First Impressions are Trumping Complete Facts on Police Violence
We are now in an era where initial visceral narratives shape our lasting attitudes. Images of men being lethally shot in the back or dying with a knee on their neck create strong impressions that are not easily changed by subsequently released information. These dynamics were previewed by Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. Despite no corroborating evidence, despite her remembrance based on memory-retrieval therapy almost thirty years after the alleged event, her emotional testimony was riveting. It was compelling for many older women as they relived dynamics they had experienced in their youth. No amount of subsequent information that brought into question Blasey-Ford’s veracity made any difference to her supporters.
The same dynamic has been repeated in the way recent high profile cases against the police have been viewed. In response to the Rayshard Brooks (Atlanta), Breonna Taylor (Louisville), George Floyd (Minneapolis), and Jacob Blake (Kenosha) killings there have been countless demonstrations, sports events have been cancelled, and a widely-held belief has been perpetuated that these lethal actions reflected wanton disregard for black lives. Many black commentators suggest that these outcomes could happen to them. "And I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified,” NBA star LeBron James said.
James’ emotionally-charged response to police shootings should be measured against his sustained funding of an Akron (OH) elementary school. Whatever one’s judgment on policing, a central problem in poor black communities is the large share of 10-year olds that exhibit significant academic or behavioral deficits. No amount of police reforms can change this situation. Indeed, widespread claims that white supremacy drives racist policing can only undermine educational efforts. Why should black youngsters work hard to overcome educational deficits if told that they won’t succeed in a white supremacist society?
Moreover, in each of the last three years, there have been 20 or fewer unarmed black men killed by police. By contrast, over the same three-year period, 2,095 children eleven years old or younger have been injured or killed by gunfire. In Chicago alone, 32 children under the age of 17 have been shot and killed this year. As a result, black Americans who live in poor neighborhoods — the students who attend James’ school — have much more to fear from random gun violence than a deadly encounter with police. Indeed, this is why 81 percent of black respondents to a recent Gallup poll indicated that they want the same or greater police presence in their neighborhoods.
But more relevant, is how the public reacts when subsequent information becomes known that brings into question the initial visceral reactions. First, in the Brooks and Blake cases, seemingly benign events escalated because both individuals had outstanding arrest warrants: Brooks for serious parole violations and Blake for felony sexual assault charges. In both cases, the individuals fought with police when attempts were made to arrest them, and they had weapons in their hands when deadly force was used. A strong case could be made that the police responses were excessive — both individuals were shot in the back — so that officers should face some criminal charges. However, it should be clear that these were not incidents that should bring fear to law-abiding black Americans.
In the Taylor case, the police had obtained a no-knock warrant based on extensive evidence that she was in close collaboration with a known drug dealer against whom the police were trying to build a stronger case. Taylor had received packages from him and other evidence seemed to indicate a strong likelihood that her apartment was consistently used as a drug conduit. When they broke down the door, they were immediately met with gunfire. This doesn’t justify an officer firing shots blindly from outside. However, it does explain the reasons why the warrant was granted and the dynamics that led to Taylor’s death. An argument could easily be made against no-knock warrants — and proposed federal legislation would made them illegal — but again, this was not a racially-motivated abuse of police power against law-abiding black citizens.
The Floyd case raises a different issue. After witnessing the video of his death, it seemed clear that it was the result of depraved indifference. A police officer had his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck presumably creating the breathing difficulties that caused his death. The official autopsy and more complete video evidence present a more nuanced assessment. The additional video indicates that Floyd was experiencing breathing difficulties before being restrained and that the police had called for an ambulance. It was also at Floyd’s request that he was taken out of the police car and placed on the ground.
The autopsy indicated that Floyd’s breathing problems reflected his lungs building up with fluids as a result of a lethal drug overdose. The medical examiner reported that “if Mr. Floyd had been found dead in his home (or anywhere else) and there were no other contributing factors he would conclude that it was an overdose death.” In addition, he noted that “the autopsy revealed no physical evidence suggesting that Mr. Floyd died of asphyxiation.” While the linking of Floyd’s claims that he couldn’t breathe to the knee on his neck was initially understandable, this subsequent information brings it into question.
Deeply-held assessments occur when visceral initial reactions are melded to generalized injustices. For many, the case of Kavanaugh reflected the sexual abuse that women have long endured and the other cases reflected the police abuses that the black community has long endured. These widely-held stereotypes of men and police make nuanced assessments impossible so that additional evidence will not change the broad generalizations like those espoused by LeBron James. Any evidence short of complete vindication is ignored, less the victims will be blamed. Thus, the limited punishment that police officers may receive for their excessive responses to legitimate dangers will be unacceptable to those who are consumed by their initial visceral responses.
Robert Cherry is professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and is author of Jewish and Christian Views on Bodily Pleasure (Wipf & Stock, 2018).