A Black Policeman's Sister On Police Reform And Police Unions

My late brother was a police officer and, before his retirement, our late grandfather was the Acting Commissioner of Public Safety in the U.S. Virgin Islands. So it’s fair to say that I come from a police friendly family. Before coming to work for the Shanker Institute and before that, the AFT, I worked for the AFL-CIO alongside trade unionists from all trades and professions. So it makes it all the more painful to see the asinine responses that police unions have had to charges of police bias and brutality toward African Americans, especially since these charges can so easily be proven to be valid (see hereherehere and here). And, as the mother of a Black male teen, I am terrified to send him out into the world where his very existence may be seen as a threat (see herehere and here).

One of ironies here is that recent calls to “defund the police” and “reform the police,” if executed with rational foresight, would actually go a long way to making the job easier for rank and file police officers. I remember my brother telling me that the call he hated the very most was responding to a person who was having a psychiatric episode. He thought that breaking up a fight or a robbery or even a murder would be preferable, because he had been trained how to respond in those situations. With mental instability, he had no clue: Should he try to talk them down? If they were violent, what was the proper use of force? How should he defend himself and others? Or should he just wait for medical personnel to arrive? In every case, he had to play it by ear. The call to “defund the police” is not actually a call to abolish police departments, as some on the Right have claimed. Instead, it’s a proposal to move some police funding to other municipal agencies that have more expertise in addressing the social ills that are now dumped on police departments as a last resort—such as mental disability, homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, etc. The proposal, then, is to strengthen local social services to the point that they can relieve police forces of some of the functions that they are disastrously ill equipped to handle.

Were asking cops to do too much in this country,” said Dallas Police Chief David Brown in a 2016 Washington Post articleWe are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; lets have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, lets give it to the cops. … Thats too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

How should these social and mental health issues that cops now handle be addressed? Unfortunately, this is yet to be determined, but is something that local jurisdictions should start considering now. For example, if there is any question of a danger to bystanders in psychiatric cases, then perhaps trained mental health professionals could be on standby to be deployed along with police officers. Maybe police officers could undergo extensive additional training, compensated with additional pay, to respond more appropriately to mental health emergencies. Or perhaps a special unit could be developed in the Fire Department, which responds with ambulances to most health emergencies. Because, after all, these actually are health emergencies outside of the scope of normal policing. Questions of how to best address homelessness, drug abuse, and other social ills would also need careful deliberation, but it’s quite clear that police forces are not the best option. 

If police unions are smart, they will have to stop being so defensive and obstructionist. Instead, they will need to use whatever links they have to local community organizations to open an honest dialogue with the communities they serve, and ask for a seat at the table when policy decisions are being made. But perhaps the first item on the agenda is for police unions to diversify their own leadership. For example, according to one report, the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police association, “consists of seven white men. Such a lack of diversity is striking in an organization that claims 30 percent of its members are officers of color. And many local chapters appear to be run by white cops—even in cities with police forces that are predominantly of color.”

I have a few additional suggestions for what police unions can bring to the table:


In terms of race relations, it’s obvious that additional training for virtually all officers is needed urgently. For police unions, this should be a top priority. Along with everyone else who was raised in our society, police officers are all subject to implicit bias, at least to some degree or another—that is to say, unconscious judgments and opinions that arise through a system of mental processes that are so quick as to be imperceptible. And the fact that they are auto­matic and outside of conscious control can make them very hard to counter and correct for. Being influenced by racial and cultural stereotypes is one of the more common forms of implicit bias. Stereotypes are cognitive associations between a group and a trait (or set of traits), such as women and nurtur­ing, men and leadership skills, Black males and aggression, etc. After frequent (and sometimes subtle) exposures from our social environments, these mental associations form automatically, even in the absence of conscious antipathies toward these groups. (For previous posts on implicit bias, see herehere and here.)

There is a huge amount of evidence to show that White reactions to unknown Black faces is automatic and without conscious control. For decades, brain scan studies have been conducted to examine participants’ reactions in the amygdala (a part of the brain associated with the fight-or-flight response that is thought to help process perceptual information related to external threats) when exposed to White and Black faces. White responses to unfamiliar Black faces were significant. Furthermore, the darker the face, the more extreme the response. Interestingly, this finding (though to a lesser degree) is even found among other African Americans, indicating that cultural stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our society.  

In experiments using video games, researchers analyzed shoot/don't shoot decisions facing police officers. Although the differences weren’t enormous, participants were found to be both more likely to shoot an unarmed Black “civilian” target and less likely to shoot an armed “hostile” target who was White. Which helps to explain a finding in a Psychology Today article, that “Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than Whites to be killed by police. Despite millions of dollars poured into trainings against such heinous acts, the outcomes have been insufficient. One of the reasons for their failure to cause positive changes may be that they target the logical part of our brain. We must get creative and sculpt workshops that discipline our non-conscious system. It is imperative to access Americas collective non-conscious and do a lot more than remodeling.” I agree. 

