Monday 1 December 2014

Cops and their feelings

When I heard on BBC radio 4 news that a 12-year-old boy had been shot dead by police in Cleveland Ohio, I asked myself, Was he black or white? The report didn’t include this information, though it did give his name, Tamir Rice, which suggested an answer. I got online and saw a picture. A black boy, of course. White boys in America don’t get shot by the police so often.

The shooting had been caught on security camera – an image too blurred and distant for a non-expert to learn much from it, except the speed of the action. For a while you watch the boy wandering in the park, playing with his toy gun, throwing snowballs at no one. The police car pulls up and the boy falls to the ground. It seems it took about as long to happen as it takes to read that last sentence.

Then there was the recording of the 911 call – an elderly man phoning to let the police know that there was someone in the park waving a gun around. I heard the dispatcher ask six questions. First “Where are you at, sir?” Then “What does he look like?” Questions 3, 4 and 5 are “Is he black or white?” And finally “Do you know the guy?” The black or white question is repeated because the caller doesn’t get it the first two times. This would be funny if it weren’t so entirely unfunny.

What does he look like?
He has a camouflage hat on?
Is he black or white?
He has a grey coat with black sleeves and grey pants on.
Is he black or white?
I’m sorry.
Is he black or white?
He’s black.

Now I look at it again I see that the black or white question is asked not 3 but 4 times. It’s what the question “What does he look like?” means. The caller doesn’t get that one either.

I asked the same bland, incurious question too, of course, though only after Tamir Rice had been killed. I’m glad the BBC didn’t choose to make this the story. Why should the third thing we’re told about this boy, after his age and his name, be the colour of his skin? On the other hand the event demands that question, because, according to analysis of US government data by the news organisation ProPublica, young black males in America are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than young white males.

I assumed at first that the dispatcher was asking so the police would know who they were looking for. But as a way of identifying an individual this simple binary distinction hardly seems adequate – the answer is far less specific than the information the caller is offering. More likely the question emerges from an institutional culture that knows the statistics – not cognitively, but as a gut-feeling that young black males are going to need shooting about 20 times more often than young white males, even those who are unarmed, or are looking at a BB gun on sale in Walmart, or are 12 years old and playing alone in a park.

Last week we heard a lot about how one particular cop felt before shooting dead an unarmed suspect. For Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson it was apparently all about fear – which was just as well for him because if it had been about rage he might not have got such a sympathetic hearing. Grappling with 6’4” Michael Brown, 6’ 4” Wilson “felt like a 5-year-old child holding on to Hulk Hogan”. The police officer who called in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice put Tamir’s age at about 20. The power that this officer and his partner attributed in their imaginations to a powerless child will no doubt feature in their defence. 

We’d expect a surgeon who lost too many patients on the operating table to be judged on procedures and outcomes, not on how he or she felt. For police officers it seems feelings are what matter. Which is a problem, because whatever the feeling that leads someone to kill – fear, rage or a sense of impunity – the figures suggest that on average a US police officer is 21 times more likely to feel it when the suspect happens to be black.