PBS Frontline. Policing The Police 2020. September 15, 2020
In the continuing quest to understand better how to be an advocate for justice in this world, Jelani Cobb has given us installment number two (installment number one, here) in his investigative reporting on the Newark Police Department.
I commend to you three major observations and reflections.
1. Law enforcement bias is a unique kind of tribal identity. I would propose that while many tribal identities (religion, sports, ethnicity) are of a similar kind of deeply embedded psychology, a “policing identity” adds the power of the state and a gun. This creates several dynamics that make this kind of identity unique:
- Power can corrupt reasoning. Power lowers one’s empathy and raises one’s levels of self-justification.
- This can lead to skewed interpretations of the data (whether that be “street,” “video,” or “statistical” data).
- This is why we all need outsiders to give us the truth.
- The tactic of fear is paradoxically felt as a “way of being” a police officer, and deployed as a tactic. It is the proverbial, “if all you carry around is a hammer…”
- By appealing to authority, the moral evaluation of actions suffers greatly from circular reasoning; “of course that action is justified because that’s what it took to get the results we got.”
For further explanations, please read The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner. His theses help explain quite a bit of the psychological dynamics that are taking place in our culture.
2. The “counterbalance” of “defunding” or “abolishing” the police may result in unintended negative consequences. As with many endeavors, more resources (well managed) are the way forward. Admittedly, this means a significant overhaul of how and where those resources are put to work (giving credence to “demilitarizing” the police), but those who can only see “defunding” as the solution should consider a more empirical approach.
3. Change is possible. This is perhaps the most infuriatingly frustrating truth. We must immediately believe that change is possible, for every moment we waste in deliberating, people suffer, and some die. We have now had enough time to confirm, empirically, socially, psychologically, and ethically, that there are different ways of keeping us all safe. People like Aqeela Sherrils, featured in this film, and the Newark Community Street Team are exemplars of making a true difference, and communities across our nation would do well to consider carefully their model (in addition to thousands of other examples, Gregory Boyle and Homeboy Ministries coming to mind).
We need a new kind of public faith–public “trust”–where we can imagine, believe, and hope for a different future, to see beyond what is to what could be. This is not a matter of knowledge. It is a matter of will, just as the closing lines of the program declare:
Fifty years ago, a commission was appointed to investigate the cause of the Newark rebellion of 1967. …
The report laid blame with the police, but it also went it further than that. It blamed the violence on racial inequities and the failure of public education, as well as housing and employment discrimination.
The authors wrote that the report reflects “a deep failing in our society,” and that many of these problems “should have been solved by now.” “The question,” they said, “is whether we have the will to act.”
Fifty years later, the question remains the same.