What’s Blocking Police Reform? Call It ‘Blue Fragility’

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Philadelphia police. Photo by chrisinphilly via flickr

With law enforcement reforms on the agenda at this week’s Democratic Party national convention, it’s important not to lose sight of one of the key factors that need to be addressed in addressing police violence against Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA and other communities of color.

The campaigns to change police culture will continue to experience setbacks unless reformers directly address law enforcement’s defensive system-wide behavior—behavior that reflects what can be called “blue fragility.”

We define “blue fragility” as a manifestation of the strategies police deploy against challenges to their legitimacy, and moral authority—challenge that threaten their almost exclusive license to use force, and the fictional idea that they alone can ensure public safety.

Similar to Robin DiAngelo’s conception of “white fragility,” these strategies include withdrawal from and silencing of civil discourse, verbal and physical aggression, work stoppages and mass callouts, all of which deflect attention from the historical and structural problems of police, policing and race.

We’ve witnessed nearly all of these in the past several months.

In one of the most noteworthy examples, Milwaukee-area police departments recently decided to withdraw police protection from the Democratic National convention itself, already being held in abbreviated form due to the COVID-19.

For example, it is what drove the Atlanta police officers’ work callout following the criminal indictments of their fellow officers, Devin Brosnan and Garrett Rolfe, for the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks.

It drove the controversial resignation of 57 police officers from the Buffalo (NY) Police Department’s Emergency Response Team after two of its members were criminally disciplined for shoving 75-year-old Martin Gugino, causing him to hit his head and suffer traumatic brain injuries.

A similar display of blue fragility came several years ago when hundreds of New York City police officers turned their backs on Mayor Bill De Blasio to signify “no confidence” in his leadership. The trigger was De Blasio’s discussion of counseling his biracial son of how to safely comport oneself during police encounters—a conversation that every Black parent is familiar with. Officers interpreted this guidance as a slight against their legitimacy and moral authority.

America’s policing predicament is not new.

Incidents of unidentified agents of federal law enforcement police detaining protesters during the Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, OR are familiar experiences for African Americans and Latino/as.

On urban streets, these are referred to as “jump outs.” Ostensibly, the kind of tragic acts experienced over decades, and most recently highlighted by George Floyd’s murder, will continue, unabated.

Senaida Sharif

Senaida Sharif. Social worker and former correctional officer.

They may in fact increase, if reformers underestimate the strength of blue fragility.

Even worse, in some African-American and Latinx communities where police have appeared to abdicate their protective services, a kind of street justice prevails—which is equally arbitrary, mercurial and traumatic.

Good policing is preferable to street justice.

But as long as blue fragility dominates the behavior of law enforcement, we will have little success in achieving it.

Robin DiAngelo explains that white supremacy is effectively upheld not by rabid racists, but by self-proclaimed non-racist white progressives, who passively benefit from racial inequality. This is integral to understanding the complicated ways through which non-racist whites have contributed to structural racism.

In the American context, police officers who are subject to blue fragility are not necessarily racists or “bad apples.” In fact, many are consummate professionals.

Yet, to condone racialized police violence, and maintain structurally racist inequality, they only need to enforce current social control measures and take a defensive stance where and when excessive or deadly force used against minority citizens is protested.

Thus, hundreds of thousands of U.S. police officers indirectly contribute to racialized police violence with what amounts to an uncritical allegiance to the cultural ethos of blue fragility.

What’s the antidote?

Kalfani Turè, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, Quinnipiac University.

First, our law enforcement structures must acknowledge their complicity with structural racism, particularly that which has been facilitated through the policing of race and racial boundaries. This antidote must be coupled with the study of the American policing history—from southern plantations and northeast ethnic enclaves to the present George Floyd and Breonna Taylor incidents.

Changing the culture of policing that drives blue fragility means accepting the notion that the problem is not about a few “bad apples,” but the orchard in which this vital part of the American infrastructure is cultivated.

It means challenging the collective response which reflexively defaults to a defensive stance when police are faced with uncomfortable scrutiny. Increased de-escalation training and all the body cameras in the world will not solve these issues.

Kalfani Turè, Ph.D., a former police officer, is a senior fellow in the Urban Ethnography Project at Yale University, and an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Quinnipiac University. Senaida Sharif is a licensed social worker and a former correctional officer.

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