Harris says police need to move away from warrior mindset


David Harris, a Pitt law professor, has focused his research on the study of police conduct, search and seizure law and how race and criminal justice are intertwined. His book, “Profiles in Injustice,” published in 2002, focuses on many of these topics.

Since 2016, he has hosted the Criminal Justice Podcast, where he interviews activists, journalists and more to provide commentary on the criminal justice system throughout the U.S.

At the Center on Race and Social Problem’s June 10 event, “The CRSPcast: Race and Policing with David Harris,” James Huguley, the interim director of the center, and John Wallace, the  senior fellow for research and community engagement, said Harris’ work is especially important as the U.S. grapples the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Floyd’s death has prompted a series of protests and instances of police brutality at the protests.

But African-American communities have struggled with police brutality and misconduct for a much longer time, Harris said. Instead of offering a moment, he named many more victims of excessive force, including Breyonna Taylor, Ahmad Armory, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Botham Jean and many more. And there were too many more to name, he said.

“The list is literally too long to finish and too horrible to contemplate,” Harris said.

He then reviewed data collected on fatal police shootings of armed and unarmed people collected through extensive reporting from The Washington Post and The Guardian.

“And you’d think that the source for something like this would be the federal government, the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, they’re going to have a handle on this,” Harris said. “Well, they don’t.”

This is because the federal government can’t force local police departments to hand over that data, which is something former Attorney General Eric Holder fought against, he added.

Whenever local law enforcement does give the FBI a collection of data, it is often underreported, usually, by more than half, he said.

The news organizations began collecting data in 2015, after protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, and are the best and only sources of data on fatal police shootings. However, there are limits to the collected data, since it tracks police shootings and not instances of fatal police encounters without a gun, he said.

Notably, Floyd’s death wouldn’t appear in the data, Harris said.

Overall, the data show that black people are disproportionately shot and killed by police, more than twice the rate of white people, Harris said. 

The amount of fatal police shootings overall has hovered around 1,000 or less per year since 2015, Harris said, noting that while they haven’t increased, they also haven’t decreased despite reform efforts and additional training.

The root causes behind cases of excessive uses of force are race and fear, Harris said, and can quickly lead to deadly situations.

“This results in incidents that shouldn’t be violent becoming violent, those that are violent become lethal,” Harris said.

There’s extensive academic literature detailing the dominant stereotypes of black men, including that they are inherently violent criminals. These and other stereotypes contribute to biases people hold about them, Harris said.

One study conducted by Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford University, revealed just how quickly biases reveal themselves.

Researchers showed pictures of white people and people of color, individually and in groups, mixed in with images of guns or other weapons. When the weapons appeared, participants’ eyes would go directly to black faces, Harris said.

Another study revealed that when people view pictures of black children, their age, size and strength are often grossly overestimated. The death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland is an example of how these beliefs can lead to fatal encounters with police. The officer and prosecutors described Rice as over 18 years old weighing more than 185 pounds.

This is, of course, related to fear, the other “toxin” that leads to fatal police encounters, Harris said.

“Now I want to be clear about this in not saying that police officers are not brave and courageous, exhibit physical courage, all the time,” Harris said. “Many of them are quite brave in ways I wouldn’t be, but the presence of bravery and courage does not mean an absence of fear. And fear is very much part of police training and culture today.”

One very influential form of training widely used in law enforcement and private training across the country comes from the book “On Combat” by Dave Grossman. This book inspired “warrior” training and seminars.

“The idea of being a warrior, is simply this: there’s a war going on out there, and police are the frontline,” Harris said. “We police officers, we’re the ones who have to be prepared to protect people from the vicious predators out there, and we have to be prepared to do that by using righteous violence to overcome those predators.”

Grossman likes to use the idea that police are sheepdogs guarding the public, who are sheep, from wolves, Harris said.

“What this training does, what this acculturation does, is it amps up the fear, and it gives you a way to face it by using violence,” Harris said. “And this is amped up through the use of videos of police officers being murdered and all kinds of other things. That’s the presence of fear and police training and culture.”

To lower fatal police encounters, Harris suggested that departments must move away from warrior policing to “guardian” policing, “where we take care of our neighbors, and we protect and serve them as neighbors, and we are guardians, police officers, that is, of the public peace and tranquility.

“That’s what we want our police to do besides answering real emergencies for us,” Harris said. “We don’t want them fighting the war. This isn’t Iraq. This isn’t a war. Not a metaphorical war, not a real war.”

Further, use of force laws need to be changed, and departments need to increase their transparency, which leads to accountability, Harris said.

“For too long, citizens have observed that police are not always held accountable for what they do when they make mistakes or commit misconduct,” Harris said. “I don’t say never, but because there’s no transparency, we don’t know.”

Without this transparency, police officers with extensive histories of misconduct keep their jobs or are rehired by other departments.

Further, re-examining laws for minor offenses can help lead to fewer police interactions overall with fewer chances for escalation, he said. Additionally, thinking of alternatives to calling the police for certain situations can help lower the rates of excessive force.

Harris also encouraged listeners to take the time and empathize with others.

“Think about how people different than you would experience police or state intervention in their lives,” Harris said. “I think you will see there are reasons that people are upset or reason that there are protests, and there are reasons things must change. We cannot go on like this, you can’t, you won’t. You have the power to be different.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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