DRIVING WHILE BLACK – IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS AND THE SAFETY OF BLACK MOTORISTS

After watching the dash-cam video of the shooting of Philando Castile by police officer Geronimo Yanez, I was extremely shocked at the composure and calmness of the late Castile and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds whilst the trained police officer sounded and acted very much uncontrolled and panicked. This one incident, which has been watched many times over the past year, is really sad and concerning. As a black man I have been stopped many times usually for some traffic infraction and usually get a ticket and occasionally a warning. One of the few times when I got a warning was when I was stopped in s situation similar to the Castile killing. In 2004 a white officer in LaGrange Park, IL stopped me for speeding. I was then driving with my wife while my stepdaughter slept in the back seat. I cannot say why I received a warning on that day whilst Mr. Castile ended up getting shot.  That was the first time I received a warning rather than a ticket for a traffic offence. Maybe it was because nobody had reported a burglary when I was stopped or because I did not report I was carrying a licensed firearm or just maybe my cop was a lot more experienced than Geronimo Yanez and realized that a black man or for that matter any man with his family is less likely to create a situation that could put his family in danger. Another factor may be the neighborhood, maybe Falcon Heights, MN was just more exclusively white than La Grange Park, IL and as such a black person in Falcon Heights would garner more suspicion than in La Grange Park. I have discussed this issue with a lot of people, most of them being black like myself and the consensus was that Philando Castile died for only one basic reason, he was driving while black.

This is a situation while being common and easily identified has roots that go so deep that we continue to have problems with this irrespective of the extensive training given to cops. There have been many other incidents involving cops and unarmed black people usually men, that suggests that just training is not enough. Blacks in America have dealt with a lot over the centuries from slavery to institutionalized racism and Jim Crow laws. Today we are dealing with racial prejudice and a more insidious cancer; implicit racial bias. The problem with dealing with implicit bias is the fact that the person acting out this behavior directed by his or her biases fails to recognize that their actions are based on racial bias. In a recent episode of the podcast Invisibilia a white man who had an adopted black daughter reports catching himself act in a way that he had warned his daughter she may be treated just because of her race [1]. This gentleman realized what he was doing because he is the father of a minority child and re-evaluated his actions. In the real world unfortunately most of us just act out our biases without any thought of what we are doing. When asked if we acted that way because of race we would most probably genuinely say no.

On account of the multiple traffic stops with disastrous outcomes involving minorities Stanford University started a project called The Open Policing Project to study this problem[2]. Since 2015 the program began requesting data on police traffic stops from across the country. To date, the project has collected and standardized more than 100 million records of traffic stops and search data from 31 states. Twenty states provided enough detail in their data to allow statistical analysis to determine racial bias in policing. The findings of this project that I present below is based on data from sixteen states; Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin does suggest some racial bias policing. The Open Policing Project data suggest that Blacks tend to get stopped more often than Whites whilst Hispanic are stopped at about the same rates as whites (see the graph below).

Figure 1 – STOP RATES BY RACE

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The researchers also went on to look at search rates after a stop and in this case it appears that both Blacks and Hispanics motorists who were stopped were much more likely to be searched compared to whites. This can be clearly seen in the graph below in Figure 2 showing that white motorist were searched in less than 6% of stops with the exception of one outlier whilst Blacks and Hispanic searches ranged all the way up to 10% of stops.

Figure 2 – SEARCH RATES BY RACE

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The above graph though did not account for what factors cops were using to determine whom to search. It is possible as in the case of Trayvon Martin who was deemed suspicious by John Zimmerman because he was wearing a hoodie that the black and Hispanic motorist just plain appeared more ‘shady’ if I should use the term than their white counterparts. To account for that the researchers used a threshold test, which is a modification of a model, proposed by Gary Becker an economist for studying racial bias in policing in the 1950s. This model used the interplay between search rates and positive search outcomes to infer a threshold for search used by officers. When this test was applied to the data it suggested that tens of thousands of searches of minority motorists would be avoided if traffic cops used the same standards for searching whites as they did for minorities. As can be seen in the graph below White search thresholds are definitely higher than Black and Hispanic search thresholds.

