr. Keung would have considerably lessened.
Pros & Cons of BLM Post-Chauvin
Maybe it doesn’t matter that Floyd’s murder lacked any specific signature of racism. The egregiousness of Chauvin’s actions was emblematic of the wider scourge of police violence against Black and brown people, a seemingly incessantly increasing list of victims that has sparked the hashtag #saytheirnames.
The Floyd incident propelled millions of Americans to engage in a moral inventory, examine their implicit biases, and excavate America’s historical racist roots. Personally, I learned more auto-didactically during the Summer of 2020 about race than I did in college where I concentrated in race relations. There are many good laws and policy changes that have been spurred on by the Floyd murder. I’ll enumerate the positive and negative ramifications in a moment.
Is it possible to see Chauvin’s act, racist or not, as disconnected from the history of police violence? I am not sure.
Maybe the framing of Floyd’s killing as a racist act spurred on the reckoning for social justice that America needed. Perhaps, despite no explicit evidence of overt racism, Chauvin’s despicable act is part of a bigger narrative in the racially biased use of deadly force by white cops against unarmed Black people.
However, the data does not convincingly support that notion. After Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, was killed in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Missouri, a Washington Post investigation found that the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half. This is because reporting by police departments is voluntary and many departments fail to do so. In response, The Washington Post began to log every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States.
According to the Washington Post database, the number of unarmed Black people shot and killed in 2019 by the police was 12. In 2020, it was 18. So far in 2021, the tally is 4. The total number of unarmed white people killed by police over those same years is 26, 24, and 5. In short, the deadly use of force by the police on unarmed people is extremely rare.
To get a broader picture of just how rare officer-involved shootings are, it is helpful to consider the frequency with which they used to occur. In New York City in the early 1970s, police officers killed an average of 72 people per year (topping out at 93 in 1971). In 2020, just 19 people were shot and killed by law enforcement officers in all of New York State, and every single one of them was armed.
94% of the 6,211 people who have been killed by police officers in America since the beginning of 2015 were armed in some way. 58% of them were armed with a gun. 75% were armed with a gun or knife. 87% were armed with a gun, knife, some other weapon, or were using a vehicle they were driving as a weapon.
Only 2% of the total victims of deadly police shootings over the past six years were unarmed black men. And 91% of the black men killed by police officers since 2015 were armed.
I have heard people get tangled up in the analysis of this data. Overall, more unarmed white people are shot and killed by the police year over year. But whites comprise 60% of the population and Blacks only 13%, so, as a percentage of the population, Black people are more likely to be killed. But Black people commit approximately 55% of the murders in the country. But some of the killings of armed Black men were likely unjustified? But aren’t some unarmed killings justified? This debate ping pongs back and forth. The potent takeaway here is that, given there are over 10,000,000 yearly arrests and 60,000,000 police interactions, the infrequency of fatal police shootings simply betrays our intuition given the intensity of the news coverage.
In 2016, Roland Fryer, a professor of economics at Harvard published a study titled An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force. In the 56-page paper, Fryer, who is Black, comes to the following conclusion:
On non-lethal uses of force, Blacks and Hispanics are more than ﬁfty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities. On the most extreme use of force - oﬃcer-involved shootings - we ﬁnd no racial diﬀerences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account.
So, yes, Blacks are more likely to experience a “force interaction.” But why are we absolutely convinced that white cops are indiscriminately killing innocent Black people? Let’s take a look at the tragic shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant to try and understand.
Ma’Khia Bryant Analysis
Just as we were white-knuckling into the turbulent landing of the Chauvin verdict, my social media feed lit up with news of another police shooting of a 16-year old Black girl in Columbus, Ohio.
For the sake of transparency, Columbus police released the bodycam footage immediately after the incident. The video shows Columbus police officer, Nicholas Reardon, who was responding to a 911 call, arrive outside a home in a residential neighborhood. As he arrives, his left hand is outstretched in a manner that appears to be an attempt to de-escalate a chaotic situation. Reardon says, “What’s going on?” And approximately one second later, Ma’Khia Bryant appears in the frame with a knife running at another woman who falls to the ground. Bryant tumbles as well.
The video shows a man, allegedly Bryant’s father, attempt to kick the fallen teen in the head. Bryant regains her footing as the officer is yelling at her to “get down.” He yells “get down” three times. But Bryant is clearly enraged and either does not hear Reardon or ignores him. She turns toward a woman dressed in a pink tracksuit, runs at her, hoists the knife above her own shoulder, and is clearly poised to thrust the knife into the woman in pink who is pinned up against a car. At this juncture, the officer deploys 4 rounds from his firearm. Bryant is hit and slumps to the left of the screen. Police attempt to revive her and administer CPR, but, tragically, Bryant is pronounced dead at the hospital.
