Why Cops Kill Black People: Research Suggests a Troubling Pattern of 'Retaliatory Violence'

Human Rights

On April 5, police in Barstow, California, fired at least 30 shots at an unarmed 26-year-old African-American named Diante Yarber while he was sitting in a car in the parking lot of a local Walmart. Yarber, who was the father of a 7-year-old child and a 19-month-old infant, was reportedly struck by at least 10 bullets and died at the scene. He did not receive immediate care for his wounds. An independent autopsy conducted by a private medical examiner has allegedly found that Yarber might have survived had he received proper medical attention.

San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies apparently came to the Walmart parking lot in response to "a report of a suspicious vehicle," and have also said that Yarber was wanted for questioning in an auto theft investigation. S. Lee Merritt, an attorney hired by Yarber's family, framed the issue this way in an interview with the Guardian: "They saw a car full of black people sitting in front of a Walmart, and they decided that was suspicious." In any event, the car in which Yarber died was not stolen.

Police have claimed that Yarber accelerated his car in a threatening way, hitting two of their vehicles and endangering the deputies' lives. This prompted them to shoot at his car dozens of times. Even by that own version of events, the use of lethal force against Yarber was an apparent violation of police procedure. Yarber's aunt has since retrieved the vehicle he was driving, and claims that it shows no signs of collision damage.

Merritt, the Yarber family's lawyer, has since alleged that one of the officers involved in the incident was previously arrested on charges of committing a hate crime against a black couple. That may sound coincidental, but it fits into a much larger and grimly familiar pattern.

America has a well-rehearsed public script when unarmed black and brown people are killed by police under questionable circumstances. To begin with, the following narrative will be invoked: The police involved were in fear for their lives and "had no choice" but to use lethal force against Yarber and his companions. (A woman who was in the car with him was also injured.)

Police should always be given the benefit of the doubt, and if it turns out they acted inappropriately in this case (or any other) that's to be understood as an outlier. A few "bad apples" cannot be seen as representative of America's police as a whole. Any criticism of law enforcement in general will be greeted with protests that there is a "war on police" and that "blue lives matter." Subtly or otherwise, Yarber will be deemed somehow responsible for his own death. In total, America's police should always be granted a presumption of innocence and benign intent.

The truth of the situation that produces incidents like these is quite different, and more troubling. Recent research by social scientists Vladimir Bejan, Matthew Hickman, William S. Parkin and Veronica F. Pozo, published in the January 2018 edition of the journal PLOS One, suggests that American police are engaged in a pattern of "retaliatory violence" against black and brown people.

In this dynamic when police officers are motivated by fears of death (legitimate or otherwise), they feel a sense of personal and group identification with social order, control and power. In the United States this inevitably overlaps with social hierarchies such as race and class. The authors write that law enforcement officers "are hired and trained to support the dominant cultural worldview of the communities they serve through the enforcement of codified legal norms," and any increase in "mortality salience," or perceived threat, is likely to "increase their defense of that worldview." The Black Lives Matter movement and other forms of activism against police violence are understood as "threatening the predominant worldview and the established culture of the criminal justice system."

Protest behavior and citizen activism as shared on social media also play a role in the level of violence between police and the public. Bejan and his fellow researchers discuss this as well:

Those who have used the Black Lives Matter hashtag or terminology in ways meant to either empower or disenfranchise the movement may have brought along with their messages a heightened awareness of the life endangering conflict that occurs between law enforcement officers and minority communities and, in doing so, appear to increase the risk to both.

This research paper, entitled "Primed for death: Law enforcement-citizen homicides, social media, and retaliatory violence," concludes that after a police officer is killed, other police are likely to retaliate by using lethal force against nonwhites, even when that's entirely unnecessary. Conversely, police are less likely to retaliate with lethal force against white people - -even when the latter may pose a greater threat:

Our results provide evidence of a retaliatory, violent relationship between law enforcement and citizens. Unexpected shocks to the number of law enforcement officers killed are associated with more minorities killed and fewer whites killed on the same day. In addition, our models found that unexpected increases in citizen deaths increased the number of law enforcement officers killed if the citizens were white non-Hispanics, and decreased the number of law enforcement officers killed if the citizens were minorities. ...

In addition, officers who are death primed may underestimate the risk posed by those from their perceived ingroup (such as whites) and be less prepared to use fatal force against these individuals if a contact requires. This would explain the significant decrease in the number of white non-Hispanics killed after an officer is killed in the line of duty.

The killing of Diante Yarber and so many other black and brown men, women and children by America's police are individual tragedies. But these killings should also be understood as representing a much larger systemic problem in America, where justice is has never been colorblind and where certain groups are advantaged and others disadvantaged. This is not an aberration or defect; in many respects it is America's legal system working as designed.

Will the deputies who killed Diante Yarber face any significant punishment for taking his life? We can't know the answer in advance, but the data suggests that is unlikely.

Will Diante Yarber be the last black or brown person killed by America's police under questionable circumstances? No. As of April 26, America's police have already killed 352 people in 2018, 68 of them black.

More than 50 years after James Baldwin wrote his searing essay "A Report From Occupied Territory," its words still ring true.

I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once -- but, of course, I cannot prove it. I cannot prove it because the Police Department investigates itself, quite as though it were answerable only to itself. But it cannot be allowed to be answerable only to itself. It must be made to answer to the community which pays it, and which it is legally sworn to protect, and if American Negroes are not a part of the American community, then all of the American professions are a fraud.

The story of race in America is a story of change, and a story of things remaining the same. To measure our progress, or lack thereof, all we need to do is to look at how America's police treat the public, and look in turn at who  fills the prison cells -- and all too often the cemeteries.

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