#barriers2innocence: Bias-Motivated Policing

This post is part of the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. As an innocence organization, we work to combat systemic racism because we know that there are numerous barriers between Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and justice that exist solely because of racism. This campaign aims to highlight some of those barriers. Today’s topic is bias-motivated policing:

Let’s start with the fact that some police officers hold negative biases about BIPOC. While present in policing as a whole, these biases are most extremely documented in the context of police brutality. If the countless videos of police officers killing BIPOC does not convince you of this, here are some statistics:

Unarmed Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police. Black people are more likely than White people to be handcuffed without arrest, pepper-sprayed, and pushed to the ground by an officer. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White men. Indigenous people are killed in law enforcement interactions at a higher rate than any other race or ethnicity—the mortality rate is 12 percent higher than that of Black people and three times higher than that of White people. These statistics do not exist because BIPOC people commit more crime. In Oakland, California, for example, Black men are four times more likely than White men to be searched during a traffic stop, but the police are no more likely to recover contraband from Black suspects.

How do we explain these statistics?

Two explanations are the police sub-cultures that protect racist cops and the unaddressed implicit biases that create racist cops. We will focus on these explanations today; however, we realize we are only scratching the surface of this question.

The Blue Wall of Silence

First and foremost, these statistics can be attributed to unchecked explicit bias. Some police officers are overtly racist, and their racist words and actions are commonly protected by what is known as the “Blue Wall of Silence”— an unofficial agreement between police officers not to challenge each other’s conduct.

“Cops don’t rat on cops,” former FBI agent Philip Hayden wrote in an opinion column for USA Today. “That blue wall is one of many factors that further pushes the widening divide between the world as seen by law enforcement and the world experienced by the citizens whom officers are sworn to protect.”

Hayden testified against the officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black 15-year-old named Jordan Edwards in 2017. In the opinion column, Hayden describes the challenges he faced when breaking through the Blue Wall of Silence to testify. Notably, he maintains that he “still believe(s) that it’s important for officers to be loyal to one another; it’s a dangerous profession. But our first loyalty is to the law. Bad officers make maintaining that loyalty unnecessarily tough for everyone.”

Another former police officer who broke through the wall is Shannon Spalding. She blew the whistle on former public housing officer Ronald Watts when she learned that he was framing residents of the Ida B. Wells public housing complex in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. In Spalding’s case, the Blue Wall of Silence was so strong that her life was threatened by officers when she reported Watts to the FBI.

“When I signed up for this job, I knew I might have to lay my life down, but I never thought I’d have to worry about it being a fellow officer doing that to me,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Spalding currently works for the Exoneration Project. Watch her Ted Talk describing the backlash she faced when holding her fellow officers accountable:

Implicit Bias

Another explanation for bias-motivated policing is implicit bias (see yesterday’s post for more information about implicit bias). It is important not to confuse overt racism with implicit bias because it limits accountability for racist police officers, but research shows that there is a connection between implicit biases and police use of force against BIPOC.

“A large proportion of white Americans have these (implicit) biases, and it’s hard to expect police officers to be any different,” John Dovidio, a social psychologist at Yale University, told the American Psychological Association

This idea was explored in a study conducted by Joshua Correll, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, using a first-person shooter video game. In the study, participants saw images of White and Black young men either holding guns or another object like a cellphone or a soda can, and they were tasked with only shooting the targets who were holding guns.

The participants shot armed Black people more quickly than armed White people, and they were more likely to shoot an unarmed Black person and fail to shoot an armed White person.

How do we address bias-motivated policing?

The Montana Innocence Project sat down with Jacob Elder, a second-year law student at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law, to further discuss bias-motivating policing. Elder recently wrote an opinion column for The Missoulian where he shared his own experiences with racism in Montana and called for anti-racism training for police officers when they are in the police academy.

“While I am appreciative of the service of our good police officers that endeavor to uphold their oath of office, “to serve and to protect,” I’m calling on our state lawmakers to enact a policy that will create an anti-racism training at our state police academy,” Elder wrote.

Can you tell us about yourself and how you got involved with criminal justice work?

What inspired you to reach out to the Missoulian?

Can you speak to your policy recommendation on how you are working to implement it?

How does bias-motivated policing promote inequality in other areas of the criminal justice system?

Can those same things contribute to wrongful convictions?

How can people most effectively advocate for racial justice?

The implication of saying, “not all cops are racist:”

To end our discussion of bias-motivated policing, we want to address a comment that frequently surfaces: “not all cops are racist.” While this is true, making the comment in a discussion about racism in policing has negative implications because it diverts the discussion away from the institution of policing as a whole and excuses deep-seated institutionalized racism.

“It is not that some police officers aren’t doing admirable things in our communities, but revering police officers for not abusing their power is dangerous — it normalizes police violence and numbs society to these issues,” Narain Dubey wrote in an essay published in the New York Times. “The idea that ‘not all cops are bad cops’ belittles attempts to uproot the system. When we go out of our way to controvert this fight, we are perpetuating the inherent problems with radicalized policing.”

How is bias-motivated policing a barrier to innocence for BIPOC?

The stereotypes about BIPOC regarding criminality and violence are perpetuated by law enforcement every day. These stereotypes inform violence against BIPOC at the hands of police officers, and these stereotypes make wrongfully convicting possible. For example, it is easy to convince a jury that BIPOC commit violent crime when police officers—whom many people defer to—consistently treat BIPOC as ultra-violent predators. As Elder mentioned, when biases go unchecked at any stage of the criminal justice system, it can promote inequality at any stage of the criminal justice system—including the courtroom.

Action Steps:

  1. Watch the 2016 documentary “Do Not Resist.”
  2. Watch this video explaining what to do if you witness police violence.
  3. Follow your state’s individual efforts to reform its police departments and tell your representatives what you want. 

Thank you for participating in the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. Tomorrow’s topic is bias-motivated prosecution. Our discussion about police will continue next week when we discuss the over-policing of BIPOC.