On May 25 of 2020 police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds killing him. On Tuesday, a jury convicted him of all charges.
The jury’s decision comes at a time when national attention is once again being paid to police brutality. On Sunday, a police officer in Minnesota shot and killed 20-year-old Duante Wright after reportedly confusing a taser and gun. Last week, Chicago released body cam footage of a police officer shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo who appeared to have dropped his weapon and raised his hands. A video from December of two police officers pointing guns, pepper spraying, and pushing a black army officer during a traffic stop also circulated this month.
These news stories also come at a time when several high profile mass shootings have devastated the country.
In previous shows, we’ve talked about white evangelical attitudes towards police and the changing religious beliefs of many African American protesters leading the Black Lives Matter movement. This week on the show, we wanted to discuss the role that media has played in how we understand these phenomena and if it plays any role in perpetuating them. How has video coverage helped us better understand what is happening? How does it further divide and harden us?
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Highlights from Quick to Listen #261
How are you making sense of the verdict?
Bob Thomson: I was watching footage before we started. There was an interview of a young man outside of the courthouse. He mentioned how numb he felt. We've been here before and we're always let down. Every year we hear about these stories where African Americans seem to be killed during an interaction with police officers for no other reason than they were Black.
Black men, and also women and trans individuals, are disproportionately killed in these kinds of interactions. We know this from the data, and time after time, it does seem like Black communities are not getting justice.
They're not getting that guilty verdict. These police officers are deemed to have acted reasonably, which is little consolation to the families of these victims. The fallout of this pattern of enforcement is a dramatic loss of trust.
There is a term in academic literature called illegal cynicism. It describes that process where police come to be seen, not as providers of peace and security in a community, but as an occupying force because of these patterns of racialized enforcement.
This verdict has profound symbolic importance. I don't think it's going to be something that causes deep changes. More than anything, it’s a sigh of relief, but we still have a long way to go for racial justice in this country. We rarely see this kind of accountability of police officers.
What does the quantitative research say?
Bob Thomson: There is an impulse to look closely at individual cases and conclude, for instance, there is no way we can know that these officers are motivated by race. Even if an officer is personally racist, we may never know. They might just keep those thoughts to themselves or they might be operating on implicit bias.
But if you zoom out, the patterns do tell a clear and compelling story. A recent study by Edwards, Lee, and Esposito found that police violence is the leading cause of death for young Black men in the United States.
One of every 1000 Black men dies this way. This is emblematic of a broader social pattern in the criminal justice system. There's a terrific resource called The Sentencing Project for understanding Black and white disparities in criminal justice.
They note, for example, that Black youth account for about 16% of all children, but they account for 28% of juvenile arrests. Black drivers are pulled over for traffic stops. They're subjected to stop-and-frisk at vastly higher rates than white drivers.
While drug use tends to be similar across racial groups, Black drivers are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop and twice as likely to be threatened with violent force by police. African Americans constitute about 12 to 14% of the population, but about 34% of the prison population.
If you combine African Americans and Hispanics, they make up about half of the prison population. Somewhere between one-in-three and one-in-four Black men will serve time at some point in their lifetime. By age 23, half of all Black men have been arrested at least once. When they're convicted, Black defendants received sentences that are on average 13% longer than other defendants.
We even see this disparity coming through with DNA exonerations. Most of the people being exonerated by new DNA evidence are Black, which means they're being wrongfully convicted at a vastly higher rate. It's up and down their criminal justice system. Even if we can't prove that one instance is about race, we know that the larger pattern of these incidents is about race to some degree.
One study shows that fatal police shootings are more likely to happen in small towns than in big cities. What is the significance of that?
Bob Thomson: It might have something to do with the level of resources a community police force has at its disposal, especially for training. A police officer needs continual training for de-escalation and handling intense situations, even situations in which police aren't the best kinds of professionals to be there to address.
Yet they are called to address situations in which mental illnesses are a factor. Funding for training is probably not sufficient for these rural small-town police forces and sheriff's offices in comparison to larger cities, where maybe you have a police chief that is more aware of racial dynamics and more aggressive in trying to stem the tide of these terrible stories.
You teach criminology courses and students who may be interested in going into law enforcement. Have you seen students changing their views?
Bob Thomson: There isn't openness for new information among students, especially when in introductory criminology or sociology course where you see resistance to learning about the social scientific methods of studying these patterns. There seems to be a small group of students who tend to be male, white, and have conservative backgrounds.
Nevertheless, I think the corresponding change that I've seen among students is a passive interest in the topics, acknowledging that race is an issue in this society, civically and in law enforcement. Students are starting to have a hyper-interest in addressing these issues.
