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The untold story of police officers in the age of Ferguson

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The despair over the growing list of unarmed black men killed by police officers is impossible to ignore. For months, protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country have made headlines, harnessed hashtags, and blocked traffic, yelling "black lives matter" and, more to the point, "don't shoot" and "stop killing us!"

But are police officers — the most obvious recipients of these pleas — getting the protesters' message? And if so, will the scrutiny of their peers' conduct, among activists and in the media, make a difference in the way they do their jobs?

If anyone would know the answers to these questions, it's Phillip Goff, a UCLA social psychology professor and racial bias expert. Goff is also the director of the UCLA's Center for Policing Equity, which is a partner in the Department of Justice's National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice — a three-year, $4.75 million partnership examining police behavior and the factors that erode trust between law enforcement officers and communities.

Here's what he had to say in a recent phone interview about the tensions he's observed within police departments, how increased scrutiny makes officers feel less safe, and why he believes their perspectives are persistently oversimplified in the high-profile debates with which we're now all too familiar.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: What are the chances that recent events in Ferguson or New York will make make police officers more cautious, simply because they don't want to be the next officer who's in the spotlight after a controversial killing of an unarmed black man?

Phillip Goff: There's not just a chance.  It's already happening.  One of the things that I've been hearing [through work with the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice Initiative] from chiefs is that they will go to a roll call or they'll meet with their personal supervisors and they're very concerned because they're hearing that, as officers are moving through their regular responsibilities, they're hesitating.

If you [as an officer] hesitate, it feels as if you are becoming weak and you are becoming more susceptible to getting killed on the job. If you hesitate when you're pulling your gun, that could be the end of your life. Chiefs are saying that makes them concerned for the safety of the men that they are supposed to govern ... they're generally concerned that the way the nation is talking about this is going to cost one or more of them their lives.

JDH: Along those lines, could this extra scrutiny make officers more aware of the implicit biases — the innate, subconscious bias that pretty much everyone carries  — they might hold (the idea that black men are threatening just because they're black, for example), and therefore make them less likely to act on these beliefs?

PG: I'm going to say this in the most loving way I know how: absolutely not.

First of all, that's not how implicit bias works. Being made aware of it is not a remotely effective technique for reducing implicit bias. We need to be able to uncouple the attitude from the behavior. Seeing yourself vilified doesn't help.

If I [a police officer] am now worried that the world thinks I am less legitimate, if I am now worried that the world thinks that I am racist, then I have no authority with which to control a situation. And if I don't feel I have authority, then I am inherently unsafe.

Here you can see one of the fundamental tensions in law enforcement. To keep officers safe, you say you have to trust your gut, but to improve racial outcomes, you have to say your gut isn't always right. This is something law enforcement for a long time has tried to wrestle with, and I don't think that anybody feels as if they've got the perfect solution.

JDH: So the attention to racially biased policing won't help potential victims of police killings, but it will make things worse for police officers?

PG: It's a very complicated thing. The attention on these issues is incredibly necessary for the production of a more democratic society and for who the heck we are as a nation.

I'm glad that we're getting the attention on the issue. And if you're not interested in doing an incredibly difficult job, you shouldn't sign up for law enforcement. Just because it got harder doesn't mean that I think that's the end of the story. That said, if law enforcement feels that they're second guessing themselves all the time, then law enforcement is in a more dangerous situation. You don't want that. You never want that.

But no, I wouldn't take away the national attention around these issues because that's the only way that anything is going to be done about the unnecessary deaths that we've been plagued with this year and for years previous.

JDH: The idea that scrutiny of law enforcement officers might make them less safe is surprising to hear. What else do you think would surprise people about the way police officers think, particularly when it comes to issues related to racial profiling and excessive force?

PG: That the conversation is far more reasonable than what we're allowed to see on television.  What we're allowed to see on television is the perspective of those whose job is to push back as hard as they possibly can to defend anything that an officer might do.

Part of it is that police frequently feel as if the community doesn't understand their job.  [They're thinking] I have a tool that keeps me safe.  I use the tool, and because you don't understand what happened, [you think] I shouldn't have access to that tool.

But in roll call after hours and in the conversations that I have with my officers, there's a lot of them that say some of these things are wrong, that some of these things are bad policy or bad policing or bad leadership. Some of them are saying, "I don't feel comfortable being represented by this."

That's not in every department. That's not every officer, but those internal conflicts within law enforcement are absolutely real. They're fundamental to the way in which an officer is approaching their job every single day. But we're not hearing about them, and our level of law enforcement literacy as a nation is so low it wouldn't make a difference.

JDH: Why do you think law enforcement literacy is so low?

PG: Remember when we're hearing from the police union, when we're hearing from the commissioner, from the public relations office, these are the people whose full-time job is to represent the legal interests of the rank and file. For example, you may have a group of black police officers who feel very differently than the union does, but those folks don't have bargaining power. They don't have the political power that the official bargaining union does. There are internal tensions and, of course, that matters.

There's a need to demonstrate unity within a profession that is so often maligned and so often misunderstood. In law enforcement, if you're an officer on the street, or on a beat, one of the things you get used to is not trusting the people who are in charge to actually have as good an understanding of what you're going through.

JDH: Tell me more about what you've learned talking to these officers who aren't in public relations or leading departments and unions.

PG: It's incredibly useful to hear the perspectives of others because, as someone who's only worked on the outside of law enforcement, I have been profoundly changed in my mindset as a result of being able to hear the candid conversation with other folks in law enforcement [through work with the Center for Equity in Policing]. It's just like how, if they knew [more about the African-American] community, they would know how we feel.

Now I know law enforcement as a community. As a result, I have some empathy for the things they're going through that are incredibly difficult and sometimes even profoundly unfair. But [law enforcement] are not good at talking to who our audience is. We're good at talking to [people who are] where we are. That's not the right story.  That's not the right set of facts, and, also, it's also not very likely to end clearly when I'm talking to someone who lives in the community that feels more occupied by law enforcement than served by it.  You need to have a translator.

So, the research [of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice] is exciting. There are unanticipated outcomes. The magnitude cannot be overstated. But the research is only a lever for broader social and cultural change. The thing that I find most inspiring and most useful is we're finding a way to get people who want to do the right thing to work together. That is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and the fact that we're getting traction there is one of the most rewarding things I will ever do in my life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.