A 16-year old girl died. I have a 16-year old daughter. I cannot remotely fathom the pain of losing my daughter. This event is utterly tragic. However, consider for a moment the position of the cop. Officer Reardon was faced with a split-second decision to either discharge his weapon or let an unarmed bystander be stabbed and potentially killed. He behaved completely within standard operating procedure by using deadly force to save a potential victim. If he had not killed Ma’Khia Bryant, there is a significant chance that another young Black woman would be dead or severely injured. And, no, police officers cannot shoot to wound. There are numerous studies that address this common question. Cops are trained to aim for the torso in order to impede the assailant. It is nearly impossible to reliably hit fast-moving arms or legs, nor will it necessarily stop the aggressor.
As the news broke, I watched hundreds of social media posts pop into my feed, mostly from white liberals, excoriating the police and alleging racism. The incident prompted Lebron James, to tweet a photograph of Officer Reardon with the caption “You’re Next” #ACCOUNTABILITY.
James, who has 50 million followers, later deleted the tweet after it had been viewed millions of times. I generally admire James and applaud his civic engagement but can you imagine if this situation occurred in reverse – where a white person, or a cop, posted a photo of James with the caption “You’re next.” There would literally be mass hysteria.
In the aftermath of the tragic shooting, hundreds of protesters took to the street that evening in Columbus brandishing BLM placards and a sign saying “Stop Killing My People” despite the reality that the officer had actually saved a Black life.
It’s unclear if anyone had actually watched the video or if they just heard about it and instinctively filed it in the drawer reserved for racist cops.
Obviously, the timing of the shooting contributed to some of the delusion. And, in the following days, commentators like Don Lemon sounded a more sane and conciliatory tone. But this situation really brings the role of the media and social media into stark relief.
So, let’s examine the role of the media.
The Role of the Media
There’s been a lot of attention justifiably paid to the role of videos in the pursuit of accountability. Both civilian cellphone video and bodycam videos have permeated both traditional cable news media and social media. And, as I previously noted, the Frazier video specifically played a significant part in the conviction of Derek Chauvin. The enforcement of bodycams undoubtedly serves justice and keeps cops honest. The phenomenon of these videos over the past five to ten years pulls back the curtain on a grim reality that was already there.
The mass distribution of these videos across media and social media however is a double-edged sword as I will explain.
The Frazier video of Chauvin murdering Floyd was viewed 1.4 billion times in the first ten days after the incident. While I don’t have reliable metrics that quantify the aggregate amount of views across linear cable and social media including YouTube, just imagine how many impressions of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin were served up over an 11-month period between the incident and the end of the trial. And it wasn’t just the Frazier video. Think of all the news commentary, the press conferences, the trial scenes. And now consider that every media outlet around the world was broadcasting and posting this content. We are literally talking about hundreds of billions of impressions.
The Floyd video and others like it leverage human negativity bias, our penchant for both outrage and sensationalism, and our hard-wired susceptibility to fear. News outlets are keenly aware of how provocative these videos are. In the race for ratings and viewership numbers, cable news media continuously broadcast these videos. And despite how horrific they are, people keep watching. Social media is likely worse as the algorithms have leveraged machine learning to optimize the human proclivity for outrage, scandal, and violence. You watch one video and the recommendation engine serves you up another and another.
This phenomenon is all part of the ad-revenue media model. While FOX and CNN, for example, couldn’t be more different in terms of their political biases, they share the same core model. Their business is driven by selling ad real estate to marketers based on impressions. This takes the form of commercials for linear cable, banner ads on websites, and pre-roll, mid-roll, and pop-up ads on platforms like YouTube.
You can run this experiment yourself. Go to YouTube and search on George Floyd. You’ll see tens of thousands of videos, many with millions of views. Start clicking around. They are almost all running ads. Not always pre-roll. But almost always some kind of pop-up in the lower third.
Media outlets are paid by advertisers on a CPM basis. There is a certain cost that the media sales team or agency charges a brand or buying agent per thousand views. On YouTube, the CPM is around $8. So, let’s do some very rough math to determine how much ad revenue was generated by the murder of George Floyd. As I mentioned, I can only roughly guess at the aggregate views. Let’s say it’s 500 billion. Half of a trillion views at an $8 CPM would yield 4 billion dollars in advertiser revenue. YouTube who is owned by Google keeps 45% of all ad revenue generated on its platform. Now, of course, that calculation is not remotely scientific. I am simply underscoring how media functions and explaining its perverse incentives.
