Multi-Racial Coalition Needed for Challenging US Police Impunity: American Prof.

Multi-Racial Coalition Needed for Challenging US Police Impunity: American Prof.

TEHRAN (Tasnim) – An American university professor said a multi-party and multi-racial coalition is needed in order to effectively challenge US police impunity against African-Americans.

“My hope is that activists will continue to emphasize lax police accountability, because that is truly a national problem that transcends race. And it will certainly take a broad multi-racial, multi-party coalition to effectively challenge America's entrenched system of police impunity,” Professor Paul Hirschfield of Rutgers University told Tasnim.

Professor Hirschfield has focused on a broad range of topics pertaining to crime and justice-with an emphasis on their relationship to youth, education and social policy. His work demonstrates that juvenile justice involvement adversely affects educational attainment among a sample of inner-city Chicago high school students and explains large gender differences in high school dropout among sampled African-American students.

Following is the full text of the interview with  Professor Hirschfield:


Q: In the wake of recent developments in Chicago, it seems that stereotypes and discriminatory presuppositions are somehow still maintained by police officers and even are resistant to public outcry; do you think this is an accurate description?

A: It is important to bear in mind as we attempt to explain the controversial shootings of young black men such as Laquan McDonald, Ronald Johnson, and Cedrik Chatman, that such incidents tell us very little about police officers in general.

Most police officers never fire their weapons during their careers and we hear very little about the police who honorably and prudently refrain from shooting people under similar circumstances. That said, we know that black people are more likely than whites to be killed by the police while unarmed and not attacking officers. And I suspect (but cannot empirically verify at this time) that, among armed suspects, blacks are more likely to be killed while attempting to flee. These patterns have persisted despite the national outcry over the killings of unarmed black men that began back in July 2014 with the unnecessary killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

The racial differences in the risk of being unnecessarily killed by the police are stark and seemingly resistant to public outcry. But I believe the reasons for these differences are not fully understood and require further analysis. It could be a product of the deeply ingrained fears and negative stereotypes that police, like Americans in general, still harbor toward African-Americans. Alternatively, it could (be) a consequence of the fact that African-Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods with more violence and police who are encouraged to be hyper-vigilant and hyper-aggressive in response to potential threats. Officers policing high-crime neighborhoods are more likely to encounter violent suspects, so it is not surprising that they, especially the emotionally fragile among them, often defensively choose to "take no chances" when dealing with seemingly dangerous individuals. Shooting someone is, by no means, an easy and cost-free decision, but getting in trouble for it is not a likely consequence that most American police face.

Racial disparities in police shootings are a serious problem that continue to erode public trust in the police, but I think the fixation on race diverts our attention from problems that can more easily and effectively be addressed through police reforms. Far more concerning to me than racial differences in police shootings are the fact that so many Americans, of all backgrounds, are being killed by the police, often unnecessarily. White Americans are far more similar to African-Americans in their vulnerability to deadly force than to whites and minorities in Europe. Reforming our laws, policies, and procedures so our police are better equipped to prevent deadly force and fired and prosecuted for using excessive force would go a long way toward increasing public safety.

Q: It seems that politicians in the US are less concerned about these sort of issues, unless people pour into street to protest or media realm get loaded by criticism, what is your idea about this phenomenon?

A: Most politicians in the United States are extraordinarily unlikely to endorse substantive police reforms, because most of their constituents strongly support the police. Moreover, even after most Americans in 2014 rated American police as fair or poor in using force properly and in equal treatment and endorsed reliance upon independent prosecutors when police kill the unarmed, politicians almost uniformly did nothing of consequence (except fund body cameras). I believe this reflects the relative political power of police and prosecutors associations relative to vocal supporters of meaningful reform. On the other hand, when police incidents cause political scandal or civil unrest as they did in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago, some reforms are inevitable, because the people (and sometimes federal authorities) demand it. These reforms often appear substantial. Sometimes, as is the case in Cincinnati, they produce dramatic results. However, history is replete with examples of "major" police "overhauls" that failed to alter basic patterns of excessive force and minimal accountability.

Q: How likely is the occurrence of similar incidents in future? Would public protests and demonstrations have a real effect?

A: It is too early to predict what effects impending reforms in Chicago will have. While this issue is in the spotlight, I certainly except some shifts in how Chicago authorities respond to similar incidents. Whether Chicago's police are less likely to use excessive force in the future depends on whether police who use excessive force or cover it up will continue to be effectively immune from any meaningful consequences. Challenging police violence and the system of impunity will require a new contract with the union to remove some of the special protections enjoyed by police officers accused of misconduct, greater investment in de-escalation, crisis intervention, and non-lethal weapons, truly independent investigations of excessive force, swift and tough punishment for errant police, and greater transparency with respect to all accountability mechanisms including prosecutions.

I see little reasons to expect that events in Chicago will alter the dynamics of the country's other 15,500 police departments. I imagine that even politicians in other large cities view Chicago as an "extreme case."

Q: How does academia in the US react to these types of incidents? Has any specific theme or debate been brought up there?

A: Academia consists of many varied disciplines and there is so much diversity within each discipline that scholarly reactions to controversial deadly force incidents defy simple characterizations. But some broad themes are certainly salient in the scholarly discourse. Most prominently, scholars have framed these incidents and documented racial disparities in patterns of deadly force as a problem of racism in its various forms, including conscious white supremacy and racial profiling, institutional racism, and unconscious racism. Many scholars view the killings of unarmed black men as the inevitable product of other racially disparate criminal justice practices including order maintenance policing (also known as "broken windows policing"), the war on drugs, and the reliance upon ticketing and fines to fund local governments. Some scholars whose focus is on problematic aspects of policing aside from racism such as militarization, lax accountability mechanisms, and excess localism frame unnecessary deadly force as endemic within the institution of American policing.

Few empirical criminologists have said much about recent patterns of deadly force, because there is always a lag between the salience of a problem within the national media and the production and publication of empirical research. Now that national data on deadly force incidents are available, scholars are analyzing patterns. I expect that their findings may diverge from popular conceptions and could push national debates on police reform in some interesting directions.

Q: What about social and human rights activism? Have the sensitivity and cause of those activists been evolved or transformed due to mediated outragous killings of people of color during last year?

A: I am not an expert on the evolution of activism in this area. Most of what I know about how activists frame the problem of deadly force comes from mass media accounts. So I don't know whether these accounts properly depict the weight that movement leaders assign to particular causes of unnecessary deadly force or whether these accounts highlight activists' most controversial claims. My sense is that many activists focus on particularly controversial cases--mostly fatal shootings of unarmed black men--which leads to an emphasis on racism and the lack of police accountability. Activists have helpfully highlighted systemic flaws in the systems of accountability such as public officials' refusal to release information and videos to the public in a timely way and the overly friendly relationships between prosecutors and the police. My hope is that activists will continue to emphasize lax police accountability, because that is truly a national problem that transcends race. And it will certainly take a broad multi-racial, multi-party coalition to effectively challenge America's entrenched system of police impunity.

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