Like a lot of people, Michael Sierra-Arévalo doesn’t watch those police videos anymore. You know the ones: the bodycam footage and the cellphone videos. Last week, there was one showing a police officer killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, even though he had his hands up. And then there was one showing a cop in Minneapolis confusing her gun for her Taser, before shooting 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. “I spent a lot of time watching videos like that throughout most of my time in graduate school,” Sierra-Arévalo said. “And the more videos I watched, the clearer and clearer it became to me that the empirical observable reality of the video was actually not that important for what was happening in the world outside.”
Michael Sierra-Arévalo, who teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, studies policing and has spent hundreds of hours observing the cops in three different big city departments across the country. In his research, he’s anonymized the departments: The city he calls “Elmont” is on the East Coast; “West River” is out West; and the town he named “Sunshine” is in the Southwest. He’s thought a lot about the way police think about their jobs and how they speak to one another about the work they do. And when he sees these videos come across his news feeds, he know the police and the public will have a very different reaction to the footage.
You can’t understand the violence in these videos without understanding the people perpetuating the violence. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Sierra-Arévalo to try to understand that perspective. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: You say that those three police departments that you studied all shared a culture—a culture of fear.
Michael Sierra-Arévalo: For any of the officers listening, I know that they would never say they’re afraid. They would say that they are vigilant. They would say that they are prepared. And that’s the language that they use. In fact, they’ll even openly push back: “We’re not scared. We’re not training cops to be scared.” Even though I think it’s very easy to see how that is actually the case in many regards. What I talk about in my writing is that the academy in some ways just confirms the most fantastical parts of policing.
If you were to ask the average American what they think it means to be a police officer, they’d likely point to a movie or a TV show. They’d point to Cops or Live PD or Training Day or End of Watch or one of these films.
Chasing people, kicking in doors, getting in gunfights, making arrests. That is a very romantic version of what policing is.
How’s that different from what they actually do?
Well, it’s crushingly boring is the first thing. It’s a lot of driving in circles. And when you’re not driving in circles, you’re going to calls that have little or nothing to do with violence. If it is violence, more commonly, it’s things like a fight between roommates. It’s domestic abuse. Not that that’s not important, but it’s not a quadruple shooting or a double homicide or a gang war or what you see in TV and movies. And in some ways, the people that align with that view of what policing is, they’re not exactly disabused of it when they go into the academy. From the first day in the academy, you are taught that officer safety is your No. 1 concern.
Officer safety not public safety?
It’s never stated that police life is more important than public life, but in practice what officers learn is that I actually can’t keep anybody safe if I’m dead. Ergo, keeping myself alive is the most important thing that I can do in order for me to do my job.
So you’re taught to be vigilant about your own safety first for these sort of reasons of protecting the people around you.
That’s the way that it gets framed. The idea is that the public is the sheep, and there are the wolves that would do them harm. And we as police officers must learn to use violence in a way that defends the defenseless. And in order for us to be able to do that, we have to make sure that we are safe. To be clear, there is a lot of discussion of sacrifice. There is a lot of discussion of bravery and laying down one’s life. But again, in practice, we’re not talking about an active shooter every day or every week or every month. It’s about these low-level interactions that still demand constant vigilance and a willingness to engage in violence to stay safe at all costs.
You told this story about how in all of the places you visited, you noticed the officers had this habit when they were doing a traffic stop of touching the trunk of the person that they’d pulled over. And you started asking them why. And it was revelatory to you. Could you explain?
I first saw it in Elmont, and I didn’t really think anything of it. I just remembered it. And so I go to my next city, West River, and I see it happened really early on when I began riding along. And so I asked the officer—and he was a young officer, Mexican American guy, military veteran who had just joined the force—and he said, “You’re trained to do that because we want to make sure the trunk of the car is closed, because we want to make sure that if there’s a gunman hiding in that trunk, that they can’t jump out and ambush us.” I was surprised.
Was there any reason to believe that there was a gunman in the trunk when you were on a traffic stop with him?
I would answer your question with what they might ask, which is: How do you know there isn’t one? And that’s the kind of logic that underlies this behavior. There always could be. And technically speaking, in a mathematical sense, they’re not wrong that there could be. It’s Schrödinger’s gunman in the trunk. And they behave as such. They do these things on the grounds that it could be the thing that potentially saved their lives. But I even asked him, “OK, have you ever heard of that actually happening?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well, seeing as how you can’t think of a time that’s ever happened, could you at least admit that the probability of that happening is very, very low?” And his response is, “Yeah, it’s low, but that’s how we’re trained. We don’t train to stop granny. We train for the worst-case scenario. We train for someone to try and hurt us, to have a gun.” The gist was that the potential cost is just too high to not do this. And I think that logic, that way of understanding why police do what they do, allows police to defend almost anything that they do. Every stop, every interaction can be defended in that way.
When I looked at your research, I noticed that you were looking at this idea of the “danger imperative,” which drives cops and how they behave and influences officer safety. But you talk about how that danger imperative is putting police themselves in harm’s way. You talk about stuff like how making cops scared that something could go wrong leads them to do things like drive at high speeds without seat belts, which puts them at risk. And I thought that was a really interesting choice because it seemed to me like you were trying to talk to cops and get them to focus on the ways their behavior might hurt themselves—be a little selfish—before they thought about how those choices could hurt people in the Black and brown community. Was that an intentional decision on your part?
