Going Public: A Conversation on Race and Policing in America

Oct 14, 2016

Dr. Raleigh Blasdell is an assistant professor of criminal justice and sociology at Southeast Missouri State University
Credit Courtesy of Jacob King

Sparked by the shooting deaths of African American men by police officers, emerged both the “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” movements. Both movements triggered a national conversation on the state of policing and race in America. KRCU's Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with the Dr. Raleigh Blasdell, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology at Southeast to talk about it.

Lewis-Thompson: Well tell me a little bit about your research and what the state of our current system of law enforcement is? As well as how they’re serving people within these marginalized communities.

Blasdell: You know what the research shows us is that disproportionately we see crime occurring in low income areas and low income neighborhoods. And what we're also seeing at the same time is that disproportionately that's where we're seeing more members particularly of the African American community living in those low income neighborhoods. And so, as criminologists that's how we are best able to understand this disproportionate interaction that law enforcement has with the African American community. We know that it's not particularly focusing on and targeting African Americans, but that they're disproportionately represented in those low income areas where we see more crime. So it's a difficult issue. It's a difficult issue, because police are coming into contact with the African American population more so. But again it tends to be because they are in these criminogenic areas where we see more crime occurring, both at the property level as well as in violent crimes. So it's an interesting scenario that law enforcement is coming into contact with these individuals more often. And so that in and of itself gives the idea that that population is being targeted. Now what's interesting is that the research also shows us. And kind of based on that idea that this population's being targeted, it's natural that the community and society as a whole says ‘you know police officers are racist, you know they need to stop targeting, they need to stop focusing their efforts on these populations.’ And the research actually shows us that that's not the case. As in any occupation are there going to be police officers who have those explicit biases, who are racist absolutely, right? That's a very very small percentage of them though. Alright, this is what the research has shown us in recent years. Yes they do exist, but no more so than we see in other occupations. What we tend to see more of is that all humans have biases. Because we're human we naturally have these implicit biases, and it's different from that blatant explicit bias where there's people who will flat out tell you I don't like this group of individuals, I don't like this demographic population because of x,y,z.

Lewis-Thompson: So like racism?

Blasdell: Racism, sexism, classism even. We you know discriminate against people based on body types. And body size and so you know there's a whole variety of explicit biases that people have religion as well. Implicit biases on the other hand happen at the subconscious level. As humans, social psychologists have been able to demonstrate that all humans have biases, whether they realize it or not. Even the most well-intentioned individuals who on the outside will vocally you know say that they're egalitarian, and they are not discriminating against anyone, people have have implicit biases. And unfortunately, what we fail to recognize is even those implicit biases will have an impact on our perceptions and subsequently on our behaviors. But again, it's happening at this implicit at this subconscious level that we don't realize that it's occurring. And so, what modern research, what modern science is showing us is that that tends to be what we're seeing in law enforcement. And that's also what we're seeing in other occupations as well. It's not that there's this big group of law enforcement that all have these implicit biases, but rather they're a reflection of the population as a whole. And these biases don't just have to do with race like I already mentioned. It can have to do with social class. It can have to do with ethnicity. It might have to do with again religion or occupation in some situations. But we have these biases and unfortunately what we're seeing represented more in the news are those implicit biases that are related to that race crime bias.

How does that implicit bias go unchecked from a leadership standpoint when there is a pattern? Or is that pattern not being noticed?

Blasdell: It goes unchecked because while humans all have these implicit biases, we don't recognize that we have it. It's a you know it's been described as this kind of new generation of bias. It's not like people would think of their grandparents bias where they were mostly explicit biases and they will tell you they don't like certainly populations, and they'll tell you why and everything that's wrong with that, or they perceive is wrong with that that group of individuals. What we see among this new population is that we are a more tolerant, we are a more accepting generation. But again we still have these implicit biases that we don't want to talk about. People don't want to acknowledge that they have some sort of bias. Even in my undergraduate courses I have them take what's known as the implicit association test, which tests these biases. And students often times are very, and I never have them share their results with the entire class unless they want to discuss them. But in their journal entries that they'll submit to me, I have some students who become very, very angry. They say 'no, I'm absolutely not bias. This test doesn't work.' I'll have other students who are very embarrassed about it. And don't want to talk about it. And then I'll have other students that say you know, 'help, what do I do?' And so it's natural as individuals to look at you know this idea that we have biases, and think that that it's something wrong with me, how do I fix it. And fortunately, what the research shows us is that we can help people to untrain these biases, but like you said the first step is recognizing it and checking that these biases do exist. And so that's where training comes in. And there's this whole new wave of training that is addressing the idea of implicit biases, as being directed towards law enforcement. This specialized training that's designed for law enforcement to help officers understand number one that biases are normal. Just because of the way we're socialized. Biases are normal. Number two helping them to recognize that even at the subconscious level that they're impacting our behaviors. And so, because of that you know from an administrative standpoint how does it go unchecked? It goes unchecked because it's something that we're really just now starting to talk about. Starting to recognize these implicit biases and the role that they play. And so, I've been encouraged. The research, the training on implicit biases has been shown to be rather effective and more and more police departments are getting on board to do these trainings. And so, I think it's something that overtime you know I'm encouraged by the direction that we're taking that more and more administrators, police chiefs are taking the time to recognize this and want to address this in training.


