When ‘reasonable belief’ is unreasonable and unjust

After Officer Darren Wilson was acquitted for unarmed Michael Brown's killing by the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island officer was similarly released after choking Eric Garner to death.
After Officer Darren Wilson was acquitted by the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, for unarmed Michael Brown’s killing (when stopped for jaywalking), Staten Island officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was similarly not indicted after choking Eric Garner to death when all he’d been doing was selling loose cigarettes (tax evasion).

(This article appeared in The Concord Monitor on Sunday, November 30, 2014)

The grand jury has spoken. Officer Darren Wilson has had his day in court. The focus of the press and public is moving on from Ferguson, Mo.

Although the outcome of the case is clear – Wilson will not be tried in court for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown – the moral and social reverberations of this latest, tragic episode of American racial conflict continue. How are we to react to what has happened?

Some of us mourn. Others shake their heads in confusion. Still others grumble disapprovingly over the decision, the ensuing protests, or both. Many of us just want to know, “Why can’t we all live together in peace?” or “It’s the law – why can’t people just accept it and move on?” As you have probably witnessed, for most black people, “moving on” from this case is hard, if not impossible. As a black-white couple well-acquainted with the troubled history of race relations in Africa and the Americas, this case brings profound pain and indignation. Our pain, as future parents of children who will be viewed as black by society, is self-explanatory. Our indignation turns on two essential words that form the basis of the grand jury’s “acquittal” of Wilson – “reasonable belief” – and what we take to be their systematic misapplication in police interactions with people of color.

We do not propose to re-litigate the grand jury proceedings; we were not there. Our purpose instead is to challenge a set of deeper and problematic assumptions upon which the decision was based.

To justify his use of deadly force and escape prosecution under law, Wilson had to show the grand jury that he had a “reasonable belief” that Brown posed a threat to his life or that of others. Of his subjective belief that he was in danger, we have no doubt.

We begin with the subconscious realm from which beliefs emanate. The burgeoning field of behavioral psychology definitively endorses the basic observation that we human beings internalize the lessons, pictures and stories with which we are repeatedly presented growing up. Once established, these frameworks of understanding are not easily undone.

When it comes to young black men, it is a well-documented fact that police officers and the general public implicitly perceive in them a menace worthy to be feared. We ourselves have observed how the mere presence of a black man can trigger thoughts of crime and prompt (white) people to lock their doors, cross the street or avoid certain areas altogether, as documented on our blog.

The person feared in such cases is less an individual than an abstraction: the anonymous dark-skinned man or boy who represents deviance, joblessness, poverty, addiction and crime – a threat to “hard-working white folk” and American society at large. The media and many politicians dutifully bear these stereotypes out. Analysis of crime reporting finds a distinct over-representation of black offenders and underrepresentation of black victims in media accounts, relative to official rates. Furthermore, suspected black criminals are between two and four times as likely as suspected white criminals to have their mugshots shown, to be depicted under restraint and to go unnamed in news reports.

The consequences are severe. Recent FBI data for 2010-12 show that young black men run a risk of getting shot and killed by the police that is 21 times higher than that of young white men. Most of those killed were fleeing the scene rather than engaging in conflict with police. Another study found that just one in five black people killed by police were confirmed to be in possession of a gun, and fewer than one in 12 fired a shot while the police were on the scene (a clear justification for lethal force by police). In light of such findings of unconscious bias and its effects, it is hard to discount the grief and rage expressed by the black community.

For a fuller treatment of unconscious bias, we refer you to Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; for a snapshot of your own unconscious bias, we recommend the online Implicit Association Test, available to all.

When the officer called in his shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice, he reported that he was a 20 year old male.
When the officer called in his shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice, he reported that he was a 20 year old male.

As such, Wilson’s claim to have believed that Brown, a young black man, posed a threat to life and limb during their altercation is plausible. The same goes for Cleveland Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while the boy was playing near a park with a toy gun that apparently looked real.

But was the belief reasonable?

If belief is subjective to the individual, reasonableness, according to legal precedent, denotes an objective standard applicable to all. To the grand jury, Wilson described his fatal encounter with Brown as follows: “When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan . . . that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” For context, Brown, an 18-year-old, was 6-foot-4 and weighed an estimated 290 pounds. Wilson, a 28-year-old police officer with six years’ experience on the force, is also 6-foot-4 and weighs approximately 210 pounds – hardly a “5-year-old” by comparison. Furthermore, photo evidence from the night of the incident shows Wilson having only some redness on his cheek and no significant bruising, in spite of the punches he allegedly sustained. This has led some people to question Wilson’s account that Brown assaulted him and argue instead that his self-infantilization is merely in defense of his unjustifiable reaction.

Aside from the physical encounter, Wilson’s descriptions of Brown before the grand jury betray a troubling and unreasonable dehumanization of his adversary. According to Wilson, Brown “had the most aggressive face . . . it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” When Wilson began firing shots, “it looked like (Brown) was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” He fired 12 shots at Brown.

Such accounts, and the actions they are given to justify, may have been deemed “reasonable” a century ago, but they must be rejected in a court of law today. They are reminiscent of the descriptions first given by white colonial explorers who “discovered” foreign lands. According to these, whiteness implied the superior and hence dominant “Occident” and blackness and brownness the inferior and therefore subject “Other” or “Orient.” As the postcolonial scholar Edward Said observes in Orientalism, this “textual attitude” toward “the Other” is independent of empirical reality, contradictory experience, or the contemporary moment. From 17th-century travel diaries to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and D. W. Griffith’s blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation (1915), Western popular culture has long portrayed black men in terms consistent with Wilson’s description of Brown’s “most aggressive face . . . like an (angry) demon”.

As such, Wilson’s unsavory account amounts to “textual attitude,” little grounded in fact. Indeed, data on unlawful behavior across racial groups suggest criminality is hardly limited to black and brown people, even if rates of arrest, prosecution and incarceration are highly disproportionate. For example, studies find that black and white people use and sell illegal drugs at roughly the same rate.

In sum, Wilson’s position, however believable, must be deemed unreasonable. It is inexcusable for society in today’s era of equality and human rights to legally endorse perceptions, rooted in colonialism and slavery, of black people as not quite human. For black people to be perceived as such (even if these perceptions are shrouded in descriptions of them as otherworldly and therefore impervious to bullets and perhaps immortal) is an affront to our humanity, dignity and lives. Quite literally, it puts our children at perpetual risk of being shot and killed by the police. How can that be considered reasonable under law?

Stats show that relative rates of police killings of white and black people are extremely disproportionate: young  black men run a risk of being killed by the police that is 21 times higher than their white peers.
Stats show that relative rates of police killings of white and black people are extremely disproportionate: young black men run a risk of being killed by the police that is 21 times higher than their white peers.

Regrettably, however, this seems to have been the pattern in cases of police use of deadly force against people of color (whether legitimate suspects or not). Few police officers have been indicted or convicted in such instances partly because the standard of “objective reasonableness” has been interpreted to depend only on the officers’ subjective judgments. Courts have prevented the consideration of hindsight and preferred officers’ accounts of events, over even contradictory scientific evidence, in some instances.

If America is to learn the lessons of Ferguson, we must separate the subjective beliefs of panic-fueled police officers from the standard of objective reasonableness required in a court of law. We must peel back the many layers of subconscious bias that equate blackness with deviance and crime. We must work, as police officers and the public, to see other human beings as fully human. For the sake of our children and communities, we pray that this crisis will not go to waste.

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