Many of us woke up the other morning with one and/or two questions: how could a black male get to the point where he shoots twelve police officers, killing five and injuring seven?! Others may have asked, how can police officers continue killing black males who pose no or minimal immediate danger to them?!
The recent fatal shootings of two black males–Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN–by police officers followed by the deaths of five police officers at the hands of Micah Xavier Johnson has the public looking at both black males and police officers with confusion, frustration, and curiosity.
Imagine this: heart rate increasing, palms sweaty, looking straight ahead, hands that are precisely positioned at ten and two o’clock tighten around the steering wheel, turning down music, mind racing, no sudden movements. I have just stopped at a red light and a police car has pulled up next to me. My degrees, titles, and accolades don’t matter. I am a black man in close proximity to a white cop and I have been conditioned by my experiences and those of other black males to fear him, period, full-stop.
For most Americans, such a reaction to the presence of those charged with protecting and serving us is difficult to comprehend. Some might say, “Why would you have such a negative physical and psychological reaction if you have done nothing wrong?” I have literally chuckled out loud during conversations with my white colleagues and associates when they have offered such comments. Although they were sincere, they just didn’t get it. I would then provide personal and documented examples of police misconduct, harassment, and brutality, which include a list of murdered, unarmed black males. I would then rattle off statistics and research that illustrate that black males have worse outcomes at every level of the criminal justice system (e.g., arrests, convictions, sentencing, and parole) than white males. I would then explain that these disparities remain true after taking socio-demographic and other key variables into account.
While I acknowledge and deeply appreciate the fact that most police officers of all races do not kill black males and that they are hard working people who prevent and solve serious crimes, the question ultimately becomes, “So do you think some police officers harm, hurt, harass, or kill black males intentionally?” This question is very difficult to answer given that aggression can escalate in milliseconds without premeditation as well as the low likelihood that officers with malicious intent would admit to it.
There has been much discussion regarding the extent to which white police officers racially profile and hold negative bias toward black males such that aggression by the officer is more likely to occur in comparison to encounters with suspects of other races. This topic is indeed very important and merits continued debate. But given the murder of several white police officers in Dallas by Micah Xavier Johnson, it seems worthwhile to pose the question: what would it look like if black males profiled white police officers? As a result of my research on and dialogue with many black males, I would like to provide some insight regarding the potential mental profiles of white police officers that hurt, harass, or kill unarmed black males from a black male’s perspective. To be clear, this analysis is not an indictment (no pun intended) of all white police officers. I’ve grown to respect most police, although as noted above, I have not shaken the conditioning of my Queens, New York upbringing that overcomes me at red lights. My goal is to simply shed light on the ways in which many young black males perceive the attitudes and motivations of the small percentage of white officers who engage in conduct unbecoming given their position. I would actually encourage law enforcement leadership to discuss these perspectives during training of cadets and in-service training of veteran officers.
I would like to highlight four specific profiles of white police officers that have emerged via discussions with black males and personal experience: three with mentalities that often lead to negative outcomes and one that represents the ideal approach to policing. Although these profiles may apply to female police or policemen of other races, the overwhelming majority of black males that I have engaged via research and interpersonally have strong opinions about white, male officers. The acronym C.O.P.S. (Cleaner, Oppressor, Predator, and Servant) will represent these profiles and I will sprinkle these perspectives with social psychological concepts to sharpen various points. Although we do not know many details about Micah Xavier Johnson (the Dallas shooter) at the moment, we do know that he said that he wanted to kill white police officers because of the tragic fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In no way is this op-ed designed to excuse his actions, but it becomes less difficult to understand how Mr. Johnson could engage in such horrific behavior if he firmly embraced one or more of the Cleaner, Oppressor, or Predator profiles described below (in addition to the likelihood of some other mental health issues).
The Cleaner. Some black males may see white police officers as Cleaners. The Cleaner:
• Has a clean-up-the-streets-by-any-means-necessary mentality
• Seeks to rid the community of criminals and of those with criminal potential
• Believes that young Black and Brown males ought to be warehoused in jails and prisons for as long as possible because they have little to no redeeming or productive value
• Takes the broken windows policing approach to the extreme
• Sees the black male walking in the street, playing with a toy gun, selling loose cigarettes or CDs as someone who has or is likely to engage in more serious criminal behavior
• Engages in social categorization (profiling)–the un/conscious human tendency to place individuals in certain groups on the basis of age, race, and gender
• Believes that he must get black males off the streets as soon as possible even if that involves provoking a verbal or physical reaction from the suspect in order to charge him with resisting arrest or gunning him down for reaching for his wallet
• Believes that young + black + male = criminal
The Oppressor. Some black males may see white police officers as Oppressors. The Oppressor:
• Has an I’m God mentality (think detective Alonzo Harris, played by Denzel Washington in the movie Training Day when he says “I’m the man up in this piece . . . I’m the police, I run (expletive) here, you just live here . . . King Kong ain’t got (expletive) on me.”