We are analyzing patterns of urban gang life and the roles that law enforcement historically has played in fostering distrust in those communities. We try to dig down to the core of what has caused it. Sometimes many of them are surprised, for instance, that in Los Angeles, the Watts rebellion was a reaction to what was perceived as an abuse of police power.
These stories seem to be on repeat. Students have come up to me after taking the class and say, Thank you for going through that because it did help me understand what I was consuming in the news media.
To what extent is this case an anomaly? What might be different in the climate as opposed to five or ten years ago?
Robert Thomson: There is a changing tide, although there's an uphill climb and that's because this discussion has become so politicized in our discourse. For example, this case has exposed areas in which people from across the political spectrum have found common ground.
People saw that video and acknowledged that something bad was happening, that this should not be happening, that something in this person's behavior should not be part of our protocols for dealing with these situations.
Our attribution of why that occurred is where we start to diverge. This is reinforced by the hyper-partisan media environment that we're living in. It's easy to say, on one hand, that this is an individual who was poorly trained or was personally racist, and that what we need to do to fix that is to wear body cameras and weed out the bad apples.
There's another impulse to say that this is part of a broader systemic issue, that policing has some racial bias baked into it. We're never going to be able to solve the issue of racial bias in policing until we solve the problem of racial bias in society.
That's a huge issue because now we're not just talking about discrimination and police profiling. We're talking about differential access to education and healthcare. We're talking about discrimination in the workplace. We're talking about differences in incarceration and the stigma and the inability to get work after—all of these are bound up together.
Is there evidence to suggest that the attention that’s been paid to police brutality has altered how police officers behave?
Robert Thomson: A study recently showed that there was a reduction in police violence in cities where protests occurred in the summer of 2020. Without any policy changes, it's a short-term reaction. Hopefully, what that does is start a conversation for policy reform.
But you also do see some policy changes occurring at the local level in some isolated communities, but that's not national yet. It's not even at the state level yet.
In the areas where those changes are being made, there's always a counter-narrative. A lot of times the hashtag “defund the police” gets confused with “abolish the police.” People will point to a city—Portland, Minneapolis—where there have been efforts to divert funding from police to other parts of the civil service network.
Maybe it doesn't seem like it's working yet, but it's also really early. How are we going to know if that is an effect of diversional funding there? So much data is slow and so much of our public desire for change is fast. There's a mismatch there and it's going to be hard to navigate those waters.
There is the backlash within policing itself, like the rise of the thin blue line flags. How are these narratives created?
Robert Thomson: Police are a microcosm of society. They're not disconnected from it; they're embedded within it. The narratives that play out in broader society will also work their way into the rank-and-file of police departments across the nation.
Protests are occurring mostly in big to medium-sized cities. Police in those areas are more likely to have more training to deal with de-escalation and racial issues, but also more sensitive to the fact that there are racial differences in the criminal justice system.
Location is one part, racial identity of the police officers the other part. If you take an ideal type of a conservative white police officer that works in a small town, he's probably going to react very differently to the story than a counterpart in a city whether they're Black or another race, or even if they're white because of the networks in which they're embedded and the kinds of discourses that people are having in those contexts.
In what ways has the shift in mandatory minimum sentencing laws changed the criminal justice system?
Robert Thomson: A reaction to mandatory minimums is also something that had to take time to develop. This was harming certain populations more than others. One of the ways we as a voting public come to know about this is through media and technology.
There have been some large changes which have made this kind of information more available to the public at large. You've got the rise of social media, where people can see stories about all kinds of issues and read as much depth of the details as they want.
But you've also had something like the smartphones with cameras that have been able to increase surveillance of police during these interactions. For a long time, we wanted to believe that in white America, things were getting better. We felt fairly comfortable assuming that, based on what we saw after the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when we outlaw discrimination that things were going to get better.
We were comforted by seeing Jackie Robinson break into the Major League and Dr. Huxtable on our television sets—seeing those sorts of things made us feel like while whites were still enjoying a comfortable position within the social hierarchy, that gap was shrinking when maybe it wasn't. This new technology is revealing that in fact, things have maybe not changed so much since the 60s as we would have wanted them to.
What are the similarities between the conversations about mass shootings and police violence?
Robert Thomson: The narrative universes overlap. The media in which police actions are seen to be justified because it's a dangerous job are the same outlets that reinforced the idea that guns are not the problem with mass shootings. In both scenarios, the group that is disproportionately victimized is the same; it's Black Americans, especially in urban centers.
There are a lot of mass shootings in the United States. They occur pretty much daily and that's not the norm across the world. There is no standard definition for a mass killing or mass shooting. Rather, there is a definition for mass killing that is codified into law as three or more killings in a single incident, but that doesn't specify a weapon.
The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive uses a more stringent definition: four or more victims who are injured or killed, not including the shooter. Even taking that definition, it's more than one per day. We are a nation with a lot of mass shootings. Why don't we pay attention to all of them? It depends on who is being victimized.