Figure 3 – SEARCH THRESHOLD BY RACE

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There is always going to be a lot of debate on this issue because other studies done looking at racial bias in policing failed to find any bias. Overall though most people of color and some whites will tell you they do not need any fancy analysis to know that there is bias or discrimination involved in policing. The negative impact of these biases and discrimination can be very clearly seen in cases such as Philando Castile or Sandra Bland who ended up dead after such a stop. For a large majority of motorists though these stops may be just a nuisance. What however needs to be addressed is the fact that on account of ingrained or implicit bias our law enforcement machinery is being used as a tool for racial discrimination against minorities. This is something that has to be addressed by specifically by our justice system and the society at large.

 

References

  1. National Public Radio (NPR) (Producer).(2017).  The Culture Inside: Alix Spiegel [Audio Podcast]. Available from http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/
  2. The Stanford Open Policing Project 2017, The results of our nationwide analysis of traffic stops and searches. Available from https://openpolicing.stanford.edu/findings/

     

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GUNS DON’T KILL, PEOPLE DO !

“Guns don’t kill, people do”, the gun lobby has been touting this mantra for years in the United States whilst our numbers on gun violence continues to rise. Studies however show a very strong correlation between gun ownership and gun violence. Currently in the US research on the impact of guns on homicides and suicides is poorly funded since public funding for such research has been limited significantly by legislation driven mainly by lobbies mostly funded by the NRA (National Rifle Association).  I have no problems with gun ownership and respect the rights of Americans to own guns. In 1993 Kellerman and his colleagues published their research on the risk of gun ownership. This study which was funded by CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) revealed that having a gun in the home led to higher likelihood of gun violence against a family member, friend or loved one.  The common reason most individuals get guns is for protection against home invasions however these guns that are supposed to protect us from intruders end up killing those we love. That was the main message from the Kellerman study. This research which was published by the New England Journal of Medicine (N. Engl. J Med 1993; 32: 1084 – 91)1 was too much for the NRA.  In 1996 Congress then passed a measure drafted by then Representative from 4th Congressional District in Southwestern Arkansas, the late Jay Dickey limiting CDC’s ability to spend funds “to advocate or promote gun control”2. The NRA hoped to eradicate the injury center entirely but actually ended up achieving more than they expected.  Whilst this bill did not prevent the CDC from funding studies on the impact of guns on violence its impact was very far reaching, the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention was closed down and its director Mark Rosenberg lost his job. Mark Rosenberg is still a strong advocate for research on gun violence and is currently the CEO of the Task Force for Global Health a not for profit working to improve health in developing countries.

Last week President Trump asked Dr. Murthy the Surgeon General appointed by the Obama Administration to resign. Among all his attributes Dr. Vivek Murthy has been a strong supporter of gun control and his confirmation was stalled in the senate mostly on that account. Dr. Murthy had signed a letter in 2012 by Doctors for America which he founded in 2009 calling for gun control legislation.  Fortunately he stood his ground on this issue reinforcing the need for American to follow a prevention based culture with regards to health with the inclusion of gun control. The Orlando Pulse club gun man had two guns a Sig Sauer MCX .223 which takes an AR-15 magazine with 30 rounds of ammunition and a Glock G17 with 17 round of ammunition.  What this means it that such a gun man can fire 47 shots before he needs to reload. In a crowded night club this is a disaster, he killed 49 people and wounded 53.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 included limits regarding magazines that could hold more than ten rounds unfortunately this ban expired in September 2004. Since the ban expired due to a sunset provision in the law some reports suggest the average number of deaths in mass shooting has increased.

a Sig Sauer MCX .223
A Sig Sauer MCX .223 – One of the guns used by the Orlando night club shooter
Glock 17
Glock 17 a hand gun that carries 17 rounds of ammunition used by the Orlando night club shooter

I wonder whether Dr. Murthy’s clear and open support for gun control has anything to do with his removal from office before the end of his term. If that is the case I am worried about where we are going as a nation.  Surely a Surgeon General should be able to voice his concern on the impact of guns on our society3. We cannot respect any part of the constitution over another but I personally would give a lot more weight to the first Amendment than to the Second. We should however be careful in the manner in which we use either of these rights because as we are aware they can both kill and must be handled with care.

Bibliography

1.       Kellermann, Arthur L., et al. “Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home.” New England Journal of Medicine 329.15 (1993): 1084-1091.

2.       Jamieson, Christine. “Gun violence research: History of the federal funding freeze.” Psychological Science Agenda 27.2 (2013).

3.       Trump administration fires Obama-appointed surgeon general who called gun violence a ‘public health issue. ‘http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/trump-admin-fires-surgeon-general-called-guns-health-issue-article-1.3088358