Race, Fear and Police: A Lesson From Pittsburgh

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Pittsburgh protest of Jordan Miles death, 2010. Photo by Ashley Woodson

Ten years ago this month, outside the glare of the national media spotlight and four years before Ferguson, a small, slight 18-year-old African-American high school senior named Jordan Miles left his mother’s house in Pittsburgh at night. Within one minute, he found himself locked in a life-or-death struggle with three white plainclothes Pittsburgh police officers.

The young man emerged bloody and beaten, and charged with felonies.

The officers swore they had announced “Police!” after seeing a gun in Jordan’s coat pocket. When Jordan (whom they did not know) reached for that pocket during the struggle, one officer yelled, “He’s going for it!” and another rained blows on the young man’s head . Jordan went limp.

The young man swears the men never said they were cops; they just came at him out of their unmarked car, yelling “Where’s the drugs? Where’s the money? Where’s your gun?” Terrified, he tried to run.

They all agree that after the struggle, the police found no gun, anywhere.

When pictures of the young man’s brutalized face hit the media, the city erupted. Demonstration followed demonstration, first by people outraged at what had happened to the student, then by police and their supporters. The city split into two camps.

book cover

Cover design by Dave Provolo

Over the next few months, the city suspended the officers, and a judge threw out the charges against Jordan. But after more than two years of investigations, first the feds and then the county DA announced that the officers would not be charged.

The officers also faced no internal discipline, and went back to work. Two civil trials in federal court against the police yielded only a frustratingly opaque split verdict.

The two stories of this one incident have critical differences that I explore in a new book, A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontations.

But just as important as what happened, looking back ten years gives us the opportunity to ask why it happened. And it might also help answer the question: why do incidents like this keep happening all across America – too often with deadly results?

The Twin Toxins: Race and Fear

While we can identify multiple causes why things went so wrong, two stand out among all the others: race and fear.

Racial bias, whether explicit or implicit, plays a major role in how Americans perceive African Americans. Decades ago, social scientists established that the dominant stereotypes of African Americans associated them with crime, danger, and violence. That work remains unchallenged; more recent research sharpens the picture.

For example, Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford and Phillip Atiba Goff of John Jay College of Criminal Justice have shown that viewing a black person serves as a “visual tuning device,” encouraging people to see weapons more readily, and to look for crime and criminal activity. The work of others has shown that viewers of black youth perceive them as larger, more muscular, more threatening, older, and more dangerous.

Fear plays a major role on both sides of any encounter between police and African Americans. Police officers have a very difficult, sometimes dangerous job, and most do it well. But the training police get, both as cadets and in-service, does them no favors. The training regularly emphasizes that any encounter with a civilian can turn lethal in a flash, and officers must always be prepared for that deadly possibility.

Changing the ‘Warrior Mindset’

As one of the officers in Jordan’s case testified, “I assume that every person I meet is armed and dangerous, until proven otherwise.” The frequent use of dash-cam videos during training, showing assaults, shootings and murders of officers, amps up the fear. The result is a “warrior” mindset, poised to counter any sign of a problem with “righteous violence.”

Any civilian who has had a bad experience with the police may fear officers, but for African Americans, difficulties with police – in the form of rudeness, humiliation, discrimination, physical altercations, and even death – arrive with frightening regularity. Some experience these things personally; virtually all black people in the U.S. hear stories of this type of treatment regularly, from family, friends, and acquaintances. This kind of treatment has become sadly ubiquitous for black Americans.

Police/citizen encounters need not result in violence between officers and African Americans. In A City Divided, I discuss ten ways to avoid these terrible outcomes.

Among the most important:

      • Warrior-style policing must yield to a Guardian approach, as recommended by the President’s Task Force on Twenty-first Century Policing in 2015;
      • The law on police use of force against civilians must change, from the U.S. Supreme Court’s “objectively reasonable officer” rule to a standard requiring that use of force be both reasonable and necessary;
      • Policing must emphasize the central requirement of building relationships – relationships with the communities they serve, and with individual people, especially youth;
      • Investing in so-called high-crime communities to ensure that when neighborhoods become good places to live and work, the need for policing decreases;
      • Policing must become transparent and accountable.

Our law enforcement agencies cannot continue to hold themselves apart from democratic accountability, as they have long done, with the idea that civilians can’t understand the difficulties of the job.

David Harris. Author photo by Michael Drazdzinski

David Harris. Author photo by Michael Drazdzinski

Civilians get that the job is tough and sometimes dangerous. What they don’t get is why misconduct seems almost always to go both unpunished and unacknowledged.

In the end, the story of the violent encounter between Jordan Miles and the three police officers in Pittsburgh can help improve policing. But doing that depends on not just asking what happened.

We must also ask, “Why did it happen? And what can we do so that it won’t happen again?”

David A. Harris is the author of A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontations (Anthem Press, 2020). He is the Sally Ann Semenko Chair at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He will talk about A City Divided on Jan. 27 at Busboys and Poets Books in Washington, D C, and in other cities. More information about venues and dates of talks is at www.acitydivided.com.

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