For the period ending June 30, 2020, five weeks after the Floyd murder, CNN garnered the highest ratings in its 40-year history. Fox & MSNBC also had record-setting ratings during the same period. Fox News saw their 30-second spots climb to $8,300 and CNN’s escalated to $5,500.
High-profile police violence, COVID, and the election (and let’s face it: Trump) conspired to bump up CNN’s viewership in 2020 by 119%. The ad-driven media model incentivizes the deployment of content that is geared to keep us triggered and pissed off.
CNN is well aware that its liberal demographic will respond to claims of racism. And FOX knows its core psychographic is prone to “law and order” and supporting the police. Hence, the editorial bias of each of these outlets is designed to appeal to its viewers such that it can maximize views for ad revenue. These misaligned incentives are at the core of America’s socio-political polarization and also central to the distortion of reality.
It’s not just big media organizations that are addicted to racially charged content. Every civilian on Twitter or Facebook is now a media outlet. In general, individuals, celebrities, and influencers get their information from major outlets and re-share them with their own editorial overlaid. The more emotional, controversial, and conspiratorial the content, the wider the reach. As individuals experience engagement on their platforms, neural reward pathways open up. Like media, individuals are incentivized to spread volatile content irrespective of whether it is factual. But for individuals, the pay-off is not financial (most of the time), it is bio-chemical. Every comment and like triggers the release of dopamine that floods your body with a pleasant sensation and reinforces the behavior which subsequently gets repeated.
However, there is another effect, more psychological in nature, that emerges as a consequence of media and its obsession with high-profile fatalities. People instinctually feel like they shape the world and that they are independent thinkers operating outside of bias. However, we know that is predominantly an illusion. For most people, the world shapes the self often in insidious and undetectable ways. Consider this quote from internet pioneer, Jaron Lanier, from the documentary The Social Dilemma:
”It is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception that is the product.”
News and social media are free services. And if you’re not paying for it, then you are the product. Media is not just selling your behaviors and proclivities to marketers, it is designed to influence and alter them.
Here’s some data on the political affiliations of cable news watchers from 2019: 93% of Fox News viewers are Republican. 95% of MSNBC viewers are Democrats. 91% of New York Times readers are Democrats. 79% of CNN viewers are Democrats. I’ve got to imagine that number has increased over the past two years.
If you watched MSNBC over the last year, you would likely intuit that thousands of unarmed Black people are people killed by the police. On the other hand, if you watch FOX, you might be convinced that American cities are literally burning to the ground courtesy of Black Lives Matter. But any rigorous examination of the data tells us that neither is true.
Of course, even one shooting is too many – as is one torched family business. Media is pushing us into hyperbolized realities and this has direct impacts on our beliefs and behaviors.
Currently, there is a talking point that is circulating on NPR and other left-leaning outlets that 3 Black people are shot and killed by the police every day. The genesis of this meme is the Washington Post database which indicates that 985 people have been shot and killed by the police in the last year. The amount of unarmed Black people killed by police, as previously noted, in 2020 according to WaPo was 18 – about one death per 20 days.
The Pew Research Group conducted an extensive survey on public perception of the police. The results provide a window into the widening chasm between Republicans and Democrats on how they view police conduct vis-à-vis race. There are forty to fifty-point swings between how the parties believe Black people are treated by the police and the wider criminal justice system. The gaps are just as wide on other topics relating to systemic racism like the ability to get a loan, the existence of voter discrimination, and workplace equity.
Further, an overwhelming majority of police officers (86%) said that high-profile fatal encounters between Black people and police officers had made their jobs harder. Sizable majorities also said such incidents had made their colleagues more worried about safety (93%), heightened tensions between police and Blacks (75%), and left many officers reluctant to use force when appropriate (76%) or to question people who seemed suspicious (72%).
Recently, I watched a video of a panel on CNN mediated by anchor Aislyn Camerota that took place in the days after the shooting of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta in 2020. Emotions are understandably high. And Camerota is walking on eggshells with the panel while trying to express that all these incidents are unique and need to be analyzed on an a la carte basis. A CNN commentator, and I will spare her name, interrupts Camerota to justify Brooks’ stealing of the policeman’s taser. In one of the most embarrassing statements ever uttered on CNN, the commentator encourages people to resist arrest claiming, “Every time we don’t fight back, we die.”
We really have to ask ourselves: How responsible is the media for presenting false realities that lead to horrid outcomes? To what degree is right-wing media responsible for the reprehensible behavior of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year old white extremist, who crossed state lines with an AR-15 and shot and killed two people during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin?
To what degree does media attempt to keep us in a constant state of fear? To what degree does this fear contribute to irrational and violent behavior?
