AlterNet explores “the phantom waistband reach,” which it says has served as a virtually unimpeachable excuse for decades when police officers shoot unarmed citizens who they claim to be reaching toward their beltlines. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most victims of waistband-reach shootings are black men or boys. New research on the scientific concept of “affective realism” suggests an explanation that springs from a stereotype: Cops may “see” guns that don't exist because their experiences convince them that an African American male they perceive to be an adversary is likely to be armed.
Officer Darren Wilson cited a waistband-reach in his shooting of the unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, and other examples continue to crop up with regularity. “I've been hearing about these waistband incidents since my first months on the job,” said Timothy T. Williams, Jr., a retired detective who spent 29 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. “I’m skeptical.” He called it “boilerplate language used to justify what an officer has done.” Added Kenneth Williams, a South Texas College of Law professor, “For a cop to just assume, based on a stereotype, that someone is armed because of their race speaks to a very deep problem in our society—and not just for the cops.”