Fear and Paranoia in American Policing

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S1: Like a lot of people, Michael, Cierra or Ravello doesn’t watch those police videos anymore, you know, the ones the body cam footage and the cell phone pictures, 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 Dante Wright during a traffic stop.

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S2: I stopped watching last summer, so I to date have not watched the entirety of George Floyds murder.

S1: Why?

S2: I spent a lot of time watching videos like that. Actually, throughout most of my time in graduate school, I was working on gang violence reduction at the time. So I thought that it was important for me to watch this video as an exercise in in quote unquote, understanding the facts. 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.

S1: Michael teachers at UT Austin. Now he studies policing, which is part of why it struck me that even he has stopped pressing play. When these videos pop up, he spent hours observing the way cops speak to each other about the work they do. Over the last week, he’s watched on social media as officers have processed these latest incidents. He says a lot of cops look at this footage and they see civilians who aren’t complying. They say stuff like

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S2: if citizens had just done what the police told them to do, then they would still be alive,

S1: even with a 13 year old with his hands in the

S2: air. Well, again, that’s that is what many police officers will tell you if he had actually just stopped or they’ll say these pithy things like play stupid games with stupid prices. And so the idea being that you can blame, you can explain the death, the murder of this 13 year old as the consequence of stupid decisions made by a child.

S1: Michael looks at these incidents very differently. But every time another video comes down his Twitter feed or makes it onto Facebook, he knows there’s going to be this bifurcation. The police in his field will see the tape one way, the rest of his feed, we’ll see it another. It’s part of the reason he stopped watching the videos altogether.

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S2: There is a psychic cost to watching those things happen. It’s part of why I stopped doing it. It would it would you know, I’d be I’d be off for days. I wouldn’t sleep. I would just get lost in my own head just thinking about those things. And I just it didn’t seem to be helping the work. It didn’t seem to be helping me. As I watched videos that seem to be getting more and more clear cut, I can’t breathe. People who are unarmed, people shot in the back. People crying out in their last moments. And the examples seem to be getting clearer and clearer. But the change wasn’t happening. There wasn’t a different conversation in my world. And by that I mean like the world of police, Twitter and Instagram and talking with police officers, they would dig in even harder

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S1: today on the show. You can’t understand the violence in these videos without understanding the people perpetuating that violence. That is Michael’s job. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Michael Cierra, a Ravello, has spent over a thousand hours in three different police departments around the country studying the way cops think about their jobs. These are big urban departments in the top one percent of all police departments by size. He kept them anonymous. So 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. Michael says all three departments had a shared culture, a culture of fear.

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S2: So I will say first, for any of the officers listening, I know that they would never say they’re 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 and what I want to talk about in my writing is that the Academy in some ways just confirms the the most fantastical parts of policing. How so? If you were to ask the average American what they think it means to be a police officer? Well, and we’ll do this like 10 years ago before things started going since Mike Brown, they’d likely point to a movie or a TV show. They point to cops or more recently, Live PD or training day or end of watch, or one of these films,

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S1: chasing people,

S2: chasing people, kicking in doors, getting in gunfights, making arrests. Like that’s that is a very romantic version of what policing is.

S1: How does that differ from what they actually do?

S2: 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 of it. That’s not important, but it’s not a quadruple shooting or a double homicide or a gang war as what you see in TV and movies. And so I mention this because 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 number one concern and it is the number one concern.

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S1: Officer safety, not like public safety, correct?

S2: Officer safety is it’s never explicitly said in my experience, it might be in some places, but it’s never it’s never stated that police life is more important than public life. I think that 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.

S1: So you’re taught to be vigilant about your own safety first, for these sort of reasons of protecting the people around you.

S2: I think that’s the way that it gets framed, right? The idea is that we are we are the sheep dogs, the public is the sheep, and there are the wolves that would do them harm. And we as police officers must learn to master violence, 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.

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S1: Michael calls this mindset he observed the danger imperative and he says it follows officers when they graduate from the police academy and become full members of the force. It’s reinforced by memorial walls to fallen colleagues and in these morning hot sheets that inform officers of violent crime in their area for their safety. You told the story about how 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 the trunk of their car. And you started asking them why and it was revelatory to you. Could you explain?

S2: So 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. I go to West River, and I see it happened really early on when I began riding along. And that’s when something clicks. I’ve seen this behavior before. I wonder why. And so I asked the officer and he was a young officer, Mexican-American guy, military veteran, had just joined the force, I think had been on for less than a year at that point. And I asked him and he said, well, we touch the trunk of a car. 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. And so, you know, I, I,

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S1: 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?

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S2: So I guess I would ask 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 his behaviors. Is that there always could be and technically speaking, like in a like a mathematical sense, they’re not wrong that there could be it’s Schrodinger’s gunman in the trunk and they behave as such. They take they do they do these things on the grounds that it could be the thing that potentially saved their lives. But I even asked him, I said, OK, have you ever heard of that actually happening? He said, no. I said, OK. 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 not 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. People do fight you. Was that was the gist of it was like, yeah, you’re right. But, you know, the potential cost is just too high to not do this. Why would I not do this if I could keep you alive? And I think that 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.

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S1: You know, when I looked at your research, which is based off of all of this time, you’ve spent with cops following them out, seeing how they respond, I noticed something about it, which is 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 seatbelts and that 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 to say, hey, hey, this is hurting you, too?