Daunte Wright Analysis
Well, as part of trying to understand that question, let’s examine the tragic fatal shooting of Daunte Wright, a twenty-year-old Black man who was killed in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on Sunday, April 12 by now-former policewoman Kim Potter just 10 miles from the courthouse hosting the Chauvin trial.
Officers initially pulled Wright overdue to expired tags on his license plate. The initial officer who approached Wright’s car, who is Black, asks for Wright's ID, returns to his vehicle to run his name, and subsequently discovers that Wright has an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Minnesota court records show that a warrant arrest was issued April 2 for a gross misdemeanor charge of carrying a pistol without a permit, and a misdemeanor charge for "fleeing a peace officer by a means other than a motor vehicle."
Separately, in December 2019, Wright was charged with first-degree aggravated robbery when he allegedly attempted to steal $820 from a woman at gunpoint. Wright was accused of breaking his bail conditions last July. Documents alleged that Wright was in possession of a gun and had failed to contact his bail officer.
The officer returns to the car to make a custodial arrest. It is unclear if he is aware of the nature of the warrant or Wright’s prior arrests.
Police body camera footage shows Wright exiting the driver's side door before the officer starts to place him in handcuffs. The officer clearly appears to be struggling to properly apply the cuffs. At this juncture, Officer Potter enters the frame, approaches Wright, and appears to pluck an insurance card from Wright’s side jacket pocket.
The officer handcuffing Wright pauses momentarily and appears to warn Wright. "Don't do it," he says before Wright swiftly pulls his hands from the officer's grasp and jumps back into the driver's seat of the car.
A frantic tussle ensues with police trying to subdue Wright and Wright flailing his limbs. From Potter’s bodycam footage, you can see that she is holding her firearm. She yells, "I'll tase you," followed by "Taser! Taser! Taser!"
She discharges one round into Wright’s chest. Both police officers appear to recoil in shock.
"Oh shit. I just shot him," Potter says.
Wright manages to close the door and speed off only to collide with another vehicle just blocks away. He died of the gunshot wound.
Just hours after the shooting, hundreds of protesters gathered in Brooklyn Center and clashed with police officers. State authorities reported that while some protesters were peaceful, many were not. At least 40 people were arrested in connection with the unrest. Officials also reported several instances of looting and burglaries.
Potter resigned two days later and was subsequently arrested and charged with second-degree manslaughter, essentially culpable negligence in Wright’s death.
The multiplicity of failures here that led to the worst possible outcome deserve significant analysis.
First off, let’s consider the methods and reasons behind the traffic stop. Many have wondered why Daunte Wright would even be pulled over in the first place.
Here is some background on traffic stops. Police pull over more than 50,000 drivers on a typical day. That is more than 20 million motorists every year. Traffic stops are the most common police interaction.
In 2015, The Stanford Open Policing Project began an effort to systemically collect data on traffic stops. To date, the project has collected and standardized over 200 million records of traffic stop and search data from across the country.
The website displays the rates at which police stop motorists in locations across the country relative to the population in those areas. I was unable to find data for Minneapolis but neighboring St. Paul was rated. In St. Paul, there are 22 stops for every 100 Black drivers and 7 stops for every 100 white drivers. While examining stop rates can be deceiving as traffic patterns can reflect different racial proportions than residency, it appears clear from the data that Blacks are pulled over three times more often than whites in St. Paul. This could indicate racial profiling or it might point to underlying conditions that lead to more traffic infractions by Black citizens like economic disparities that create additional burdens to get tail or brake lights fixed. Regardless, the data seems to suggest that Black people are simply targeted disproportionally for traffic stops.
It is also important to understand the process by which license plates are run by police in determining a traffic stop. Police vehicles have Automatic License Place Readers (ALPRs) which use cameras mounted on the dashboard to process license plates. There are also stationary cameras affixed to bridges, telephone poles, and highway signage. There’s a separate massive unexcavated privacy issue here which I may tackle at another time. I do not know if Wright’s stop was triggered by an alert emanating from an ALPR but, despite the privacy invasion, these machines are not susceptible to the racial profiling that has historically riddled many police departments.
Of course, whether cops should be making traffic stops at all for minor infractions is a legitimate question when fines could simply be mailed to the address associated with the registration.
Once Wright was pulled over, however, the police followed standard operating procedure in running his license for open warrants. Once they discover there is an open warrant, making an arrest is also within policy.
However, the arrest itself is stunningly mismanaged. The cop doesn’t move Wright to the back of the car or shut the door of the vehicle. Instead, he tries to cuff Wright next to the open driver’s side door and it appears as if the car is still running. This is almost an invitation for Wright to attempt an escape.
