More police departments are undertaking serious changes as they face scrutiny from protesters around the country and the federal government, but critics of police say these reforms fall far short of curing the legal and racial problems tied to excessive use of force against black men.
On Tuesday, Cleveland announced an agreement to adopt sweeping changes to its police department following a scathing report by the US Department of Justice that found a pattern of excessive use of force. But activist Shaun King gave a concise explanation for why these types of agreements may not get to the root of the problem behind racial disparities in police use of force, which have become part of a contentious nationwide debate about law enforcement following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore:
I am reading the consent decree between the @CLEpolice and the DOJ now, and I still submit I have one MAJOR problem with it....— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) May 26, 2015
The consent decree emphasizes how police violence must be "lawful," but the LAW completely allows/protects almost ALL police violence.— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) May 26, 2015
As long as it's legal for police to IMAGINE a black threat, completely disconnected from fact, consent decrees WILL NOT slow police violence— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) May 26, 2015
King is speaking to two conflicting issues: police are given wide legal latitude to use deadly force when they reasonably perceive a threat, but police may be more likely to perceive a threat against black suspects due to underlying racial biases.
A growing body of research has found that subconscious racial biases may make police more likely to shoot and kill black men. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
At the same time, two Supreme Court rulings in the 1980s established legal guidelines that allow police to use deadly force when they reasonably perceive a threat, even if a threat isn't actually present. Police and their supporters say this wide legal standard is necessary so cops don't hesitate during split-second decisions and get hurt or killed. But it's drawn disapproval from critics of police, who say the loose standards give cops a license to kill innocent or unarmed people.
So police are only required to reasonably perceive a threat to use deadly force, but, based on the research, the threat they perceive may be more about race than about whether a suspect is really carrying a gun. The only way to fix that conflict may be to make it more difficult for police to legally use force, or to find a way to curtail and control subconscious racial biases. Agreements between the Justice Department and local police forces don't seem likely to accomplish either of those goals.