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Burdens of “Bias”: Why the Ferguson Outcome Was No Surprise to UC Berkeley Expert

November 25, 2014
by Glen Martin

Many of the protestors who had gathered on Ferguson, Missouri’s streets last night correctly predicted that a St. Louis County grand jury would not indict Officer Darren Wilson on criminal charges in the shooting death of African-American teenager Michael Brown. So, too, did UC Berkeley social psychologist Jack Glaser, an associate professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, who felt the decision was “not even close.”

“Charging a police officer with homicide is a very, very high bar,” says Glaser, a specialist in racial bias. “That happens even when police officers shoot other police officers, which happens from time to time.” And even when criminal charges are filed, he says, trial juries seldom decide on harsh verdicts for officers involved in fatal shootings.

“We see that even when there are unambiguous conditions for an unjustified shooting—such as the shooting of Oscar Grant by [BART police officer] Johannes Mehserle,” Glaser says. “Grant was down on the ground, and Mehserle shot him in the back.” (Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years of imprisonment, minus the time served during his pre-trial incarceration. He served his time in a private cell in the Los Angeles County jail.)

Grand juries, at least at the state level, often do not indict police officers, as a report from the data-driven news site notes: “A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that ‘police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings’ in Houston and other large cities in recent years…(while) separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.”

So how did the grand jury considering charges against the Ferguson officer decline to indict, despite the testimony of multiple witnesses claiming Brown was shot down in cold blood?

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch maintains that the testimony of some witnesses was inconsistent and he presented forensic evidence indicating that Brown reached into the police car before the shooting—an act that could be construed as provocation. But there have been complaints for months that the prosecutor wasn’t the right person to pursue the indictment. In fact, Glaser wrote an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August calling on Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to remove him.

“McCulloch’s reputation is that he’s a very stand-up guy,” Glaser says. “But his father was a police officer who was shot and killed by an African-American man. That’s a problematic background to bring to a case like this. He was called to recuse himself, and he didn’t—but he should’ve. Then the governor was urged to remove McCulloch, and he didn’t—but again, he should’ve. This isn’t the mere appearance of a conflict of interest. It is a conflict of interest. It is reasonable to assume that McCulloch would be compromised in his ability to be objective in this case.”

Indeed, an attorney for Michael Brown’s family says that the prosecutor behaved too much like a defense attorney for the police officer—a charge that McCulloch and his supporters adamantly reject.

Glaser also found the case to be yet another example in a string of cases in which black and brown men are killed by police, and whites fail to perceive a racial component—in part, he argues, because of a misunderstanding of the nature of modern prejudice.

“Say ‘racism’ and most Americans visualize Bull Connor and his dogs, or Gov. Wallace at the schoolhouse door,” he wrote. “Yet psychological scientists have long known that the problem is far subtler and more insidious. The stereotypes and prejudices that people harbor today reside outside of their conscious awareness, causing them to behave discriminatorily despite their best intentions. One of these enduring stereotypes is associating blacks with crime and violence. This is just as true—but the consequences most profound—in the split second when police have to decide whether to use lethal force. In psychological research simulating street conditions, police are faster to shoot armed blacks than armed whites, and more likely to shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites. Other research has shown that when police officers are subliminally influenced to think of black men, they are faster to identify weapons; when they are primed to think of crime, their visual attention gets drawn to black faces.”

A 2010 report from the New York State Task Force on Police-on-Police Shootings found that of the ten fatal shootings of off-duty police officers by on-duty officers in the past three decades, nine victims were black or Hispanic. “Because off-duty officers are unlikely to be posing a threat to on-duty officers,” Glaser notes, “this staggering disproportion is evidence of an endemic problem of bias.”

Even so, he acknowledges in the wake of the grand jury decision that from a prosecutor’s point of view, the Ferguson case wasn’t particularly strong.

“But it says a lot about Ferguson. The relationship between the police and the community was very poor, due at least in part to the gross underrepresentation [of African Americans] on the force. I’ve had anecdotal conversations with officers who feel that they would not have seen the same reactions if something like the Brown shooting had happened in their communities, due to greater minority representation on the forces and better all-around relations with local people. Clearly, police should work proactively to improve community relations.”

That could well include training in “de-escalation” techniques, says Glaser.

“I hesitate to postmortem [Ferguson], but it is a real phenomenon that police are shooting African-American males at rates that are unlikely to be justified by behavior,” he says, citing this week’s police shooting death of a 12-year-old African-American boy who was brandishing a toy gun in a Cleveland park and the fatal shooting by a rookie cop of an unarmed 28-year-old black man in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project.

Yet Glaser also expresses sympathy for the average cop on the street, who often must make split-second decisions under trying circumstances.

“As a rule, police officers do not want to fire their weapons,” he says. “But officers are human. They make mistakes, and their mistakes can have very dire consequences. Unfortunately, as long as the police have guns and the right to use lethal force, this problem isn’t going to disappear. That said, we shouldn’t just cut slack and forget about this. It is incumbent on police officers and their supervisors to get the training they need to minimize these incidents.”

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