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How systemic racism entangles all police officers — even black cops

Neill Franklin is a black man. But he'll admit that after decades of working at the Baltimore Police Department and Maryland State Police, he harbored a strong bias against young black men.

Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the war on drugs, previously explained, "When I'd see a young black male in a particular neighborhood, or his pants were sagging a little bit, or he walked a certain way … my first thoughts were, 'Oh, I wonder if he's selling drugs.'"

As the media has increased its scrutiny of police killings of black men, some of the cases have involved black police officers. Following the police shooting of Sylville Smith in Milwaukee, the police chief — and many of the police's most ardent defenders — were quick to point out that it wasn't just the 23-year-old victim who was black, but the 24-year-old police officer, too.

This has led to some questions about whether racial bias is really at play: Can a black cop be racist against his own racial group?

But social psychologists and criminal justice experts say this question fundamentally misunderstands how institutional racism affects everyone, regardless of race. Racial bias isn't necessarily about how a person views himself in terms of race, but how he views others in terms of race, particularly in different roles throughout his everyday life. And systemic racism, which has been part of the US since its founding, can corrupt anyone's view of minorities in America.

In the case of police, all cops are dealing with enormous cultural and systemic forces that build racial bias against minority groups. Even if a black cop doesn't view himself as racist, the way policing is done in the US is racially skewed — by, for example, targeting high-crime neighborhoods that are predominantly black.

These policing tactics can also create and accentuate personal, subconscious bias by increasing the likelihood that officers will relate blackness with criminality or danger — leading to what psychologists call "implicit bias" against black Americans.

Combined, this means the system as a whole — as well as individual officers, even black ones — by and large act in ways that are deeply racially skewed and, potentially, racist.

"The culture of policing is one that's so strong that it can overwhelm individual racial differences," L. Song Richardson, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, previously told me. "People are cops first, and they're their race second."

Police enforce the law in a racially skewed manner

Police detain a black man in Ferguson, Missouri.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

A lot of US police work is inherently racially biased. Cops are told to patrol predominantly poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods that are so segregated that most of the residents are black. And since police are mostly present in these neighborhoods, most of the arrests and actions they take end up impacting a disproportionate numbers of black people.

"When departments concentrate enforcement efforts, for example, in high-crime areas, those areas are likely to be areas with disproportionate numbers of minority residents," David Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford Law School, previously told me. "That means minority residents of the community are getting policed more intensely than people that live in other neighborhoods that have smaller proportion of minority residents and lower crime rates."

But police aren't just disproportionately deployed in predominantly black neighborhoods; they're also encouraged to arrest and ticket as many people as possible while on the job. For example, many police departments still use the number of arrests and tickets as a measure for evaluating individual police officers for raises and promotions.

Coupled with disproportionate deployment in minority communities, these incentives effectively encourage cops to stop and arrest minority residents in large numbers.

"Our criminal justice system and different aspects of our criminal justice system are racist in application," Franklin, the retired police major, said. "Even if there was no intent in the design for racism, we've gotten to a place where it's the result of our policies."

The disproportionate enforcement in black neighborhoods helps explain broader disparities across the US justice system. For example, black Americans are much more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, even though they're not much more more likely to use or sell drugs.

drug use and arrests Joe Posner/Vox

Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Racial Justice Program, previously told me this type of racially disparate enforcement is what caused so many problems in Ferguson, Missouri, where a scathing Justice Department investigation uncovered a pattern of racial bias in the local police force following the police shooting of Michael Brown.

In Ferguson, cops were pressured by the city government to raise as much revenue as possible by ticketing residents. Since they were most active in neighborhoods that are predominantly black, these residents were targeted at hugely disproportionate rates: Ferguson is about 67 percent African-American, but from 2012 to 2014, 85 percent of people stopped, 90 percent of people who received a citation, and 93 percent of people arrested were black.

"It's not necessarily what's happening with one police officer," Parker said. "There are structural reasons for this happening."

Nationally, the racial inequities in this type of enforcement — from arrests to shootings — aren't solely explained by high crime in black communities, either.

A review of the research by the Sentencing Project concluded that throughout various time periods in the past few decades, the higher crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons. This means that up to 39 percent of the racially disparate rate of imprisonment is attributable to other factors, including, potentially, racial bias or past criminal records influencing a prison sentence.

Another study, from 2015, by researcher Cody Ross found, "There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates." That suggests that, again, other factors — particularly racial bias in police stops or use of force — are involved in the disparities seen for these shootings.

What's more, Sklansky said inequities in law enforcement can create "a vicious cycle" in which black residents are fearful of police, making them more likely to display discomfort around cops, which in turn makes officers more likely to perceive black residents as suspicious.

"Part of the way police patrol is to look for people who look like they're acting suspicious," Sklansky said. "So even a police officer who tries not to be racist can wind up giving more of his attention and having more of his suspicion directed to members of minority groups than to white citizens."

Individual cops are conditioned to discriminate against black people

A woman faces off with police officers during the Baltimore riots.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Of course, racism can and often does show up at the individual level. Some of this may be explicit — like in North Miami Beach, Florida, where police officers used mug shots of black people as target practice. But very often, this type of racism culminates at the implicit level, where people's subconscious biases guide their choices even when they're not fully aware of it.