For me, it was more an emergent conclusion. When I was in the field, I began to understand that it was officer safety—it was this core oriented principle of their day-to-day life on the street—that I began to see that it was all connected. And one of the things that was mundane until I realized that was the seat belt. It was this unquestioned behavior that was supposed to keep them safe, that was supposed to allow them to exit the vehicle quickly and was supposed to allow them to reach their pistol unencumbered. But I could see that behavior, as the ride along with their seat belt on when we’re doing 85 on a one-way street in the middle of the night… That’s when I was white-knuckling it. Not when we were contacting somebody who was shoplifting. That’s not when I was scared. I was scared when we were doing the driving stuff, and that’s when I looked at the statistics and I began to try to understand how this becomes baked into your daily practices in a way that because you can’t see it as anything but helping you is getting everybody hurt. You’re plowing into churches. You’re plowing into light poles, and it’s costing the department money, and it’s just all bad and it’s all revolving around the same cultural value, the danger imperative. “I need to stay safe no matter what, even if it gets me killed.”
I think you’ve made this really good case that officer safety is in some ways a hurdle for police forces to get over in terms of understanding how they behave toward the public. But one thing I keep thinking about is the fact that the United States has more police shootings than other places, but it also just has more guns. Did you think about that, too?
It’s not possible to understand the manifestations of policing as we know it today in the U.S. without considering that there are more guns than there are people in this country. Guns are talked about ad nauseum in the academy. You cover things like edged weapons and blunt instruments and just people without weapons, but the No. 1 threat is always going to be a gun. And to your point, the police in the U.S. do get victimized with firearms more than officers in, say, Germany or Wales. It’s naïve to think that that’s not a possibility here. I think that what my work tries to point to is that there are costs to this kind of behavior. Some of those behaviors are things like the seat belts and the speeding that gets cops killed. That’s part of it. But it’s actually about understanding that if you treat even the most mundane interaction as one that might escalate into violence at any moment, how you police is going to be different. That interaction is going to be imbued with different kinds of emotions. There’s going to be a different kind of interaction with that citizen.
I think a lot about what cops need guns for. You mentioned how when you were on your ride alongs, so much of what the police officers did was mundane. When you think about a solution here, when you think about some way to move through this moment, do you think about parceling out what the police do into different jobs that are done by different kinds of people who may or may not have firearms?
Yeah, it’s very much at the center of this current discussion around defunding and abolition. Do we continue to have this outsized reliance on police to solve our problems? Police do a shocking amount of things that they’re actually very poorly equipped to do. They deal with mental illness, they deal with homelessness, they deal with substance abuse, they deal with runaways. They deal with these petty disputes over fence lines. There’s no reasonable reason for them to do all of these things, unless you operate in an environment where you can with a straight face, say, “Well, we need to have armed agents go do this because at any one of these interactions, there could be guns.” And that’s this really awful equilibrium that we’re stuck in. There’s no way for us to address the fact at present about there being so many guns. And so we continue to send police to more and more and more and more things because there are still more and more and more and more guns.
And so when the police say sometimes flippantly, like, “Oh, yeah, you’re going to have a social worker do that?,” I take their point, which is that eventually if we begin sending social workers unarmed into situations, one of them is going to get hurt. It’s going to happen. It will happen. Is that a reason to not do it? I think that’s a different conversation. I think that we have to think about what the costs are and who bears that cost. Currently, the way we set up policing, the cost is borne by officers who may get shot and then by citizens who have become prey of police violence. That’s who currently bears cost. And I think we’re coming to a place where we don’t think that it needs to be that way. We don’t want it to be that way, but we have to address firearms. I don’t think there’s any way that you actually get to a healthy equilibrium without addressing how many deadly weapons are floating around and how easy they are to get hold of.
You did this research where you spent all this time with officers, did you ever think about going back to those departments and telling them what you found? Were they even interested in hearing that?
I have shared it with some officers. And I actually had an officer from West River who read a paper that I published on commemoration—on how the commemoration of police death underlies and animates this culture around death and avoiding it at all costs and the danger of the work—and she wrote back 11 single-spaced pages after she read it.
Whoa. What’d she say?
She, on the one hand, says things like, Yeah, I tried to avoid the officers that seemed really obsessed with this version of culture that I write about this or that view the public as enemies. But then she came back to these instances where her life was under threat. She talked about one instance in which she got into a wrestling match with a suspect in a parking lot alone in the rain. She was attacked and was beaten in the head with an object a couple of years before she retired. She has confronted danger. She has confronted violence. And in some ways, once you do that, from an officer’s perspective, it’s difficult to not see the world as if it could careen into catastrophe at any moment. All of my statistics, all of my writing, is all moot when you’ve seen the worst of humanity for decades. She’s seen awful things, and she feels misunderstood. And I think a lot of officers feel that way.
It’s hard to listen to that story or listen to you talk about your research at all and avoid the fact that it seems like if we’re going to make policing safer, it requires turning the entire culture of policing inside out, which is hard when you have a disaggregated system the way our police structure is right now. I understand why you sound tired.
I’m resigned to this not being something that’s going to get solved today or tomorrow. Some people thought that Michael Brown was going to be the catalyst and that was going to change everything. I was one of those people. I was someone that felt something in the air. I was young. I was, like, 24 years old. I didn’t remember the ’90s of Rodney King. And I certainly don’t remember the civil rights era those decades before me. But something felt different with Michael Brown.
The past week has not been a great week, but then I’m encouraged when I hear a new generation of kids that I don’t have to convince them that policing has problems. I hear from new officers that they understand that there are problems. There are chiefs that are changing their tune. There’s a growing recognition that unions are a problem, that our laws and our policies are set up in a way that this is going to continue to happen. So the recognition of that is encouraging. But I’m under no illusions. This is not going to get solved with one bill. This is not going to get solved with one new training. This is our heritage. This is what America has always been. And it will continue to be unless we choose to make changes.
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