By Dr. Bryant T. Marks (a Black male)
Heart rate increasing, palms moistening, looking straight ahead, hands precisely positioned at ten and two o’clock tighten around the steering wheel, turning down music, mind racing, no sudden movements. A police car pulls up next to me when I stop at a red light. My B.A. from Morehouse doesn’t matter, my M.A. and Ph.D. from Michigan do not matter, being a college professor and running a research institute doesn’t matter, receiving a White House appointment doesn’t matter, being an ordained minister doesn’t matter, nor do the media appearances, board positions, and publications. As a Black man in proximity to a White cop, I have been conditioned to fear him, period, full-stop.
Most Americans find this reaction to the presence of those charged with protecting and serving them difficult to comprehend. Some might say, “Why would you have such a negative physical and psychological reaction if you have done nothing wrong?” I chuckle out loud during conversations with my White colleagues and associates when they offer such comments. While sincere, they don’t get it. I provide personal and documented examples of police misconduct, harassment, and brutality—including a list of murdered, unarmed Black males. I rattle off statistics and research that demonstrate conclusively that Black males experience worse outcomes at every level of the criminal justice system (e.g., arrests, convictions, sentencing, and parole) than White males. I explain that these disparities remain true after accounting for socio-demographic and other key variables.
While acknowledging and appreciating that the vast majority of police officers — of all races — do not kill unarmed Black males and that they work hard to prevent and to solve serious crime, we confront the critical question, “Do some police officers harm, hurt, harass, or kill Black males intentionally?”
The extent to which White police officers racially profile Black males continues to be the subject of debate. What if Black males profiled White policemen? My research on – and interaction with – Black males provides insight into the mental profiles of White police officers who hurt, harass, or kill unarmed Black males from the Black male perspective. This analysis does not indict (no pun intended) all White police officers. As I previously noted, I respect most police officers, my Queens, NY, upbringing that overcomes me at red lights notwithstanding. How do young Black males perceive the attitudes and motivations of the modest number of White officers who engage in conduct unbecoming given their position? Law enforcement leaders should consider discussing these perspectives during training of cadets and re-training of veteran officers.
Four specific profiles of White police personnel emerge, three of which lead to negative outcomes and one of which represents the ideal approach to policing. Although these characteristics may apply to female police or policemen of other races, the overwhelming majority of Black males that I engaged through my research and interpersonal relationships expressed strong opinions about White, male officers. The acronym C.O.P.S. (Cleaner, Oppressor, Predator, Servant) describes these roles. I combined these perspectives with social psychological concepts to sharpen various points.
• Operates with a clean-up-the-streets-by-any-means-necessary mentality
• Seeks to rid the community of criminals and of those with criminal potential
• Believes that young Black and Brown males ought to be warehoused in jails and prisons for as long as possible
• Takes the broken windows policing approach to the extreme
• Sees the Black male walking in the street, selling loose cigarettes, or playing with a toy gun as someone with the potential to engage in more serious criminal behavior
• Engages in social categorization (profiling), the un/conscious human tendency to place individuals in certain groups on the basis of age, race, and gender
• Sees him/herself as God mentality (think detective Alonzo Harris, played by Denzel Washington in the movie Training Day when he says “I’m the man up in this piece . . . I’m the police, I run (expletive) here, you just live here . . . King Kong ain’t got (expletive) on me.”
• Enjoys exerting power over others; gets a rush from it
• Engages in narcissistic behavior
• Views non-compliance or lack of reverence of his mere presence as a personal insult, which leads to the psychological concept of wounded pride—the feeling that one’s lofty self-view is being questioned or undermined by the comments or behavior of others
• Deems any form of resisting arrest or back-talk from a pedestrian or suspect as highly disrespectful
• Shifts his motivation from arresting suspects for alleged crimes to teaching them a lesson about respecting the police in which the level of force — including deadly force — correlates with the size of and damage to the Oppressor’s ego
• Embraces an us-versus-them, kill or be killed approach to policing
• See him/herself as a predator and criminals — real or perceived — as the prey
• Begins his/her shift high-fiving other predators and saying things like “let’s go crack some heads”
• Treats the community apathetically
• Views neighborhoods as the urban Serengeti
• Suffers from the hostile attribution bias—the tendency to perceive others’ ambiguous actions toward him as aggressive
• Responds to sudden movements, raised voices, non-responses to a question, or twirling a fake gun with split second and reflexive aggression
• Feels confident that s/he can justify hurting, harassing, or killing a young Black as a strong member of a pride of Predators that covers for each other
• Operates from a protect-and-serve mentality
• Embraces and embodies the critical attributes of community policing
• Seeks to facilitate and to keep peace in the community, to de-escalate tense situations, to develop positive rapport with residents
• Assumes innocence rather than guilt when confronting ambiguous situations while protecting him/herself and following appropriate procedures
• Treats all people fairly regardless of race, age, gender, how they dress, or how formally they speak
• Understands that he works for the community and sees himself as part of it
• Carries him/herself with a pleasant and an approachable demeanor
• Corrects and guides fellow officers who abuse their authority or show signs of the Cleaner, Oppressor, or Predator mentalities
• Converses humanely with non-violent suspects
• Does not use banned chokeholds or shoot at suspects who run away slowly in broad daylight
• Does not aggressively roll up on a young man with guns blazing as he exits his patrol car
• Senses when a Black male whom he knows is going down the wrong track or hanging with the wrong crowd and offers him positive advice and discusses the consequences of questionable actions
I enjoyed interacting with true servants in my life and thought it was actually pretty cool to have positive rapport with a police officer.
We can never grasp every detail of an incident in which an unarmed Black male dies at the hands of the police. We do know that police officers grow up in a society that devalues Black lives and remains plagued by subtle — and not-so-subtle — institutional and cultural racism. We face the highly unlikely choice of removing racism from society or of recruiting unbiased law enforcement leadership that creates a subculture that deems biased treatment of certain segments of the population to be unacceptable and worthy of severe penalties.
The vast majority of police officers work hard and do their jobs well. We must insist that we instill the servant mentality into the few Cleaners, Oppressors, and Predators who remain in police uniforms and remain cautiously optimistic that we can make that happen.