Culture and Society

Deconstructing Racism in America: Part 6, Keeping the Peace

About one out of every three hundred adults in America is a law enforcement professional. Which means that about one out of every hundred or so households in America is a law enforcement household. That’s a hell of a big tribe. It’s a tight knit one too. Cops and cop families identify more with their profession than almost any other profession, on par with the military. We’ll get more into the similarity of those two in a bit.

What we ask our law enforcement officers to do, when we say police the 330 million Americans, is extremely unique and difficult. Because it’s extremely broad. We ask them to handle anything from traffic safety to personal security to emergency response to serving of high risk warrants to getting cats out of trees. Americans called 911 last year 240 million times-roughly one time for every adult. For frame of reference, Canada calls 911 about 40% as much as Americans do per capita. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of our emergency calls are actually not emergencies either. Which means that for a disproportionate number of our daily problems in America, we call law enforcement as our first action.

The first order result of our police action is that we arrest about 30,000 Americans every day-twice the rate per capita of what we see in places like the UK. So one small, focused group, about a million or so, arresting a population of the other 330 million people once every three seconds, every day of every year. That tribe of a million also issues 120,000 speeding tickets every day that result in the collection of over six billion dollars of municipal revenue annually. On average each police officer issues three to four times their annual salary in traffic fines. You read that right. Three to four times. There are municipalities whose primary source of funding for police and safety requirements are fines from traffic safety. Which means we are transferring our municipal tax burden from people who live in places to people who drive through places.

What we see, when we poke our head up from the minutia of the numbers and the ground level opinions of law enforcement is a very large community, a tribe of Americans who are relied upon, perhaps too heavily to adjudicate a broad array of issues for their given geographic area of responsibility who also appear to be fining and arresting other Americans at unprecedented levels-Americans who are several times more heavily armed, than any society in the history of mankind.

My bet, if you asked them, those who affiliate with the tribe “cops”, that last paragraph wasn’t why any of them signed up to do it. But it’s what the laws and professional norms expect of them. So they do it. And it’s one of the major engines of friction between our minority population and law enforcement. So what do we do about it?

First, let’s take a step back and say something that’s going to be very unpopular. Let’s start with what’s not happening.

Police almost never shoot people. And people shoot police even less. By never, I mean it happens so statistically little, that in any other discipline, you would consider the event to be negligible and actually not take any systemic actions to fix it. Because you would conclude that these instances were so rare, that taking action to fix them with a systemic solution would either have no or negative impact on. For frame of reference, in precision manufacturing, the gold standard is 3 defects per million. Most companies live between 3 and 244 defects per millions. And that’s doing a single process with no adversarial variables over and over and over. Officer involved shootings happen about 22 times per million in horribly dynamic environments regularly engaging with people doing bad things. Which means that broadly speaking, it’s an irreversible minimum. It doesn’t mean each instance isn’t tragic. It doesn’t mean police officers haven’t inappropriately profiled by race or refused to take appropriate action once wrongdoing by their own was obvious. It simply means that our Facebook feeds and political rhetoric have been filled with the wrong thing.

So what’s the right thing? Its this. There is a clear headwind to crawling out of economic despair created by the impacts of law enforcement and mass incarceration. And there’s really no way, under the current circumstances of inequality and human bias for it to not be racially unfair and to feel racist to the African American community.

So how do we fix it? Well it starts by asking better questions. Because “which lives matter?” is unanswerable noise. Of course black lives matter. Of course all lives matter. Of course blue lives matter. So let’s move on and ask other things.


Why do we arrest 39,000 people a day? Does that make society better?

Why do we criminalize drug addiction?

Why is a guy in a police uniform at the Starbucks next to where my kids get their haircut wearing the same gear my unit wore on patrol in Iraq? Where did it come from? And what’s the impact to engaging with a community in it?

Why are we handing out traffic violations with humans in cars on the side of the road? Isn’t there a better way in 2017? Is the best way to pay for the police force through fines?

What problem does jailing someone who doesn’t pay child support solve?

How come no one really tracks officer involved shootings? Seems like we should.

Why doesn’t everyone have body and dash cams?

What are we doing to make our urban areas safer? How are we reducing violent crime in those places?

I could keep going. But you get the point. Even if there were never a racist cop or a purposeful bad actor in the history of law enforcement, the outcomes of our present processes are a crippling headwind to a group who needs to start progressing faster just to catch up. I just gave you five days worth of science behind the reality of racial bias. So you know that’s not the case. Which means that until we come to terms with the inherent flaws in our system, their undue burden on our poor minority populations and the very real racial bias we humans suffer from, we’re never going to move towards solving one of the things that makes it harder to be black in America. And it’s just going to keep driving a wedge between us.

Wedges destroy compassion. Compassion is the only thing that solves problems for people that aren’t you. And you can’t have a society that doesn’t solve other peoples problems. This problem isn’t going away. No matter whose life you think matters.

–> Tomorrow: Part 7: The End of it All

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3 replies »

  1. Great points Sean, particularly regarding the impact of social media. Looking forward to reading the final piece tomorrow!


  2. This is a very good piece. I think one key to understanding the problem indeed is confirmation bias. If you create particular narratives, with all the interactions happening that you highlight, you will easily find evidence for your preferred theory.

    The next item that (amazingly) only very few people talk about is the role of women, and it is missing from your analysis. Perhaps that is because people do not want to revive ugly stereotypes that have been used in the past. Yet seen from afar (as a non-American, observing American discussions with interest) the numbers are striking.

    According to some estimates, between 40% and 60% of African-American women will have experienced sexual assault by the time they are 18 years old. According to other estimates by the DOJ, only one out of 15 rapes that happen to African American women are reported to the police (as compared to an also dismal one out of five for white women). Let those numbers sink in for a moment.

    So to meaningfully serve the African-American communities, one of the first questions is how to ensure the well-being of women in that community. It is hard to see how to break the cycle (or the headwind, as you describe it) without offering more stability to minority women. (The Latino numbers are a little less dramatic, but also not encouraging.)

    The issue takes on additional urgency since recent research has highlighted the role of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). If you are traumatized during childhood, all sorts of bad things follow in terms of employment, social engagement and health. The communities need more security, inside their own homes, to help children develop into healthy adults.

    Heavy-handed policing is unlikely to be the primary tool to provide this security. Yet they need to be part of the solution and strategies are needed (perhaps massive recruitment drives among minority women), and a discussion is urgently needed. Not discussing the topic since it raises tricky questions is the least likely approach to solving it.


  3. I am African American and live these realities. I am well educated and I am raising a family. No criminal record but I have been subjected to negative interactions with the police. Why? I am a Black man and that is enough in certain circumstances. The historic distrust between police and African American is the problem. It is rooted in southern police stations and the the urban beats of our cities. Cops are well armed and a badge on the wrong chest can be deadly. You touch on great points. Your articles are based in hard truths that hopefully one day we will deal with. Thanks for writing this series and thanks for putting your life on the line for my family.

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