Deadly Force: Post Ferguson Policing

Dr. Jameca Falconer

Jameca Falconer, Ph.D., Director of Counseling and Psychological Services | Logan University

Darren Wilson’s account of what happened on the evening of August 9, 2014 has been in question from the very beginning. He has said that he was in his police SUV on Aug. 9 when Michael Brown Jr., standing outside, struggled with him through the vehicle window and caused Wilson’s gun to fire twice. Brown was struck at least once in the hand, and ran. Wilson gave chase, and Brown turned back. Wilson then shot him multiple times, explaining later that he feared for his life.

Had Wilson been trained in a different manner, both he and Michael Brown Jr. would have escaped the situation alive. Wilson could have been trained to do something different to allow him to apprehend Michael Brown without putting himself in a situation that made him feel deadly force was the only safe response. The type of police training that involves officers exercising multiple strategies of problem solving and retreat is called “tactical retreat.” One of the options for Darren Wilson on that day could have been to step on the gas and drive away from the encounter, while keeping Brown in sight and waiting for backup. If we can train police officers to avoid putting themselves in danger, you will see them use less force to get themselves out of danger.

A Justice Department investigation opened after Brown’s shooting has found routine patterns and practices of racism in Ferguson, including the excessive use of force and unjustified arrests. Ferguson, Missouri is one of the municipalities that surround the city of Saint Louis, Missouri. Many of the patterns of excessive force and discrimination are reflected in neighboring municipalities and across the Saint Louis metropolitan area.

Most of the “shoot first and ask questions later” police behavior can be traced back to police training in the academy. In the academy, the concept of officer safety is heavily emphasized. Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s main goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. But cops live in a hostile world. They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat. It is how they react to the potential threats that have caused uproar in urban communities.

Police Training in the academy and beyond needs to compensate for the unconscious racial biases that lead officers to perceive a greater threat from Black and Brown men than from others. Officers are not unique in that regard; implicit racial bias is depressingly common in society. But it is of special concern in the context of policing. Because officers use more force when they perceive a greater threat, unconscious bias can lead officers to react more aggressively when confronting Black and Brown men than they would when confronting others in otherwise identical situations. As we’ve seen too many times, the results are beyond tragic. Although it may be impossible to completely eliminate every aspect of unconscious bias, more sophisticated training could lead to more precise threat identifications, correcting for racial bias that officers may not even be aware of.

The Ferguson Commission, formed after the shooting death of Michael Brown, released recommendations for training police officers to avoid deadly confrontations. The commission called for training in tactics, anti-bias and officer wellness. Part of their recommendations directly relate to services typically provided by psychologists. Training that would include dealing with those with behavioral or mental issues, how to give verbal commands, implicit bias and stereotypes, officer wellness, stress indicators, and coping techniques are all areas that we as psychologists are skilled in. This is an opportunity for psychologists to be a part of the solution as it relates to violence toward Black and Brown individuals.

Police reform requires more than changes to training, of course. The policing mission needs to be focused on keeping communities safe and free from fear—including fear of officers themselves. There are profound racial tensions in law enforcement that will only be healed through a long-term, sustained commitment to cooperative policing and community engagement. I urge psychologists-especially those in close proximity to urban communities- to become involved in these types of efforts.

Dear Presidents of Predominantly White Institutions and Organizations: You Need a Plan for Racial Healing

IMG_0070Carlton E. Green, PhD, Staff Counselor, University of Maryland Counseling Center

Responses to the University of Oklahoma (OU) fraternity singing a racist chant were immediate and intense. The national headquarters of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity decided that the “chapter needed to be closed immediately.” The University of Oklahoma President, David Boren, “severed” its relationship with the fraternity.

The chant is offensive, and the public has affirmed the responses by OU and SAE. However, an important question remains: what happens after the men are removed from the campus? Will the men learn about their racist attitudes? These White male students will likely go on to become businessmen, police officers, educators, and realtors, who may possess authority to make decisions that affect people of Color (POC).

President Boren indicated, “Moments like these should be teaching moments.” Indeed, these moments present learning opportunities for leaders of predominantly White institutions (PWIs), including universities and fraternities. White administrators might consider the following strategies for addressing racist events.

Reflect on your own feelings. Racism is shocking to all people. White individuals, in particular, observing racism may experience a range of responses including anxiety, helplessness, guilt, anger, sadness, denial, disbelief, and paralysis. Create a network of anti-racist White allies with whom you can speak openly about your reactions instead of avoiding or denying your feelings.

Consult with POC to understand how the racist event may be related to a legacy of racism in your institution and to identify the current impact on POC. However, do not expect or encourage POC to take the lead in addressing racism on behalf of the institution. Afford POC space to heal their individual and group-related wounds without the burden of saving or shielding White people from racism.

Imagine that the students were your sons or nephews, and consider how you would want someone to advise or care for them. Do not “sever” ties with them, and be aware of attempts to distance yourselves from them. Distancing occurs when White people “other” the offenders (e.g., “We are not like them,” “Real Sooners are not racist.”) “Othering” decreases empathy, reduces the students to one-dimensional characters engaging in racist behavior, and denies the students’ humanity, including the capacity to make egregious, offensive mistakes. Furthermore, “othering” negates the possibility that you could also commit a similar act. Saying, “We are not like them,” inherently declares, “I would never make that mistake.”

Devise an anti-racism response to (a) acknowledge the racist event, (b) articulate your personal response to the racist incident, (c) validate the humanity of the offenders, (d) identify and empathize with the potential harm to all community members, including POC and White individuals, and (e) suggest a plan for healing the community afflicted by the racial trauma.

Propose an anti-racism action plan to (a) cease the offending organization’s activities, (b) hold students accountable for their racist actions, (b) create a detailed strategy for educating and reinstating contrite offenders, (c) identify a team of White anti-racism educators to serve as resources for the offenders, and (d) provide resources for the traumatized community members of all racial backgrounds.

Racial healing requires that White individuals act among other White people to increase understanding of how race affects individuals and organizations. Leaders of PWIs must model for White students how to have difficult conversations about race. PWIs should embrace those who commit racist acts, because the offenders present us with opportunities to planfully implement strategies for racial healing.