Once it becomes clear that Wright will resist arrest, the lack of hand-to-hand training is staggering. The most basic martial arts techniques would have allowed the cops to trip Wright or apply a safe hold, bring him safely to the ground and into compliance.
In a recent interview with Sam Harris, Rener Gracie, whose grandfather invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, describes in great depth techniques that he and his brother, Ryron, are teaching police departments across the country. There are effective, safe techniques that leverage both physics and basic physiology that can be employed prior to tools like tasers, batons, and firearms. Parenthetically, we, at Commune, just filmed an online course with the Gracie Brothers that demonstrate many of these techniques.
Something that is commonly misunderstood is that every time there is a scuffle between a civilian and a police officer, it is always a life-threatening situation because there is the presence of a gun. Training in martial arts and grappling techniques would have likely prevented the Wright incident from escalating. It certainly would have saved Rayshard Brooks, who wrestled two cops to the ground in a Wendy’s parking lot, stole a taser, and pointed it at an officer before being shot and killed.
But, instead of successfully immobilizing Wright, the tussle escalated. Of course, Wright’s resistance is the initial direct cause of this frantic melee.
Many white people, including myself, will watch this video with incredulity and ask, “Why would Wright resist arrest?” He’s not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. What possible upside or positive outcome could emerge from resistance? He’s not wanted for murder. Just go down to the station, call your parents and your lawyer and you’ll be fine. Just be rational.
Now I cannot remotely pretend to understand the lived experience of Black men so these comments are only conjecture. But it appears as if rational thought is not an option for Wright who seems to experience what is known as an amygdala hijack. His fight-or-flight response kicks in and his prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for reason and rational decision-making, is eclipsed by the sympathetic nervous system. Cortisol and epinephrine pulse through his body. But why?
I can only infer one answer. Daunte Wright believes his life is in danger. Many psychologists contend that people carry intergenerational somatic trauma. The violent history of the police that I briefly outlined earlier is emotionally embedded and resurfaces in times of stress. This might be a source of Wright’s resistance.
Further, I can only imagine how this feeling of existential menace is exacerbated by the media - particularly in Minneapolis over the past year. The persistent media narrative that Black people are getting shot and killed by the police at astronomical rates is arguably leading to the kind of irrational fear that leads to a greater prevalence of resisting arrest. This is one of the massively detrimental impacts of sensationalist, click-driven media.
What happens next is simply inexcusable. Kim Potter, who is a 26-year veteran of the police force, follows protocol in terms of warning Wright that he will be tased. And, in fact, she would have likely been within her rights if she had tased him, but, inexplicably, she shoots Wright with her gun.
The video seems to convey that she sincerely believes that she is holding her taser even though her firearm is worn on her strong hand and weighs a pound more. It appears clear that Potter is also lost in the moment, hijacked by her amygdala, and unable to think rationally. The difference between Potter’s lack of judgment and Wright’s is that she is supposed to be trained for these exact kinds of situations. While she may have accidentally discharged her weapon, clearly, Potter will need to be held accountable for her atrocious mistake.
I have watched the reactions of the Wright family and it is heart-wrenching. But, again, there seems to be confusion regarding whether or not this incident is based in racism or just utterly poor training. Certainly, the media coverage has framed it within the brackets of race as has the liberal Twitterverse. However, there is nothing explicitly said by Potter or anything that has surfaced in her police record that suggests that her actions would be steered by racial bias.
These questions may appear to point to an irrelevant distinction but I think that they speak to the heart of the culture war. Is the history of the country rooted in racism? Yes. Is the history of police entrenched in racism? For sure. Does data suggest that Black people are disproportionally arrested, harassed, and incarcerated? Yes. Was the shooting of Daunte Wright a race crime? There is no evidence to support that claim.
Part of eradicating racism is holding bad actors to account and redressing systems that produce inequity. And, at the same time, part of ridding the world of racism relies on using the term responsibly such that it is only leveraged where it truly exists. One of the great achievements of the civil rights movement was that it made being called a racist the worst possible insult. When the term is hurled around with abandon, it intensifies the kind of indignation and division that our country is experiencing.
The reckoning for racial justice that emerged last summer led to many positive developments. There were significant new police laws enacted all around the country that included the rescinding of no-knock warrants, the limitation of the use of tear gas, greater transparency with regards to complaint records, bodycam mandates, and the reallocation of funds toward social services.
Millions of white people became passionate and motivated in the fight for racial justice. People stopped to examine their implicit biases and engage in moral inventories around privilege and complicity. We questioned our white-authored historical narratives, learned new perspectives, and heard from strong, new amplified voices.
