Eliminating Racial Bias in 21st Century Policing

John Edwards
Monday, August 5, 2013

To influence or control people properly, we must first use discipline to control ourselves, a central tenant of policing says. As police officers, we are motivated by the passion to serve and protect—guard and rescue the sheep and run off (or catch) the wolves. We never start by degrading or hating people as officers. We have a history of being killed for those we don’t know, regardless of their race, sexual preference, religious beliefs or the size of their bank account.

While teaching at the Georgia Law Enforcement Command College, I stayed at our designated hotel, which had won records for hospitality and service. The manager of this hotel, an African American woman, was renowned for her benevolence and exemplary service to all of the students and instructors. She went above and beyond her responsibilities to see to our every need.

One evening, while networking with a group of students in my class, this manager told me about her daughter calling her, crying. She said her daughter had just been honorably discharged from the army. She went on to say that, during many of her trips as a soldier, from army assignment to assignment, people would embrace her, buy her drinks, hug her and shake her hands. Then, she said, her daughter made her first trip home without wearing a uniform through the airport and noticed that women of different races than hers seemed to draw their purses close as she passed them. Whether these acts were directed toward her or not, she perceived them to be.

Jesse Jackson said, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage of my life, than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”1 Stereotypes affect us all, no matter what our race or creed. These examples demonstrate why it is so important to be aware and sensitive to the realities of prejudice and bias that exist in every society, for every race.

Moreover, we must realize many citizens have experienced a racist or bigoted police officer in the past and may attribute that behavior to all police officers. How can our actions and the way we do business affect this perception, and how can we change this notion with our actions? We should question why we are called law enforcement, when the majority of our time is devoted to keeping order and problem solving for the public.

Our public perception is often skewed due to a lack of opportunities to build relationships and develop trust between officers and citizens. Are our communities only seeing police officer in high-crime areas, or are we devoting time to building a positive presence in times of peace as well?

Community policing means adopting community problems and developing solutions on citizens’ behalf. When relationships are created and sustained, relational currency is deposited in polices’ account, which can later be drawn to bridge cultural gaps and misunderstandings.

To inherit trust, an officer must first demonstrate to a member of the community that he genuinely cares, like the Samaritan on the treacherous road to Jericho.

Professional Police want to do what’s right or they never would have chosen their profession.

Good Police officers do not want to be perceived as racist, and they care deeply for their reputation.

Yet the problem rears its head time and time again. Racism is ignorance, and the best way to mitigate and prevent its evil is through education and understanding. We must see through others’ eyes and walk in others shoes. Although we may not agree with another, we must ensure we are empathetic toward their experiences and beliefs.

If what separates us, rather than what unites us, is prevalent in our minds, then those notions will dominate and direct our actions.

It is important to listen, develop a credible basis of knowledge and to insure we sustain an open mind in all situations and judgments. I firmly believe that, like preachers, doctors and auto mechanics, there are good police officers, bad police offices and those that just have bad days. All occupations involve human beings.

The majority of police officers are not racists; they just get caught in the subjective trap of stereotypical judgments, made worse by a system that lacks training in 21st century demographics and culture.

We never hate a person for being a person. We hate the behaviors that cause us problems, whether physical or philosophical. Officers, like all people, often deal in types: making observations of particular groups, then applying characteristics generally to that group. This human process is fraught with subjective and ambiguous criteria, distorted views and inaccurate assumptions. Why do we, as police officers who die for those we don’t even know, put ourselves in an ambiguous position?

Never consider someone’s race in your assessments, interpretations and evaluations. Never use the “general nature” of people to form your perception of an individual. When an officer relies on a person’s actual behavior and conduct, then the objective facts specific to that person will lead to truth, no matter who that person is. Dr. King had it right with his dream that the future would host a culture that judged a person by their character and not the color of their skin.

We routinely lay our life on the line because of our dedication to the value of everyone. Sometimes we fall victim to frailties of the human condition or act in situations where relationships and trust have yet to be established, allowing discrimination to alter our thinking. But we can insulate ourselves from that perception through self-discipline.

These 10 maxims will lead you toward fairness and objectivity:

1. The frailty of the human condition, as it relates to bias and prejudice, is an ongoing and constant burden one has to fight to remain objective.

2. When actions are based in subjective beliefs vs. objective features, characteristics, behaviors and conduct, problems occur.

3. Mindsets and preconceived notions cause poor judgment and bad decisions.

4. Perception shapes reality.

5. The angle of view defines the description and interpretations. Context influences content. (Be open minded and empathetic toward others’ views.)

6. Race must never be used as a basis for suspicion.

7. Suspicion must be based upon behaviors and conduct.

8. The beginning defines the end (the way interpreted in combination with treatment) ensure every beginning is grounded in objective facts and circumstances.

9. Embrace the idea and promote the practice of partnerships and collaborations with other organizations and citizens toward the prevention, reduction and elimination of crime

10. Be deliberate toward building relationships and adopting the problems of those you serve then develop solutions on their behalf.

 

Siri Carpenter, “The Bigot in your brain,” Scientific American, May 1st, 2008.

John Edwards retired in 2008 as a special agent in charge with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation after 30 years of service. He spent 4 years as the chief deputy sheriff of Evans County Georgia and currently serves on the executive board of the Peace Officers Association of Georgia.