Lewis-Thompson: Historically speaking there has always been tension between law enforcement and African Americans. It’s something that we saw a lot of during the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s. How can police build authentic trust between the marginalized communities they serve?

Blasdell: It's very very difficult, because it is, we do have such an ugly history with especially the African American population. It actually we can trace that conflict between police and the African American community back actually to the days of slavery when law enforcement was tasked with actually serving as slave patrols and patrolling for runaway slaves and enforcing those types of laws. And so, this is a lengthy history that we have in our country. And a great example like you mentioned is throughout the civil rights movement as well. Seeing those clashes, seeing those riots, and I think what's important to recognize is that there's going to be a lot of emotion there. We can't expect to have these discussions and to be able to move forward without there being some sort of emotion involved. Whether it be fear, whether it be anger that's legitimate valid emotion. And so, we need to recognize that. That there is that history there. Even though it might not have anything to do with current officers that that history is still there, and that it's still is impacting people. So, that's important to keep in mind is that that history is there. And it's not necessarily something that we want to erase. We don't want to forget about that segment of history. That's important to remember. And to move forward from. But it's not something that's going to be fixed easily, because it is centuries old. So, with that said, how do we build those relationships? How do we repair those relationships? It's really through inviting the community to be apart of the discussion. And it's not just alright community come in we want to talk to you about what it is that we're doing. It's saying alright community, we're going to have this event. We want to hear about you? We want to hear some of your concerns. We're going to listen to your concerns. We're not going to just say 'no you're wrong.' Because again it comes back to people's construction of whom law enforcement are. So, even though some of those things might not be happening in one particular neighborhood, people see it happening at the national level. And it's still impacting them on a personal level. And so, it's important to recognize that those feelings are real, and they're raw, and that they need to be acknowledged. And I think in acknowledging those feelings that's a good first step in moving forward. At the same time, I also think it's important for the community to recognize what law enforcement has to say as well in terms of saying hey we're coming to you guys. We recognize that there might be these issues. We want to fix these issues. Here's how we are looking at things. Here's how we perceive things. We want to hear how you're perceiving things. And then let's talk about how we move on from there. So it has to be not just one side or the other talking, but there needs to be a lot of listening and really understanding. You don't necessarily have to agree with them, but I think if an individual could get an appreciation of where people with other viewpoints are coming from I think that's a good first step in fostering a broader dialogue that can move us forward to policy implications and practices that are going to start making some of those repairs. And again, kind of tying it back to the event that we had, community policing is a really great way. It's an effective way. Research has shown that it can be incredibly effective in building and fostering those relationships, and beginning that dialogue.


Lewis-Thompson: So recently, you moderated the Community Policing: The Intersection of Black and Blue Lives Matter event. Tell me a little bit about what was discussed during this open forum.

Blasdell: It was a fantastic event. It was coordinated by the university's Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity. And is part of the ongoing task force to look at diversity issues, not only at the university level, but in the community level as well. The event was organized. It was held at the Cape [Girardeau] Public Library, as a way that individuals from the university can bring these issues out into the community and have a larger discussion. And so, the central focus of the forum was on community policing, and the role that community policing can play in facilitating that the Blacks Lives Matter movement and the Blue Lives Matter movement. And how community policing can help those two movements to intersect, and to better work with one another and understand one another. And not just in a way where okay I understand where you're coming from. I understand where you're coming from, but what do we do about it now? How do we fix it? How do we move forward? How do we continue to build this relationship, and solve some of the problems that are occurring? Not just in our community, but recognizing that this is a national issue as well.

Lewis-Thompson:  I want to play a clip from it. This is Dr. Hamner Hill. He’s a professor of Philosophy at Southeast. Here he is talking about the role of the police.