And now, in the wake of the Chauvin trial, there is a renewed confidence in due process and accountability.
While these positive developments are to be celebrated, there were also negative outcomes. In the weeks after Floyd’s murder, support for Black Lives Matter blossomed to unprecedented levels and opposition dipped drastically to 28%. But by the end of the summer, support had waned and opposition spiked. Of course, Trump’s narrative equating protesters with rioters and looters drove a lot of the disapproval.
There were approximately 9,000 protests over the course of the summer. The Guardian and other outlets have published articles that 93% of the protests were peaceful.
However, that still points to 630 protests that turned violent or destructive. Insurance claims connected to the riots from the 2020 protests have surpassed $1 billion. Hundreds of buildings and businesses were vandalized or torched. Neighborhoods were decimated. At least twenty-five Americans were killed during the protests.
Democratic political leaders were slow to denounce the violence. And, generally, riots and looting were not extensively covered by left-leaning outlets. The response from police was varied. In some cases, cops reacted violently, deployed tear gas, and beat people with batons. And, in other cases, cops stood by idly while retail stores got looted. And there are some instances where cops took a knee in solidarity.
The situations were all different and chaotic. But, as a general point, the left cannot seem to be intellectually honest about some of the violence that took place and, in some instances, seemed to justify it. In many of my conversations with conservatives, the inability of the left to acknowledge the riots and looting that took place is beyond infuriating.
These protests were the biggest in recorded history as approximately 40 million people took to the streets. The fact that this many people were inspired to stand shoulder to shoulder in massive crowds singing and chanting against the backdrop of a respiratory pandemic reflects the profundity of the frustration and depth of the passion. I was there with my children marching in Los Angeles.
However, the liberal media had been supporting lockdowns and social distancing for months – for good reason – exhorting people to “follow the science.” But, somehow, in June 2020, racial justice trumped science on the left. Again, there is a considerable segment of the left that finds zero hypocrisy in this. But if you’re wondering why so many Republicans think COVID is a hoax or won’t get the vaccine, well, one of the primary reasons is that they think the mainstream media is full of shit.
The sanctimony and virtue signaling on the left in response to maskholes, the epithet bequeathed to those refusing to don a mask, was magically suspended during the protests. How many people got COVID from these protests? I have no idea. But I do know that Black Americans are disproportionally impacted by COVID. Black people are 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized and 1.9 times more like to die from COVID in comparison to white people.
Among the greatest risks posed by the protests was the opportunity it gave Trump to win an election that he should have lost in a landslide. His presidency was quite literally a distillation of ineptitude. Over the summer of 2020, Trump re-established himself as the “law & order” candidate, the same nefarious positioning adopted by Nixon, Reagan, and even Bush with his Willie Horton ad.
Biden won the popular vote by 7 million votes. But he won the electoral college by 40,000 votes if you consider the cumulative margins of victory in Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia.
In the weeks after Floyd’s murder, Trump’s approval rating hit its nadir at 38%. By September, it had rebounded to 46%. Much of this can be attributable to the drumbeat of Defund or Abolish the Police coming from the activist left.
The precarity of Biden’s win should give sane people pause. While some of the policies under the aegis of Abolish the Police are worthy, the adoption of that brand as a primary plank of the party’s platform is a recipe for political death.
One only needs glimpse at Portland and Seattle to see what a dismal failure anarchy appears to be. In Seattle, faced with violent protests and neutered by political leadership, the Police Department boarded up its East precinct and abandoned it. The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) became an occupation protest and self-declared autonomous area that was established across 6 downtown city blocks.
Seattle Mayor, Jenny Durkan, initially referred to the occupation as a block party. USA Today dubbed it a mini-Burning Man referring to its vegan pop-up kiosks and art installations. Protesters – without any official leadership – united behind demands to cut the city police budget in half.
The scene in the CHAZ quickly devolved, however. Business owners, who are now suing the city of Seattle for abandonment, began complaining of encampments overtaking the sidewalks, roving bands of masked protesters smashing windows and looting, and young white men wielding guns and haranguing customers. Unprotected by police, businesses were forced to hire private security companies.
Over the course of 10 days, there were four shootings in the CHAZ which resulted in the deaths of two teenage Black men. Finally, on July 1, the mayor ordered the police to retake the zone.
Portland has experienced similar chaos in which the police department has been emasculated by a mayor seemingly petrified to stand up to activist orthodoxy. This has resulted in a year of nightly vandalism perpetrated by anarchists roaming the city. Just two weeks ago, Portland reported 3 nights of rioting, where groups protesting the killing of Daunte Wright lit fires, smashed the windows of businesses, a church, and the Oregon Historical Society.