• Enjoys exerting power over others; gets a rush from it
• Tends to be narcissistic
• Views non-compliance or lack of reverence of his mere presence as a personal insult, which leads to the psychological concept of wounded pride—the feeling that one’s lofty self-view is being questioned or undermined by the comments or behavior of others
• Deems any form of resisting arrest or back-talk from a pedestrian or suspect as highly disrespectful
• Shifts his motivation from arresting suspects for alleged crimes to teaching them a lesson about respecting the police in which the level of force — including deadly force — correlates with the size of and damage to the Oppressor’s ego
The Predator. Some black males may see white police officers as Predators. The Predator:
• Has a war mentality; embraces an us-versus-them, kill or be killed approach to policing
• Sees himself as a predator and criminals — real or perceived — as the prey
• Begins his shift high-fiving other predators and saying things like “let’s go crack some heads”
• Treats the community apathetically
• Views neighborhoods as the urban Serengeti upon which he hunts
• Suffers from the hostile attribution bias—the tendency to perceive others’ ambiguous actions toward him as aggressive
• Responds to sudden movements, raised voices, non-responses to a question, or twirling a fake gun with split second and reflexive aggression
• Feels confident that he can justify and get away with hurting, harassing, or killing a young black male because he is a member of a pride of Predators that cover for each other
The Servant. Because many black males will acknowledge that they have met some good police officers that worked hard and had good intentions, I offer the example of the Servant officer. The Servant officer:
• Has a protect-and-serve mentality
• Embraces and embodies the critical attributes of community policing
• Seeks to facilitate and to keep peace in the community, to de-escalate tense situations, and to develop positive rapport with residents
• Assumes innocence rather than guilt when confronting ambiguous situations while protecting him/herself and following appropriate procedures
• Treats all people fairly regardless of race, age, gender, how they dress, or how well-spoken they are
• Understands that he works for the community and sees himself as part of it
• Carries himself with a pleasant and an approachable demeanor
• Corrects and guides fellow officers who abuse their authority or show signs of the Cleaner, Oppressor, or Predator mentalities
• Has the patience and interpersonal skills to converse humanely with non-violent suspects
• Does not use banned chokeholds or shoot at suspects who run away slowly in broad daylight
• Does not aggressively roll up on a young man with guns blazing as he exits his patrol car
• Senses when a black male whom he knows is going down the wrong track or hanging with the wrong crowd and offers him positive advice and discusses the consequences of questionable actions
• Is open to the possibility of living in the community that he serves
• Feels personally insulted, embarrassed, and hurt when fellow officers unjustly injure or kill citizens
I’ve interacted with a few true servants in my life and thought it was actually pretty cool to have positive rapport with a police officer. The irony, according to police officers with whom I have spoken, is that residents are more likely to pull the servant officer aside and give him crime-solving information because they know and trust him.
At the end of the day, we will never know every detail of every incident of a black male dying at the hands of the police. We must understand, however, that police are human beings that have been raised in a society that has historically devalued black lives and remains plagued by subtle but measurable institutional and cultural racism and implicit bias. Understanding the power of the situation and social environments, I have come to the conclusion that we either have to remove racism from society (highly unlikely) to recruit unbiased police, or law enforcement leadership has to create a police subculture where unfair treatment of certain segments of the population is unacceptable and will be met with severe penalties.
The categories of police mentioned above are by no means exhaustive and there is variation in the extent to which individual officers embody them. More importantly, perceiving police officers as Cleaners, Oppressors, or Predators does not justify killing them. Again, I believe that the vast majority of police officers work hard and do their jobs well. It is my hope, however, that real and lasting change will occur as a result of recent tragedies such that we instill the Servant mentality into the few but potentially harmful Cleaners, Oppressors, and Predators that remain in police uniforms. While I encourage black people to hold the Cleaners, Oppressors, and Predators accountable, it is also very important that we encourage, support, recognize, and appreciate the Servant officers with whom we interact more regularly than we may realize. (Opinion editorial; update of original version published at www.bknation.com)
Rev. Dr. Bryant T. Marks, Sr. is a researcher and associate professor of psychology at Morehouse College, director of the Program for Research on Black Male Achievement, and a member of President Obama’s White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans Advisory Board. He speaks and provides training on race relations, educating minority students, implicit bias and the psychology, history, and culture of black people to school systems, organizations, colleges and universities, and law enforcement. He is also an ordained minister is working on a book entitled The Psychology of Young Black Males.