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S2: For me, it was more it was an emergent conclusion. When I was in the field, I just began to understand that it was officer safety. It was this through threat, this core oriented principle of their day to day life on the street that I began to see that it was all sort of connected. And one of the things that was like mundane until I realized that was the seatbelt, that this 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 seatbelt on. When we’re doing eighty five down a one way in the middle of the night, like that’s when I was white knuckling it. Not one not only 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 sort of 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. It’s you’re plowing into churches, you’re plowing into loopholes, 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 impaired. It’s all revolving and all being interpreted through that. I need to stay safe no matter what, even if it gets me killed.

S1: When we come back, how gun ownership in America makes the danger imperative. An even bigger problem. I want to say something out loud, which is that even though 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 towards 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, like more a gun for every person in the country. And then some so many guns, just guns everywhere. And that has to be part of the picture for these cops you saw where in some ways you see the logic of like, OK, well, every time I pull someone over, they could have a gun because there are just so many of them in this country. Did you think about that, too?

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S2: Of course. Yeah. That’s it’s it’s not possible to understand the manifestations of policing as far as we know it today in the U.S. without considering that there are more guns and there are people in this country. Guns are talked about ad nauseum in the academy. You cover things like edgy weapons and blunt instruments and just people without weapons. You cover that the number one threat is always going to be a gun. And to your point, the police in the US do get victimized with firearms more than officers in, say, Germany or in Wales. A recent book by Frank Zimring goes over those those data in detail. That is all true. It’s naive 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 or to the behaviors that are encouraged by the danger imperative. Some of those behaviors are things like the seatbelt in the speeding that that gets cops killed. That’s part of it. But it’s actually about understanding how if you treat even the most mundane interaction is 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.

S1: I think a lot about what cops need guns for. You mentioned how when you were on your ride along, so much of what the police officers did was mundane. It was going to someone’s house. There’s a fight between roommates pulling someone over for a traffic stop. Someone like Corey Bush, who’s a politician, has said like, why are cops doing traffic stops? And that kind of made me think we’re like, there are all these things police officers are doing where they’re going in with the mindset of it could escalate. But as you said, they’re kind of routine management of the community stuff or collecting taxes. If you’re pulling someone over for a traffic violation, 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, into different jobs that are done by different kinds of people who may or may not have firearms?

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S2: Yeah, it’s very much at the center of this current discussion around defunding and abolition is 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 do 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. And their trash cans are on my side. Like there’s there is 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 I think that’s this really awful equilibrium that we’re stuck in, is that there’s no way for us to address the fact at present about there being just so many guns. And so we continue to just 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 going to have a social worker to that, you know, I take their point, which is eventually if we begin sending social workers unarmed into situations, one of them, someone 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, right. I think that we have to 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.

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S1: I wonder you did this research where you spent all this time with officers, did you ever think about going back to those departments and saying, hey, here’s what I found? Were they even interested in hearing that?

S2: So I hadn’t thought about going back to them. I have shared it with some officers. And I actually had an officer from West River who read a paper that I published on collaboration on how the commemoration of police death underlies and sort of animates this culture around. Death and avoiding it at all costs and the danger of the work and she wrote back, she retired and she wrote back like 11 single spaced pages after she read it. Whoa.

S1: When you say

S2: so, I’m not I’m not quoting from it directly, but, you know, she on the one hand says things like, yeah, I tried to avoid the officers that seemed like really obsessed with with this version of culture. But I write about this or that view the public as enemies. I try to stay away from them. 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. And the the suspect, according to her, told her that if she just stopped struggling, that she would make it quick and eventually nothing happened. She she escaped and ran off. She was attacked and was beaten in the head with 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, I think 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 all of my statistics, all of my writing, all of the the combined knowledge of decades of talking about the empirical risk versus the actual lived experience of policing is all moot when you’ve seen things and you’ve seen in some ways the worst of humanity for decades. She’s seen it awful things and she feels misunderstood. And I think a lot of officers feel that way.

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S1: 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 and tired at the beginning.

S2: Yeah, I. I think that I’m just resigned. I’m resigned to 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. And I think that I was one of those people. I think that I was someone that felt something in the air because I was I was young. I was like twenty four years old. And I did not live. I didn’t 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.

S1: Two years after Ferguson, Michael realized how far off change really was. He was in the middle of his research shadowing police departments. Reports started coming in about a group of fallen officers in Dallas. They’d been ambushed and killed by a man who was angry about police shootings.

S2: I went into a graveyard shift and we get to the lineup room. And that’s when the sergeant there mentions like, hey, did you guys see four down in Dallas? Then someone says, yeah, we saw in the group me the chat that they were using with each other. Fast forward to the end of the night. I get home around seven thirty eight o’clock in the morning. The death count is now five. And just previously, just a few weeks before there had been Alton Sterling, it had been flagged, Castiel. And, you know, I’m in this room that I’m renting and I’m alone at eight o’clock in the morning. I’m exhausted and I just start crying. I just, like, sat in the kitchen alone crying because I just felt like I was I was an ant against this mountain that I was doing my best to understand and to write and to speak to people and to to just apprehend the scope of the problem, to try to make it better in some way. And it just seemed like the world really didn’t care about all my work, really did not care, and that it was too big of a problem. And I felt very small on that morning. And I think that there are moments like that that continue to happen the past week has not been a great week, but then I’m encouraged when I 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, I think, 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 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.

S1: Michael Seerat, Ravello, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: Michael Cierra, a Ravello, is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, and that is our show, What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad, Elena Schwartz, Daniel Hewitt, Davis Land and Mary Wilson, Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. Help me ask smarter questions every day. And I am Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back in this feed tomorrow.