While abolishing the police seems to be embraced by left-wing activists and some in the faculty lounge of private schools, it doesn’t appear that Black Americans support the policy. A Gallup poll conducted from June 23 to July 6, 2020 surveying more than 36,000 U.S. adults found that 61 percent of Black Americans said they'd like police to spend the same amount of time in their community, while 20 percent answered they'd like to see more police, totaling 81 percent.
Some liberals claim that “abolish the police” might be bad branding but the actual policies, like reallocating funds to social services, have broad support. Others want to literally eradicate the police.
What to Do?
In March, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House of Representative (again) without one Republican vote and it now stumbles into the senate where it will need to find 10 GOP senators to support it.
Here are some of its primary components: The act will expand access to policing data by establishing databases run by the Justice Department on police use of force and misconduct allegations. It will strengthen federal oversight over state and local law departments. It would make racial profiling illegal. It would limit no-knock warrants and chokeholds (though Rener Gracie argues forcefully that well-trained vascular restriction techniques can be a de-escalation tool). It limits the transfer of military goods like body armor, vehicles, grenades, and drone to police departments. And the bill mandates bodycams (though there are actually mixed results around their efficacy to curb police brutality).
One of the elements of the Act that is attracting the most attention is the rolling back of qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine that shields public officials from civil liability (i.e., monetary damages) unless their actions violate "clearly established law." It creates a very high burden for prosecutors to prove that the defendant violated the law in precisely the same way as a previous case.
Qualified immunity does not protect officials against criminal prosecution nor does it shield the government itself from suits arising from officials’ actions. The Floyd family was awarded a $27 million settlement from the city of Minneapolis.
Proponents of ending qualified immunity argue that it will deter cops from using deadly force. Opponents of the overturning the policy warn of an impending legal free-for-all as criminals would be courted by “ambulance chaser” lawyers working on spec.
The issue of municipal financial liability actually points to an unexpected method of policing the police. Most police departments must buy liability insurance to protect themselves from potential big payouts resulting from officer misconduct. Minneapolis may be able to shell out $27 million but most local departments would be forced to literally shutter in the face of a payment of that size so they need insurance.
These municipal insurers function similarly to other kinds of insurers. They want to avoid payouts at all costs. Hence, they apply considerable pressure on police departments. The insurance companies, in some cases, work to reform troubled departments. And, in other cases, insurers have been known to drop corrupt departments which have been subsequently forced to closed. For those truly interested in abolishing the police, an assault of civil suits against crooked departments may be an effective strategy.
This Floyd bill is generally well-founded but, in reality, fairly ineffectual since police departments are really local concerns. If we really want to better cops then it’s worth a glimpse into what they actually do.
There is simultaneously a glamorization and demonization of the police. On TV crime dramas, they are investigating bad guys and solving cases. On the news, they are often portrayed as abusing power in violent situations. The daily life of a cop is not remotely that scintillating.
According to a Washington Post report, police mostly spend their time on noncriminal matters, including patrol, paperwork, noise complaints, traffic infractions, and people in distress. Patrol officers, who make up most of police forces, spend about one-third of their time on random patrol running tags, one-fifth responding to non-crime calls, and about 17 percent responding to crime-related calls — the vast majority of which are misdemeanors. About 13 percent of their workday is devoted to administrative tasks and 9 percent to personal activities (such as eating). The remaining 7 percent of the time, officers are dealing with the public, providing assistance, problem-solving, and attending community meetings. A 2019 Vera Institute of Justice report found that fewer than 5 percent of arrests are related to serious violent crimes taking up about 4% of a cop’s time.
That’s right. Cops spend twice as much time eating as they do dealing with violent crime. This is where “unbundling” the police makes good sense. We should absolutely redirect some of their duties, as well as some of their funding, by hiring more of other kinds of workers to help with the homeless or the mentally ill, drug overdoses, minor traffic problems, and similar disturbances.
Law enforcement has often become a backstop for much of society’s ills, stretched thin, dealing with domestic disputes, or providing safety for schools. Both the police and their critics have questioned whether other types of workers would be better equipped for those duties.
But cops play a critical “on-demand” role in society. When we need them, we really need them. However, they are often ill-equipped to deal with those high-stress situations.
There has been much written about the lack of proper training. In California, a police officer is required to have 664 hours of training and often begins serving prior to the completion of those hours. That’s fewer than half the hours required to get a cosmetology or barber’s license and only 64 more than are needed to become an electrologist, removing unwanted hair through electrical treatments. In terms of continuing education, California cops only receive an additional 4 hours of training relating to violent crime every two years.
