Four Perspectives on Police and Racial Bias

A police chief, a prosecutor, a city councilman, and a criminologist talk about race
Photograph by Philip Montgomery

Craig Watkins

Dallas County district attorney, recently lost reelection to a white opponent supported by the police

I can remember as a kid, when the police would be called out to a very violent incident, officers were more concerned with trying to determine if innocent bystanders at the scene had outstanding warrants, as opposed to trying to figure out what happened to the person lying in the middle of the street.

I got to be the first African American DA in Texas. We understand that for law enforcement to work, we have to hold those individuals who hold a badge accountable. That may be largely one of the reasons I lost my election. We were indicting police officers for unfairly killing individuals, unfairly maiming individuals, unfairly arresting individuals, unfairly beating individuals. In Dallas County, at least until my term is over, we’re going to make sure they’re held accountable.

I saw what was going on as a kid. I saw it as an adult. And I knew [when I entered office] that at some point those cases would come to my office, and I wasn’t gong to protect lawlessness from people who held a badge. These things happen on a daily basis. We’re just fortunate enough to have technology where a lot of things are on video. So there’s a community outcry that’s basically saying that we need to really look at policing—not just that, we also need to look at prosecution. And hopefully with the recent events we’ll be in a position to have that conversation with the country.

Police trainer
Lorie Fridell

Associate professor, University of South Florida Department of Criminology

A racist is a person with explicit bias. But in modern society prejudice is more likely to manifest as implicit bias, which produces discriminatory behavior even in individuals who at the conscious level reject prejudice. What we haven’t been doing is talking to officers about how they might be impacted by implicit biases.

When my trainers and I walk into a room, [police officers] are generally somewhere between defensive and hostile, because we have done a poor job of talking about bias in policing. They need to be given the skills to reduce and manage their biases. It’s saying, “Would I be intervening with these kids but for the fact that they are kids of color?”

They do scenarios, split up into groups. “Lets say you come across a white woman in a sundress looking over a fence and clearly not wanting to be seen.” We ask them questions, like name 3 explanations. The next question is, “What biases might impact you?” “Would you do the same thing if it was a different demographic?” It’s the kind of question we want them to ask themselves when they roll up to a scene.

Norm Stamper

Former Seattle chief of police

When I became a cop in 1966, I did have these vaguely liberal notions about the kind of cop I would be. I would not be the kind of cop I’d interacted with growing up in National City, which is just south of San Diego, a little blue-collar Navy town. And I was also absolutely convinced that I would be the precise opposite of my old man, who was a racist, a sexist, who was homophobic, misogynist—an Archie Bunker type.

When I became a police officer, I entered a family and became part of a culture. Within a breathtakingly short period of time, I started saying things I’d never said before. I was abusing people I had been hired to serve. The badge went to my head. I became pretty much the opposite of what I promised myself I would be as a police officer.

It felt good. It felt juicy. It felt like I had power unlike any power I’d ever had before in my life. That badge grew quite heavy on my chest. I remember arrests, I remember conversations with people, that make me cringe today. How could I have done that? How could I, for example, have goaded up to 100 people to take a swing at me, or otherwise resist me, so I could apply what we called in those days, on our official reports, the “standard police sleeper hold.” AKA, the choke hold.

It’s visceral. It’s having power. I’d never had it before. I had been beaten—severely on occasion—by my father. And I had been told all along that I’m a worthless human being—and it was said with real sincerity. So suddenly I put on a uniform, pin on a badge, strap on a gun, stride out of the locker room and onto the beat, in a conspicuously marked automobile, and people are looking at me, and some with respect. I had power and I didn’t know what to do with it. I misused it. I abused it. And I did it pretty systematically over that period of time.

Jumaane Williams

New York City Council member, detained in 2011 at a street parade

For every negative interaction I’ve had with police officers, I’ve had three or four that were actually pretty pleasant. But the negative ones are bad and shouldn’t have happened. I think it’s so much a part of being a black man that you sometimes forget this is not the way it’s supposed to be. If I wasn’t a council member, I’d probably have some kind of record based on somebody making something up. And that can affect what kind of housing I get, what kind of scholarships. It could really put a damper on your dreams.

What we tend to do is take every individual case and try to go to every minutia to explain why this happened. It makes us feel better if we can excuse it away, if we can say this person was a criminal, or this person was a thug, or this person shouldn’t have moved his hand like that, or this person should have moved to the right, or to the left. In any situation—any situation—you can go back and say, “if we had done this…” And it helps us feel like we live in the country that we believe ideally we should. And so anything that’s going to dismantle that, we don’t want to deal with it. But it becomes harder to do that, the more outlandish that these cases get. When you look at a pattern of black men being killed unarmed, routinely—whether it’s kicking in their door in their bathroom in front of their grandmother, or shot fifty times while reaching for their wallet, or in a toy store, shot with a toy gun, or in the street with a toy gun, or choked to death because they believed you’re selling cigarettes. It’s hard at some point to just look at that and say there is not a problem.

Interviews have been condensed and edited.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.