What often goes wrong in our discourse about these horrific attacks: mass shootings and police violence?
Robert Thomson: There is an impulse to consume stories about these situations in a way that reinforces your priors. There's a scholar, James Hunter, who famously coined the word culture wars. In another book, he mentioned something called atrocity stories.
Atrocity stories are stories that are shocking to the system. Both of these scenarios are shocking to our collective psyche. They get swept up into a politicized discourse representing atrocities that are perceived against a particular political camp. The media will pick up on these stories and filter them through sort of predetermined political narratives and moral frameworks to support a position that might give them an advantage politically to mobilize people to go vote for their position.
How do you see media shaping the discourse of policing and crime?
Robert Thomson: The coverage of these stories in the media shapes how we perceive the events and also how frequently they occur. Media plays a role in driving fear about crime that is sometimes not exactly warranted.
Unfortunately, that can seep into political discourse, especially when we're talking about crime policy. Some people are surprised to learn that the crime rates in the United States are about half what they were at their peak in the 1990s.
That being said, I do think that there is value to reporting of these kinds of issues, given the fact that the levels of violent crime and the levels of gun violence in the United States are disproportionately much higher than it is in a lot of other nations.
When you broadcast a story about a mass shooter and you describe the details, how many people are affected, and what's the identity of the killer, some of the research has shown that you are doing what they want. They want notoriety. There is the risk of giving them the attention that they're looking for and therefore inspiring other people to do the same. On the other hand, these kinds of stories are immensely within the public interest.
They do affect public policy. If there is going to be changing in our gun laws, it will only be able to occur if people know that it's a problem. That occurs through reporting these things.
What are the unintentional effects of watching videos of death?
Robert Thomson: Is it causing emotional trauma on the communities that are affected? We heard last week about the Army Lieutenant who was pulled over in Virginia, Caron Nazario. The police officer said something to the effect of the climate that we're in. The police officer himself had changed the way he approached the situation because of the media climate in recent years, maybe because of his perception of Black Lives Matter.
The Black community is going to experience trauma with or without the media stories. There was an article written in 1996 or 1999 by David Harris, published in the Minnesota Law Review about driving while Black.
He provided statistics about the over-representation of Black drivers being pulled over and searched disproportionately, which had two effects. One, people who are getting pulled over more often are going to be more likely to be found to have contraband.
There are going to be more drugs, more guns found on drivers if you search them more often, even without cause, based on the pretext of their skin color. More dangerous to our social fabric is the experience of trauma by the person being pulled over, especially if they're innocent. That tells them something about their position in society, in relationship to police and law enforcement.
It's not just the person being pulled over unjustifiably, but also the people in their household, the people in their family, the people in their church. These stories disseminate throughout a community.
I remember distinctly when I lived in Cincinnati in 2001, a story that looked a lot like Adam Toledo's story. A young man by the name of Timothy Thomas was 19 years old. He was not carrying a gun, but he was holding up his pants.
When he turned around, the police interpreted that as an act of reaching for a gun because he was pulling up his pants. He was shot by a police officer in a dark alley. This is before the time of smartphones; that was not an incident that was captured on camera.
It was the tip of an iceberg. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. People poured into the streets. No justice, no peace. This is a trauma that is experienced in the community, whether it is being reported in the news or not.
Where I think it does help is that it opens the eyes of everybody else who’s living in society comfortably, who think that the world is becoming a better place. In reality, these stories help to show that maybe it's not.
Is the world becoming a better place or not?
Robert Thomson: This verdict shows that there is a path towards the world becoming a better place and it can include Christians involved in this struggle.
Moral imperative can be good or bad. People are capable of doing great harm if they believe that what they are doing is good and right. When it comes to these issues, Christian discourse in the United States today does have challenges, but also opportunities. There are certain traditions, for example, that have rich resources from which to draw for advocating for non-violent change. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes immediately to mind. If you think racial progress is a challenge today, think about what it was like in the Jim Crow South.
The Black church was instrumental in effecting that change. There were so many resources available through the church. You have leaders like MLK, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery, and C. T. Vivian. All of these civil rights leaders came from the ministry.
You have this tightly knit set of networks of believers who can spread information very quickly. That means they can mobilize efficiently for political activity, for demonstration, for protests, for getting to the polls to vote. Whatever it might be, they can be involved in that struggle for change.
We need to be paying attention to what these folks are saying. In Christian discourse today, I've been particularly impressed by the work of Reverend William Barber. He has been quite active in trying to sort of reclaim a sense of decanted dignity for the downtrodden.
He's framed gun violence and police minority violence as forms of oppression, as part of an intertwining system in which African Americans especially continue to face unequal justice in the world today.
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