Hill: I think the question should be what are the roles of the police? Because the police have a whole bunch of different jobs. And that's part of what makes it so difficult. There is  serve and protect. There is assistance. There is guidance for individuals. I mean police have an incredible opportunity to educate. And that's radically different from enforcement and punishment. And sometimes the enforcement and the education might overlap. There is a community health component, because and we'll come back to this later, mental health issues are a huge--huge part of the problem that the police face everyday. They deal with people who are mentally ill. Sometimes physically ill, different pragmatic brain injury. We've got more and more of that. There are lots and lots of jobs that the police do. And we have to sort them out, and you know unfortunately, the officer has to figure it all out in a split second.


  So one what were your thoughts on that? And what is the role of the police?

Blasdell: You know Dr. Hill's absolutely correct, in that there's not one police role. What's so unique and so challenging about law enforcement in the United States is that they wear a lot of different hats. There are a variety of different roles that they play. You know he's absolutely right that there is a need for law enforcement--that law enforcement and you know tracking down the bad guy. But that's what the public fails to recognize sometimes is that that's a very very small component of the police role. The majority of time on the street or on the job is really spent in order maintenance type problems in serving the public as he mentioned in offering assistance and offering guidance. And so, we think of the police going out there and catching the bad guy. That's really only really small part of what they do. And again that makes it very very complicated, because that's a critical part from a public safety viewpoint of what they do, and it's a very necessary part of their job. And he's absolutely right in that in doing those types of jobs they are making split second decisions. You mentioned that we have the benefit of video and social media, and almost everything is recorded nowadays in some format. And so, as a public we have the benefit of being able to go back and see the video and see the video slowed down, and see it multiple times over and over and over. The challenge of being a police officer is that you truly are making split second decisions. You don't always have all of the information that we as a public receive after the fact, and it makes it very very challenging. You know these officers are trained, and engage in ongoing training to help them to be able to make these decisions as best as possible. But again it's not an easy decision and they don't always have all of the information right in front of them. So it is particularly challenging. I really liked what he said though in terms of how do they know what it is that they're getting into? How do they know who they're dealing with or what they're dealing with? Is it just you're going to help someone who's in need of assistance or is there a potential threat there?

Lewis-Thompson: Where does the Cape Girardeau Police Department fit into this conversation on race and policing? I know Chief Blair has mentioned on several occasions that he wants to continue to have open dialogue in this community.

Blasdell: At the local level, looking just specifically at Cape Girardeau Police Department, I have been very impressed with the initiatives that the administration has taken to research and better understand what exactly is going on? I've been very very impressed that Chief Blair is committed to training. His understanding of these implicit biases has turned to the criminal justice department here at SEMO. [He] turned to the faculty for help or if he has questions, you know that he's turning to academics. He's turning to the researchers to get the facts in guiding him in his decision making. I find that very very encouraging. I've been encouraged by the outreach and those discussions that he's willing to engage in. I think we have to really recognize and appreciate that Chief Blair was willing to sit on the community policing panel. I think there are a lot of police chiefs or police administrators who would not put themselves in that situation, because when he was there he wasn't just representing the Cape Girardeau Police Department. He was basically representing all police officers. And so, he really put himself out there in doing that. And I think that just shows his commitment to this issue, and to this ongoing conversation, and that he's willing to put himself in difficult situations. And have those uncomfortable discussions. Because he does have the community's best interest and his department's best interest in mind as well. I also am starting to see more and more that the Cape Girardeau Police Department is starting to branch out more and ask the community for help. In saying you know we have this issue. We don't know how to fix all of these issues on our own. And so, we're asking you for this help. You know that was towards the end of the panel discussion last week that was one of-- Chief Blair got vulnerable and shared one of his concerns and one of the issues that he had. And so again we have to keep in mind that the discussion is two way. And in him basically saying ‘hey we're seeing a lot black on black crime in this community, I'm turning to you guys as the community and as this population and saying I need your help. What do we do? How do we stop this?’ I think he said it was something like 14 deaths in the time that he's been here of relatively young African American males. And him turning to the community and saying help us fix this. What do we do? That's the epitome of community policing. In that he's reaching out to members of the community and groups and church leaders and saying  work with us on this. Get involved in this issue. Help us to find a way to solve some of these issues in our own community just from a violent crime standpoint. With that said, every police department has room to grow. But for the most part, and that's not to say there's not problems with the police department, but I've seen especially in the last two years I've seen major strides toward a more community oriented approach and seeing more community members starting to become more and more receptive to engaging with the police department as well.