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The Sociology of Police Violence (Racism Isn't the Problem)

This is informative (much more so than the "cops are racist" blather on social media), from the always insightful Randall Collins (Penn); it sheds lights on both why people dislike the police, and the situational and social variables that incline the police towards violence.  Some excerpts:

[3] Police dislike defiance. Jonathan Rubinstein (1973), a sociologist who joined the Philadelphia police in order to study their everyday life (similar to Peter Moskos in the Baltimore PD 30 years later), found that their number-one priority is to be the person in control in all encounters with civilians. For the most part, a cop is out there alone, or with a single partner; they are almost always outnumbered by civilians. Particularly in areas where they know they are unpopular, they feel it is imperative to not let things get out of control. They want to be the one who starts and ends the encounter, who sets the speaking turns (micro-sociology of conversation), who sets the rhythm of the interaction. Acts of defiance, whether micro-actions on the level of voice and gesture, or more blatant words and body movements, will cause a cop to increase their own aggressiveness in order to maintain dominance (Alpert and Dunham 2004). This a reason why trivial encounters with the police can escalate to violence far beyond what seems called for by the original issue.

[3a] Inner-city black code of the street emphasizes defiance. Elijah Anderson’s ethnography of black street life (1999; also Krupnick and Winship 2015) point out that in dangerous areas, where the police are distrusted, most people adopt a stance of being hyper-vigilant about threats and disrespect, and portray themselves as ready to use violence. Anderson says this is mostly a Goffmanian frontstage, a pretence at being tough designed to avoid being victimized. When dealing with the police, this leads to another vicious circle. Black people, particularly on their home turf, are more defiant of police than are whites; often this is no more than a confrontational way of talking, but these are micro-interactions that arouse police aggressiveness. Anderson notes that one reason people in the ghetto are wary of calling police is that they themselves may end up being arrested, because of the tone of these micro-interactions. Donald Black (1980), who pioneered observer ride-alongs in police cars, found that police arrested black suspects more than whites, but this happened when black people were defiant, which was more often than whites....

[Effects of adrenaline]  In interviews (reported by Nassauer and others), police say they can see the crowd is divided between peaceful demonstrators and a small number of trouble-makers; but when the situation boils over, the crowd is infected by the violent ones. --This is how the police perceive it; what happens is that the panic of the crowd running away puts the police in an over-the-top rush of adrenaline in which their own perception is narrowed. When police rush forward, they become likely to strike those who have fallen down, or are screaming uncontrollably. The content of what people are saying is lost; all that is heard is the sounds and sights of out-of-control people. Since the police are trained to operate as a unit, officers who rush forward with their comrades tend to imitate what they do; if they are striking someone on the ground, it must be for good reason, and they will join in or protect them.

I have called this “forward panic” because it is like a panic flight where the overwhelming emotion of the crowd increases individuals’ adrenaline level; but in this case, the adrenaline is driving them forward, towards an easy target who have their backs turned, running away or falling down....

[6] Police training for extreme situations. Police training tends to emphasize the worst-case scenarios. Knowing that firing in real-life situations is encumbered by high adrenaline, weapons instructors tell them to aim middle-mass-- the center of the body; don’t try to shoot for extremities like arms or legs (the cowboy movie myth of shooting a gun out of someone’s hand never happens). The result is, police shootings tend to be deadly. Emphasis also is on rapid reaction; in the worst-case scenario, the suspect is armed and dangerous; you have to train your muscle memory to react as quickly as possible....

Another process that enhances the atmosphere of worst-case scenarios is police communications. When police call for backup, they tend to emphasize the danger of the situation. When the call is propagated more widely, the message is propagated just as rumors are: the distinctive elements are dropped out as the message is repeated. A man on a highway overpass threatening suicide by jumping, will get transformed into the cliché-- suicidal and threatening to take someone else with him -- into armed and dangerous. This is how individuals end up getting shot dozens of times by an aroused network of converging cop cars....

Lesson: police training needs to be drastically reformed. And training for police dispatchers, as well as from one police car to another, needs to be instructed on how rumors are formed; and procedures to avoid inflammatory worst-case clichés.

[7] Racism among police. Some cops are racists. How many are there, and what kind of racists they are, needs better analysis. What kind? There is a difference between white supremacists of the pre-1960s period; stereotyping racists who think most black people are potential criminals; situational racists who react to black people in confrontational situations with fear and hostility; casual racists who make jokes. These aren’t insoluable questions; if ethnographers followed people around in everyday life and observed what they talked about and how they behaved in different situations, we would have a good picture. And there still remains the further question, does one or another degree of racism explain when police violence happens?

My estimate is that racism among police is less important a factor than the social conflicts and situational stresses outlined in points [1-6]. To put it another way, if we got rid of racist attitudes, but left [1-6] in place, how much would police violence be reduced? Very little, I would predict.

He concludes with suggestions about how to remedy the main problems.

(Thanks to Howard Berman for the pointer.)

ADDENDUM:  Racism is real and comes in different varieties, as Professor Collins notes above.   Stupidity is real too, and often manifests itself with reckless use of the label "racist".   As various readers and Twitter followers have pointed out to me, some of the usual deranged Twitterati--Jonathan Flowers (Worcester State), Christa Peterson (Southern California), and Joshua Stein (Calgary)--have all decided that the ethnographic work of sociologist Elijah Anderson, referenced above by Professor Collins, is "racist."  God save us (and the profession) from these malevolent fools.

Originally appeared at: Leiter Reports