Implicit bias training, however, is not the answer. There is very little evidence that training police about their own implicit bias is at all effective, and some evidence that it might actually make things worse. There are some promising ideas to help, however. Police training can be improved by forming partnerships with academic researchers to develop more rigorous training practices, curricula based on evidence-based practices, and careful evaluation of new and existing training programs. For example, a promising new police training method is designed to help officers overcome stress-related cognitive, perceptual, and physical deficits. Core components include education about the physiology of the stress response, instruction in mental focus and visualization to enhance sensory perception, and instruction in the use of biofeedback and controlled breathing exercises that enhance self-control during stress. “Controlled breathing is not a relaxation exercise; rather, it balances the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system during stress, facilitating states of moderate arousal and blocking panic reactions and hyperventilation responses that lead to maladaptive sensory responses such as tunnel vision and auditory exclusion.” 

This approach makes sense given the quantity of evidence from behavioral studies and neuroimaging research on decision making under stress, which shows a mental switch from analytic reasoning to intuitive “snap-judgement” processes, which are susceptible to implicit bias. Breathing exercises also have the added benefit of allowing the analytic brain to take over. For example, in one experiment, researchers measured White responses to unfamiliar Black faces at 30 milliseconds and 525 milliseconds. At 525 milliseconds, the automatic amygdala response “was significantly reduced, and accompanied by Black>White activation in regions of frontal cortex associated with control/regulation,” which is “associated with attempts to control unwanted prejudicial responses to Black faces.” Such training might have made a difference in the egregious shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 by a rookie cop, mere seconds after police arrived on the scene. 

Changing Behaviors

Another idea that police unions should champion is to work with police departments to compile and analyze police incident data on arrest rates and the use of force in their jurisdictions. This idea, which is promoted by Philip Atiba Goff (a respected scholar on policing and race) and his colleagues at the Center for Policing Equity, notes that it is more effective to focus on changing behaviors, rather than beliefs and attitudes. Implicit bias is only a problem if it is acted upon. Instead, Goff’s approach targets “bias-inducing situations” and seeks ways to diminish them. According to Goff, Each and every one of us, we measure things that matter to us. Businesses measure profit; good students keep track of their grades; families chart the growth of their children.” By keeping careful track of police incidents, problematic trends and patterns are revealed as well as ways they can be addressed. 

For example, Goff and his Center worked with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) in an attempt to reduce the racial disparities in the use of force against racial and ethnic minorities. “In 2010 alone, the LVMPD shot 25 people, killing eight,” reported the World Economic Forum. “The U.S. Department of Justice investigated, and ‘found that an overwhelming majority of unarmed suspects shot by [LVMPD] police since 2007 were Black or Latino, and every suspect shot during an officer-initiated stop was a minority,’ reported the Las Vegas Sun.” Data analysis by the Center for Policing Equity “found a disproportionate use of force following foot pursuits. Theres a scientific explanation for why this might occur: when a police officer is running on foot, the officers heart rate and adrenaline rises, leading them to be more aggressive. This knowledge allowed them to implement changes—like requiring the officer to count to ten or wait until backup arrives before engaging with the individual.”

In another example, many of the “Black civilian deaths fueling the current debate occurred during traffic stops for minor offenses such as a burned-out tail light (as in the cases of Walter Scott and Philando Castile) or a missing front license plate (as in the case of Samuel DuBose). Whether or not these stops were racially motivated,” studies show that simply “limiting police authority to stop motorists substantially reduces biased incidents. In situations where police stop drivers based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, Black and white drivers are pulled over at similar rates. In contrast, when officers conduct stops for minor traffic violations, Black drivers are pulled over at rates disproportionate to their population share—and tensions can flare over minor matters.” (Quotes above are from here, based on this research paper.)

Neighborhood Policing

Community (or neighborhood) policing is another policy that police unions should advocate. There are actually many different versions of what has been called a “community policing” or “neighborhood policing,” some of which have been around for decades. With new administrative leadership and budget cutbacks, however, these programs have fallen in and out of vogue. 

