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Does Diversifying Police Forces Reduce Brutality Against Minorities?


When we talk about reducing violence by police against communities of color, one common proposal is to integrate the force so that race is no longer a dividing line between officers and the communities they serve. But does that work? Our co-host Noel King posed that question to Rashawn Ray, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies the intersection of race and policing.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Does diversifying a police force, does adding Black and brown officers to a police force, reduce the number of incidents of police brutality against people of color?

RASHAWN RAY: In short, no. So while diversifying police departments is important, oftentimes what happens is that people conflate race with place. Let's take Washington, D.C., on one hand, and then on the other hand, let's take Phoenix. In the Washington, D.C., area, there is a high percentage of Black officers. However, those officers are trained the exact same way that other officers are. Similar to being in Phoenix - if there is a high percentage of Latino officers, they are trained the exact same way.

And I think there are two important points. First point - we find that officers, regardless of their race or gender, have similar implicit biases, particularly about Black people. The second thing is simply because a person is black or Latino does not mean that they are invested in the neighborhoods that they're serving.

KING: You mentioned that all police officers are at risk of having some form of implicit bias, especially against Black Americans. What kind of biases do police officers - implicit, explicit - say that they have?

RAY: We have an extensive training program at LASSR, and we take police officers through it.

KING: Tell me what LASSR means.

RAY: So LASSR is the Lab for Applied Social Science Research. It's at the University of Maryland and includes a series of surveys on computers, including implicit association tests from Harvard. So we have a lot of data. Couple of things really come out of that.

The first big thing is that when officers take the implicit association test, they exhibit bias against Black people. They are more likely to make an association between Black people with weapons than they are with white people with weapons. We also know that officers speak less respectfully to Black people during traffic stops, as well as during other sorts of settings. And they are particularly less likely to respect Black women in these encounters, even if they're more likely to slightly use more force on Black men, relative to other people.

KING: I want to dig in now to what you said about race and place. I was recently in Minneapolis reporting on the aftermath of George Floyd's killing. And I was talking to a former police officer whose job is now to recruit more Black and brown police officers into that force. It sounds like what you're saying is, if she is recruiting Black and brown officers from Phoenix or from Houston and bringing them over to Minneapolis, that is not likely to solve the problem.

RAY: That's exactly right. So the optics look good, but we can't make the assumption that simply because a person is black, that they're going to know about the neighborhood.

Part of the fundamental problem when it comes to policing that I've noticed is that when police officers interact with a white person, there is a pause, a slight pause, a slight benefit of the doubt. The reason why that exists is because, subconsciously, implicitly, when they interact with that person, they see their neighbor, a parent at their kids' school. And when they interact with a black person, they are less likely to have what we call in sociology those social scripts that allow them to view people in those multitude of ways.

And if we're going to change this - one big recommendation I have - police officers need housing assistance that mandates that they live in the metropolitan area where they are policing because community policing isn't about getting out, playing basketball with a kid in your uniform; community policing oftentimes is what you do when you're not on duty, the way that you're invested in a neighborhood.

KING: I want to ask you about some of the solutions that our lawmakers and that our president have suggested. So President Trump just signed an executive order supporting a ban on chokeholds. Is that going to work?

RAY: No, and this is why - if people look at the specific language, it said, except in those situations where the use of deadly force is allowed by law. What I heard is chokeholds are going to still be ruled as justifiable because what people don't understand, that when an officer is involved in an officer-involved shooting and kills someone, that in less than 2% of the time are charges brought forth and in less than 2% of those cases is an officer convicted; in other words, about 99% of the time, nothing happens. So that's not going to move the needle there in terms of what's happening.

Now, in the executive order that Trump handed down, one very promising thing that I've been pushing for as well is to deal with bad apples. I talk about how bad apples come from rotten trees, that they're not dealt with. Well, what's in that executive order will deal with them because the clause there is really important. It says not only are we going to put a list of officers who have been terminated for police misconduct, but also officers who are under investigation for police misconduct and resign. That happens a lot.

KING: You've talked a bit about the way police officers are trained being part of the problem. What kind of training would you like to see implemented in officer training that you think would reduce the amount of police brutality?

RAY: I think the bottom line and when it comes to training - that training needs to coincide with the experiences and the interactions that officers have every single day. Most police recruits spend about 60 hours on how to shoot a firearm, but they only spend eight hours learning how to de-escalate situations. But 9 out of 10 encounters that officers have on a daily basis are simply by having a conversation and do not start off being violent, similar to what we've seen with Rashard Brooks in Atlanta. They talked for 40 minutes.

KING: Yeah, for 40 minutes.

RAY: And so what will it look like to transform that? Well, I think that the virtual reality training that we've developed, that puts officers in situations they encounter every day. And then what we do is we vary the race and gender of the person they encounter, and then we're able to give them feedback to tell them, well, when you encountered this person, you did this first, and when you encountered person B, you did something different. That then allows for us to tailor an implicit bias training for specific departments.

If you have some sort of catch-all implicit bias cause that lasts for two hours, you're going to be missing the main problems that's happening on a local level because law enforcement happens locally.

KING: Rashawn Ray, sociologist at the University of Maryland and fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you so much for taking the time today.

RAY: Thank you for having me.