Consider a professional athlete like LeBron James for a moment. Not unlike a cop, James needs to perform in on-demand high-stress situations. He needs to remain calm and focused to drain the last-second shot with a hand in his face. While I realize a basketball game may be an imperfect analogy, think of how much preparation has gone into hitting that game-winning basket. Tens of thousands of hours in the gym, meditating, visualizing, practicing, and running simulations. And, still, he misses every once in a while
This is what our cops need. They need an hour of mixed martial arts training every week. Check out the study from the Marietta Police Department that instituted this training. These cops hurt fewer people and got hurt less. The department actually saved money in workmen’s comp. Meditation should also be obligatory for all cops. There should training in mindfulness – both in-person and on mobile apps – with the goal of providing cops with tools to keep them present in stressful moments. Cops need training in non-violent communication and implicit bias.
But is addressing the problem of racial inequity through an extensive focus on police reform equivalent to watering the leaves and not the roots?
There are 400 million guns in the United States. One in every three Americans personally owns a firearm. Is it any wonder that police sometimes err on the side of excessive violence? For every video of police using deadly force on unarmed victims, there is another video of a cop getting shot. Approximately 50 are killed per year. It’s all there disturbingly on YouTube.
And, of course, the overwhelming majority of homicides have little to do with the police. There were 20,000 gun homicides in 2020, the highest number in decades. It’s unclear if the surge is related to either low morale or skittishness in police departments but that is a viable theory. 2020 also marked a record year for gun sales (23 million guns were sold). In addition to the 20,000 fatal shootings, there were an additional 24,000 gun-related suicides.
The United States is not going to solve its violence problem until it solves its gun problem. The fact that conservatives claim to support cops but don’t support gun control is the confection of hypocrisy. And the country’s gun violence problem cannot be separated from race since 54.7% of homicide victims in 2019 were Black. If this country wants to address Black gun fatalities then this should be a primary focus of reform.
And while we’re at it, let’s officially end the war on drugs. It’s pretty clear we’re not going to police our way out of drugs. Just like we didn’t police our way out of prohibition. 16 states have fully legalized marijuana and dozens of other states are considering legislation. It’s time to parole all prisoners serving time for petty marijuana infractions. And let’s completely rescind mandatory minimums and give sentencing power back to judges.
The new Republican code word for disenfranchising minorities is “election integrity.” Republicans want to assure citizens that elections are truly legitimate in the wake of Trump’s ruse around election fraud. In 43 states across the country, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 250 laws that would limit mail, early in-person, and Election Day voting with such constraints as stricter ID requirements, limited hours, or narrower eligibility to vote absentee. These bills disproportionally impact dense urban areas that rely heavily on mail-in and early voting. Passing HR-1, the For the People Act, which expands voting rights should be an absolute priority.
And, of course, if we care about economic equity, let’s raise the federal minimum wage to $15. Eight democrats just voted against it. While poverty rates for Blacks dropped in 2019 to a historical low of 18.8%, the share of Blacks in poverty was still 1.8 times greater than their share among the general population. Blacks represented 13.2% of the total population in the United States, but 23.8% of the poverty population.
This is a lot of information but how could it not be. Racial inequality is multi-linear and endlessly complex.
Many of these solutions that I have enumerated address systems and institutions that feel enormous, bulky, and outside of our control. Of course, you can vote for candidates that will represent the aforementioned policies but that still can seem quite removed and gradual and leave you in a state of paralysis, wondering where you can serve the cause. And here’s where it’s important to remember your power. You possess one thing that you completely control and that everyone is vying for: your attention. As part of consciousness, you can focus it such that the true nature of reality is better known. Of course, we should keep up with the state of world affairs – preferably through rigorous inquiry and reading non-biased sources. But stay conscious of your beliefs and judgments because, when unconscious, your behavior is the product of the media you consume.
Tragic fatalities at the hand of the police create a frenzy among the media which leverages scandal to drive ratings and sell ads in the attention economy. The ceaseless broadcast of these horrific videos can shine a light on injustice. However, the media, in its quest for views, can distort reality, create unfounded fear and outrage, and distract attention from broader inequities. The media has also driven us to polar extremes and binary oppositions. In our pursuit to confirm our biases, we lose the ability to think critically. Our knee-jerk emotional reactions to events become responses to our judgment of those events and not to the events themselves. And this is true on the right and the left.
One of the most divisive implications of “The Great Awokening” is a tendency to whimsically hurl the insult of racism – not for any reprehensible act – but simply for political points or performative allyship. This inability to think critically does not propel us down the arc of the moral universe.
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