In the United States a man stood on a street corner, breaking the law. He was selling cigarettes.
He had a large physical stature. And he was African American.
The police arrived, and shortly thereafter Mr Garner, the father of 6, was dead.
Mr Garner did not pull a gun. He did not attack with a knife. Yet, he was killed.
After the events in Ferguson, the tragedy of this circumstance is magnified.
Leaving aside a series of very important issues (race, inequality, justice in society, etc, etc), there are some critical issues that need to be discussed.
For example, what must be happening for police officers so that killing this person was the best, or only, option? Why is 30 times more dangerous to be a person of colour approached by an Anglo-descendant police officer than if you are white?
Regardless of claims of inherent ‘racist’ attitudes on behalf of police forces, the truth is that individual officers have to make split second decisions based on learned and perceived risk, and are often operating under circumstances of high adrenaline and fear. The neuropsychology of decision making can tell us a lot about what was really going on.
In such circumstances of fear and adrenaline, decision making is greatly affected. Entering survival mode with increased focus, the inability to evaluate broader patterns of information and operating off patterned survival responses are normal. Being able to logically evaluate, think through outcomes and consequences is greatly diminished.
Further, assessments are made using heuristics, or mental short cuts. This means that quality evaluations are not made, and logical leaps based upon small levels of evidence are made.
For example, confirmational bias may have meant that one small movement made by Mr Garner was interpreted as ‘dangerous’ confirming that he was ‘completely dangerous’. Without thinking deeply, this bias, supported by adrenaline and fear, triggers survival responses- which, for an officer in “the land of the gun” must be pretty strong.
The officers also evaluate Mr Garner as belonging to particular groups very rapidly under these circumstances, and invoke more extreme stereotypes about their memberships of those groups. (When they are from different groups from those we are members of, we automatically invoke more extreme stereotypes to increase the ‘difference’ between us). These activated stereotypes inform the officers of the threat and risk, rather than relying on real, more nuanced evaluations.
Imagine if Mr Garner was:
- A little old lady in a wheelchair.
- Or a student of Chinese descent with a school bag and a laptop
- Or a Muslim Cleric in robes, with a backpack
- Or an African American female in a business suit with an expensive briefcase
- Or a large, casually dressed African American breaking the law on a street corner.
What was your response to each of these ‘stereotypes’?
What behaviours, intentions or risks did you imply just from these thin portraits?
To break the cycle, we need law enforcement officers (and, I would suggest, everyone in society) to be exposed to a deeper understanding of different groups, cultures and individuals. In this way, we have more nuanced frames of reference, and our brains cannot make such rapid leaps to ill informed stereotypes.
Perhaps this will allow us to THINK about how we relate to each other, rather than reacting. It will allow us to learn, to value diversity and to see beyond simple labels and stereotypes. And as we think through our actions and consequences, perhaps Mr Garner would have been able to go home and hug his kids.