According to an article in Governing magazine: “Thirty years ago, community policing was an idea that many police chiefs and academics expected would transform law enforcement. The movement, which included deploying police officers to walk neighborhood streets rather than ride in police cars, enjoyed some notable successes in crime reduction in the 1990s. But in the aughts, many departments shifted to other approaches. The financial crisis of 2007-2008, with its widespread cutbacks in police officer levels, further diminished community policing, which was dependent on having more cops on the beat. Now violent crime is rising again in many cities. At the same time, videos of police shootings have reinforced suspicions of law enforcement. Techniques such as flooding crime ‘hot spots’ with police officers no longer seem feasible.” In response, some police departments are reviving these programs. In some cases, community policing programs are fairly formal, such as police departments establishing contacts with community organizations and perhaps setting up routine meetings. The most beneficial version, however, is to imbed specific officers in specific neighborhoods, allowing for personal relationships and trust to develop. 

There is evidence that this could be hugely beneficial. It seems that familiarly does not breed contempt, so much as peaceableness. For example, one experiment found the same initial “fight or flight” or fear response to the presentation of unknown Black faces that had been found in previous experiments, but a very different response to familiar Black faces, such as Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, and Denzel Washington. “These results suggest that the amygdala's response to Black faces in White subjects is not observed when they are familiar and positively regarded.”

As a colleague has written, “We rely on stereotypes (and other cognitive shortcuts) more heavily when there are more unknowns to a situation—for example, when we dont know a person well, when we are unfamiliar with the goals of the interaction, when the criteria for judgment are unclear or subjective, etc. This suggests that the more information we have about a person or situation, the less likely we are to automatically fill in potential (knowledge) gaps with more ‘generic’ information (e.g., stereotypes). In fact, ‘individuating’—or gathering very specific information about a persons background, tastes etc.—has been proposed as an effective ‘de-biasing’ strategy. When you get to know somebody, you are more likely to base your judgments on the particulars of that person than on blanket characteristics...” This fact alone gives me hope.

Bargaining for the Common Good

My last recommendation is that police unions seek to bring community representatives with them to the bargaining table. This approach, which has been called “Bargaining for the Common Good,” has been successful for many public sector unions. It also has the added benefit of building community support for issues and perspectives that are important to the police force, as well as serving to enlighten the police union’s membership about issues and concerns that are vital to the community. 

According to an article in The Forge, “Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) is a recent phenomenon, but one with deep roots and many precedents in U.S. labor history.  As a contemporary phenomenon, its outlines became clear through a series of campaigns first led by teachers and other public sector workers pushing back against the austerity regime that held sway in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Teachers in Chicago and St. Paul, and public sector workers in Oregon and San Diego were among the early pioneers of this approach. They understood that there was no way to confront the dynamics of austerity—and especially its devastating impacts on our most vulnerable communities—unless workers and those communities joined together around a shared analysis to advance common goals. Unions decided to bring community allies into their bargaining campaigns, to invite the community to help shape their demands.”

One of the earliest instances was in Minnesota. Using a state law that allowed members of the public to observe public sector union negotiations, in 2011, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SFPT) began to encourage anyone involved with the education of St. Paul children to attend. According to the SPFT president at the time, the “first session attracted just eight people, but the audience grew steadily after that. By the end of the nine-month-long process, nearly a hundred union members, parents, and others from the St. Paul community were showing up—and we had both parent and rank-and-file voices on our side of the table.” In preparation for the next round of negotiations in 2013, the union became even more organized, forming study groups many months in advance to consider what the union’s priorities should be. The study groups were composed of teachers, parents and community members who committed themselves to meet monthly for eight months. The district raised objections to the proposals and tried to close meetings to the public, but with full community support, the union was able to succeed. Among other items, SPFT was able to win “a commitment to expand the preschool program and to hire additional nurses, counselors, librarians, and social workers. We won an agreement for reasonable and predictable class sizes and a reduction of standardized testing. We established School Climate Improvement Teams composed of educators and parents who would collaborate to make students of all ethnic and racial backgrounds feel welcome and reduce the number of suspensions and other measures used to discipline children.”

Police officers and their unions have become feared and distrusted, especially among Black and Latino communities. For those who have sworn to protect and defend all citizens of all communities, I can’t think of a better way to reestablish trust than to bring the community into contract negotiations. Civilian oversight shouldn’t just mean scrutiny after the fact, when wrongdoing has already happened or been alleged, but at the front end when ground rules for police conduct are being negotiated. 

And, of course, police officers themselves need to step up to the plate. There can be no long lasting reform until officers take responsibility for policing, not only their own actions, but that of their colleagues. Just as teachers do through peer intervention and review, the police will only be respected as professionals when they take responsibility for policing themselves. Sadly, all of our lives depend on it.  

Issues Areas

Excellent article, outstanding references with doable solutions. Addressing the police union challenge is the "elephant" in the room that many don't address in the mainstream media. Thanks to the author for her courage.