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The news has been full of stories in recent years about police killing unarmed African-Americans. Those reports have been disturbing.
The nation watched video of Eric Garner repeat over and over again, “I can’t breathe,” as New York City police put him in an apparent choke hold to arrest him.
In Baltimore, Freddie Gray died after being arrested and thrown in the back of a police van.
In Cleveland, video captured images of 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he was shot by a Cleveland officer.
And in Ferguson, Missouri, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead in the street.
That shooting in the summer of 2014 led to 17 days of protests.
Outraged people marched in and around the St. Louis suburb carrying signs which read “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Night after night they faced a huge police presence. On both sides, it was not always peaceful.
These events and others have increased racial tensions in cities across the nation in a way not seen since the 1960s.
One woman in Ferguson, who only gave her name as Keyla, explained that summer why so many people protested this latest shooting death.
“I believe it was because you’ve had so many within maybe the last two years. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like, this is it. I’m done. I’m tired. Something needs to be done,” she said.
Nearly two years later, Ferguson residents are still concerned that police are too quick to shoot unarmed black people.
On a recent spring night, people lined up to attend a city hall meeting. As usual, there were more people than seats. Police used metal detectors to scan everyone who entered until capacity was reached.
Winfred Cochrell has been speaking out at city hall meetings again and again because he thinks racial bias might have been behind the shooting of Michael Brown.
“Stop looking at me, the color of my skin, judging me. Everybody stop. Just stop. And let’s figure this out,” he said to city council members, adding, “We got to make things better for each other.”
Cochrell was trying to persuade the Ferguson City Council to accept a Department of Justice agreement to better train officers to work with the community.
The Ferguson officials were resisting because of concerns about the cost. A week later, the council did approve the agreement, joining about 20 other cities operating under the supervision of the U.S. Justice Department.
The largest police force – one of the 50 departments at the Ferguson protests – is the St. Louis County Police Department. The County Police Department leads the area’s police academy. Although his department is not required to, Police Chief Jon Belmar has been talking with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services about how police could have handled police actions better during the protests.
Belmar told reporters he asked the feds, “Well, where do we focus the areas?”
They discussed policy and procedures regarding the shooting, and a review of “after actions” concerning the protest.
That “after action” by police was highly criticized.
A report from the Department of Justice found police actions inflamed tensions by deploying dogs, putting snipers on armored tactical vehicles, and inappropriately deploying tear gas without warning.
The Department of Justice is also encouraging “bias-free policing.”
Some researchers believe this different kind of police training can reduce the number of shootings of unarmed people of color.
This fairly recent idea is based on research which first appeared in a Florida State University study. It found some people have an implicit or unconscious racial bias.
“I think that there’s implicit bias research and shooter bias research that make it clear that there is a majority of people, disproportionately white, that view black people as a danger, as a threat, as a body that needs to be controlled,” explained Blanche Cook, an assistant professor of law at Wayne State University.
That “shooter bias” research found during computer simulations, some officers were initially more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.
But Cook says the researchers also found with extensive training, officers were able to eliminate the bias. It can be reversed once it’s recognized.
“If the flip side of the argument is that people cannot control their implicit bias, then that means they can’t educate us, they can’t police us, they can’t ever have any kind of authority over us because they’re going act on that implicit bias at a subconscious level and never be able to control it and we simply can’t have that kind of world,” Cook said.
Back in Ferguson, Missouri, talking just outside city hall, Winfred Cochrell said beyond police shootings, he thinks there’s a larger matter for the nation to discuss.
“My thoughts of it is it’s time to finally put the big issue on the table: race. We keep avoiding it like the plague. It’s time to talk about it. It really is. We need to sit down and have this conversation. It’s long overdue,” Cochrell said.
That’s a conversation that’s desired by many African-Americans across the nation.
Kwasi Akwamu is an activist, small business owner, and former journalist in Detroit.
“There’s never been a period when we’ve never been lynched, we’ve never been slain in the streets for suspicion of an act. You know, the lynchings and the accusations of rape, those things are part of our history. It hasn’t changed. It’s just changed form,” Akwamu said.
He believes the recent protests are not a new black uprising. They are African-Americans continuing a struggle they’ve been fighting for a very long time.
“They come from the ‘60s and ‘70s. You know, we struggled against brutality. This is not the first era of the struggle against police brutality and violence,” he said.
The racism that causes that struggle is never fully discussed by the nation as a whole.
And all evidence indicates the struggle is not over. That’s especially true in predominantly white suburbs with growing black populations. The racial make-up of the police force often does not reflect the racial make-up of the community.
Blanche Cook at Wayne State says that implicit bias, the unconscious bias, of some white people leaves them wary of people of color.
“You’ve got people who feel threatened by black and brown bodies,” Cook said.
Much of white America’s vision of home has been predominantly white people of a certain class. That’s been dramatically changing in some suburbs over the last couple of decades.
“They feel particularly threatened when they’re seeing their world become more diverse. Their workplaces are becoming more diverse. Their neighborhoods are becoming more diverse. Their communities are becoming more diverse. And their claims to supremacy are also being challenged,” Cook said.
Getting to the heart of society’s issues with race can’t be solved by retraining police alone. But, the police might be the most important starting point.
Cook says testing police applicants for implicit bias might be considered. She suggests when there are killings by police, special investigators should be appointed, as well as special prosecutors, and perhaps special grand jurors. Cook sees a conflict of interest when law enforcement investigates law enforcement and when law enforcement prosecutes law enforcement.
The larger issue is this: Americans have to honestly come to grips with the racial tension, white attitudes toward black and brown people. If that doesn’t happen, the nation is doomed to see a repeat of these cycles of unarmed people of color being killed and outraged citizens taking to the street because there seems to be no other way to make the powerful listen.
“Until we deal with the way in which white supremacy, racism, and implicit bias frames the way in which we look at the world around us, we’re going to continue replicating this problem again and again and again,” Cook concludes.
Assistance with the report came from St. Louis Public Radio.
Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.
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