Warriors vs. Guardians

More than 1,000 attendees from around the country tuned in on June 10 for “Race, Police and Unarmed Civilian Deaths: What Can Be Done?”—a virtual conversation featuring David Harris, the Sally Ann Semenko Professor of Law at Pitt, and a national expert on the intersection of race and police shootings.

Harris has recently spoken about George Floyd’s death and how it has impacted police forces for CNN and Newsweek, in addition to Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.

The event was another installment of #CRSPcast, a series of virtual talks hosted by Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP) that initially dealt with conversations about race and COVID-19. But, after what CRSP Director James Huguley described as “a couple of harrowing weeks” for Black people, the CRSP team decided to pivot to the timely topic of fatal police encounters, such as the one in Minneapolis on May 25 that took the life of Floyd.

Co-hosting the event was John Wallace, professor and senior faculty fellow at CRSP. 

The entire discussion is embedded above, but here are some highlights:

What the data show

The number of fatal police shootings across the country stands at about 1,000 a year, and according to Harris, is not fluctuating that much, despite police reforms in some cities. This number reflects fatal police shootings of armed and unarmed civilians, but does not take into account police kneeling on people’s necks, shots that wound people, use of tasers or other non-lethal force. 

In fact, Harris says the Department of Justice keeps little data on these incidents because they cannot force local police departments to submit it. So, better sources for the numbers are media giants like The Washington Post and The Guardian, who jointly started compiling data on fatal police shootings five years ago. Harris also says there’s a “definite racial skew” on whom police force is used, with the rate of Black Americans fatally shot by police more than twice the rate for Whites. A recent report stated that in Minneapolis, police use force on Black folks at seven times the rate they use it on Whites.

Race and fear: a toxic mix

Social psychologists have blazed a new path in studying implicit bias over the past 20 years and research shows that when study subjects are shown images of weapons and then a group of mixed-race people, their eyes go to the Black faces. 

“Think about how that would impact an interaction between a police officer and a person of color,” Harris said. Not only do Black people fear police confrontations, said Harris, but fear on the part of the officer is very much a part of police culture. He said that while officers train to overcome that fear, they often get into the mindset of being a warrior on the street to protect people from vicious predators.

Warriors vs. guardians

Rather than be a warrior, Harris said it would benefit officers to think of themselves as guardians of the public, protecting a community’s peace and tranquility. He’d like to see police forces adopt a different mental attitude—thinking of themselves to serve and help and to stop thinking of the citizenry as adversaries. 

Wallace asked what the barriers are to this happening and Harris explained that many police have had an “us-versus-them” mentality for so long, and that attitude is what can prevent real change. Harris said cops are known to say, “It’s not a racial thing. It’s a blue thing. People don’t understand what we do.” 

When asked by Huguley about how real accountability can be built into police reforms, Harris said the public needs to stay on top of it, keep going to meetings, keep the political pressure on political actors because “they respond to it.”

What can we do?

Finally, the discussion ended with suggestions for action. Harris said the public can do a lot to change things, not just when fatal shootings take place that galvanize the country, but at other times too. He suggests:

  • Fight for guardian-based policing.
  • Fight for transparency and accountability. A Chicago journalist waged a court fight that resulted in all police disciplinary records in Illinois being made public record.
  • Fight for the decriminalization of marijuana, possession of small amounts of drugs, sleeping on park benches, minor traffic offenses and other instances that need not be criminal acts. Harris said this would scale down police involvement.
  •  Vote for candidates who will bring about change. Harris said this has been done in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago because the people demanded it. “That’s the real power,” he said.

“This is an important discussion at the heart of so much pain and suffering right now in the Black community,” said Huguley, following the event. “We were glad to work with Professor Harris to bring data and actionable steps to the conversation."