Implicit Bias Leads to Explicit Danger
There has been considerable and well-deserved publicity regarding cases where implicit or explicit police bias has led to unwarranted arrests and shooting of unarmed black individuals. The Starbucks case illustrates how a black man waiting at a place of business can be construed as loitering or engaging in disorderly conduct. A black man standing in his backyard with a telephone in his hand can be shot as a potentially dangerous suspect. About 22-25% of people shot and killed by police in 2017 were unarmed black men (Sullivan, Anthony, Tate, & Jenkins, 2018). How many of these shootings were necessary?
It is similarly true that about 25% of the people killed by police are experiencing a mental health crisis (Khan, 2017). Many of those shot may be both acting in ways that suggest mental illness and be black, a double stigma. For example, a Chicago police officer called to handle a domestic dispute in a black neighborhood, saw Quintonio Legrier wielding a bat and within three minutes of arrival on the scene shot and killed both him and Bettie Jones, his neighbor who was keeping an eye on him (Fusco & Dumke, 2016). The major cases of police use of lethal force investigated by the Department of Justice in Chicago involved disabled black men (Perry, 2017).
Like in the Starbucks incident, many members of the public generalize from their own experiences of being treated well to conclude that the men at Starbucks or others in similar situations would never have been arrested without a legitimate cause. But for offences of equal severity persons acting in an erratic manner are twice as likely to be arrested as those behaving in a more expected fashion (Reuland & Schwarzfeld, 2012: Crocker, 2014 ). Without videos, we rely heavily on our own experiences to make judgements. For example, while sitting in the waiting room of a mental health court, I met a middle-aged white woman. She told me that she had been standing in line to buy a hamburger, minding her own business, and the manager asked her to leave. She refused. She told him, “Hey I got a right to stand here in line, like anybody else. So, he called the cops on me. Can you believe it, no one said anything while the police dragged me away? Now I’m locked up in a mental ward.”
I looked at her. She was dressed like a bag lady, shaggy, unruly hair, mismatched clothes, and a face aged beyond its time on earth. My first thought was that she must have been at least shoving people and screaming. I had to consciously reach outside my first disbelieving reaction to be able to entertain the possibility that her report was accurate. I could do it not only because I have read data that shows that about 25% of people with mental disorders have been arrested at least once in their lives (Livingston, 2016), but also because I have gained some experiences I would have preferred not to have had in the mental health world.
Pre-existing bias and fear predisposes escalation of violence. It makes a person with a certain look and behavior appear dangerous a priori. It is difficult to dispel such beliefs with data. Our unconscious is emotionally conditioned and does not react well to countervailing facts. Even our conscious or higher level thinking processes are more programmed by experience and culture than by evidence (Klein, 2008).
The responses of police are of great concern because they wield considerable power. They are often the gatekeepers to decide if a person should be shot, arrested, taken to a hospital, or ignored. If police decide to take an individual to jail it disrupts their life, but also if taken to a hospital, the person might be involuntarily committed and remain locked on a psychiatric ward for some time, an experience of questionable benefit.
While all people may make judgments based on race, gender, age, dress, and apparent mental health status, the responses of the police are often more heightened by fear and aggression. Police are an odd combination of prey and predator. They are alert to opportunities to catch a thief or a terrorist or someone loitering about, but in addition to seeking small and large prey, they are sometimes prey themselves. Like other prey animals their amygdala reacts instantly to a sign of danger, often before the message has reached their neocortex (the judging part of their brains). A phone is more likely to look like a gun in a black man’s hand than in the hand of a white woman. The amygdala makes people prone to acting upon stereotypes and superficial unconscious cues or use Recognition Prime Decision-Making (Dalyley, 2016).
The end result is that many people feel forced to remain out of sight, fear to call the police in order to help a person in crisis, and will not reach out for health care to avoid violent encounters with the police. This is one way in which such structural violence based on stereotypes creates or perpetuates psycho-social disabilities as Chris Huff, disability rights activist discussed (apud Perry, 2017).