Over time, police officers are effectively conditioned toward implicit bias. When cops are thrown into situations every day in which black people are viewed as criminal suspects, they begin to identify people's race as an indicator for crime and danger.

"Just by virtue of watching the news every night you learn the unconscious bias, because you will always see young black men being connected to criminality," Richardson of the UC Irvine School of Law said. "Police officers are engaging in proactive policing in urban neighborhoods that may be majority nonwhite. And as a result, they're constantly practicing the association of nonwhite with crime."

But it can get even more complicated, Richardson said, because stops of innocent people can still reinforce implicit bias. "If [a cop] were to frisk someone and find no evidence of criminal activity, what he's likely to say to himself is, 'Oh, well, this guy's guilty, he just got away with it this time,' thereby strengthening the association and affecting his memory of the event later," she said. "In that messed-up way, he actually strengthens his unconscious bias."

"in many ways the color blue becomes more important than black and white"

A review of the research on implicit bias, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and California State University Northridge, found police officers possess this type of subconscious bias, although it's less pronounced than the general public's bias in use-of-force simulations.

Josh Correll, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, tested these biases through a video game simulation in which people were tasked with quickly identifying whether virtual suspects possessed a weapon and should, as a result, be shot. The results: Subjects of all races were quicker to shoot black suspects compared with white ones.

Correll explained to Jenée Desmond-Harris for Vox, "We think this represents an awareness of a cultural stereotype — not that our participants believe necessarily that black men are more dangerous than white men, but by virtue of movies they watch, music they listen to, etc., they're getting the idea that black male goes with violent. The group and the idea are linked together in their minds whether they agree with that stereotype or not."

It's also possible that being a police officer and integrating into the culture of the job could make a cop, even a black one, racist.

Adam Waytz, a social psychologist at Northwestern University's Kellogg of School of Management, pointed to the concept of "de-individuation," which says that people lose their sense of self-awareness while in groups. This changes the self-identity of all police officers, regardless of race. So black cops may think of themselves as members of the police department rather than members of a certain race while on duty, making it easier for them to act in ways that discriminate against members of their own race.

"When you're talking about police interactions, in many ways the color blue becomes more important than black and white," Parker of the ACLU said. "People identify more with their role as a police officer and all of the cultural things that entails more than their race."

There are no perfect solutions to institutional racism

A man gestures the shape of a heart in front of police in Baltimore.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Given how deeply ingrained racism has been in America throughout history, none of these problems will likely go away in the foreseeable future. But there are things police departments can do to diminish the effects of racial biases.

Awareness can go a long way by forcing police officers to consider and try to control their own biases. Waytz pointed to research that found National Basketball Association referees became less racially biased once their propensity to call more fouls on black players were exposed by previous studies and widespread media coverage. This indicates, Waytz said, that racial bias can be diminished through awareness.

But awareness can also backfire. Richardson of the UC Irvine School of Law pointed to what's called "stereotype threat," which can lead people to act out in dangerous ways if they're nervous about reinforcing stereotypes attributed to a group they belong to. Preliminary results from unpublished studies, she said, have found that if a cop is aware of the stereotype that cops are racist, he may get nervous about reinforcing that stereotype during encounters with black suspects — and that increased anxiety may make him more likely to use force.

Awareness can force cops to consider and control their own biases

As another step, Richardson suggested that police officers may be able to diminish their own implicit biases by taking greater steps to engage and interact with the community in ways that aren't inherently confrontational. If police are exposed to the daily lives of black residents in a very personal way, they may come to realize — particularly at a subconscious level — that they shouldn't associate blackness with crime or danger.

Training could also help diminish some racial biases. But Richardson emphasizes that this training shouldn't just focus on split-second decisions about whether to use force, but rather more slow-taking decisions about whether a police officer should make a stop that could lead to a use-of-force scenario.

For example, in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, better training may have pushed former police officer Darren Wilson to not stop Brown for a petty crime like jaywalking — and, as a result, avoid the escalating circumstances that led Wilson to shoot Brown to death.

"The time frame that I want to look at is how that interaction began in the first place," Richardson explained. "So if they're about to stop and frisk someone, maybe they should slow down first and ask themselves, 'Would I find this behavior suspicious if the person were a young white man instead of a young black man?'"

Creating more diverse police forces can also help police departments build trust, according to Sklansky of Stanford University. "There's less likely to be an us-and-them attitude between police and the community," he said. "A diverse department can still have problems keeping the trust or even gaining in the first place the trust of minority communities, but it's likely to have fewer problems than a department that's monolithically white or doesn't reflect the demographics of the community."

More broadly, new policies and reforms could help address the problems that lead to systemically skewed enforcement. Policies could be reformed to put less emphasis on arrests for petty crimes, which could help diminish some of the day-to-day harassment black communities experience at the hands of police. And businesses and lawmakers could do more to invest in impoverished neighborhoods to address the socioeconomic issues that make certain places more prone to crime.

But while all of these ideas could all lead to improvements, they most likely won't eliminate all racial biases in police departments.

"Nothing solves racism completely," Sklansky said. "Racism in general is a deeply entrenched problem in all societies, including America's. We've made enormous strides in the United States in confronting that problem in some ways but not in others."