Racialized Policing and The Fear That Kills Blacks in America, By Dr. Leonard Sowah

cultural competency implicit bias irrational generalisation Police Reform Race and health race relations Uncategorized

In 2002 a University of Colorado psychology Professor Joshua Correll undertook a study using a first person shooter video game. This was to study police officer decision making with regards to the use of deadly force. In this game police officers were exposed to different individuals holding weapons and innocuous items. The object of this game was to determine how often these officers made the correct decisions i.e. shooting when they face a real peril to their lives. In this game which he later reported in an article titled “the police officer’s dilemma” the most common mistake these officers made was shooting a black person holding an innocuous object and not shooting a white person with a deadly weapon. One might ask why, could America be inherently afraid of its black citizens?

For the purpose of this article I would not go through all the instances reported in the news over the past few years when the blood of innocent African Americans has been shed in police efforts to enforce law and order. Most of us keep scratching our heads because these problems appears not to have an easy solution. The truth is that this is a problem that totally scares every person of color especially the young African American male creating a toxic culture of fear on both sides.

Correll’s data using video game simulations provided robust evidence of racial bias in decisions to shoot. Participants shoot an unarmed target more often when that target is Black, rather than White

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s office did not charge the two officers who shot an unarmed black man Stephon Clark in his grandma’s backyard. The reason for the decision was that the police officers involved were genuinely concerned for their lives and exercised appropriate judgement in shooting this young man. While I agree and really believe these officers may have been genuinely concerned for their lives, I would disagree with the Sacramento County district attorney’s office in it’s assessment that these officers exercised the appropriate judgement. The district attorney’s assessment of this situation must raise concerns among all men and women of color.

In a situation such as this I like to simplify the issues at hand and decide what really went wrong. I would like to believe something went wrong because if I accept that all went well it means that people of color should avoid encounters with police officers as much as possible. Before I start this though I must make a disclaimer as an armchair analyst with no first hand information my analysis can only be so good but I would try to do my best based on the available public information.

This is a synopsis of what happened based on a New York Times analysis which so far is the best that I could locate on the web. I would use a few points to describe what actually happened in this case.

Follow this link to view the 3 minute helicopter video footage of the incident

  • A 911 report from a caller about a person possibly black, asian or hispanic breaking car windows.
  • Helicopter footage identifies a suspect who climbs over a fence into a yard.
  • Officers were alerted on the whereabouts of this suspect and they move to the house in question
  • Officers locate the suspect, one officer shouts “hey show me your hands, stop, stop”
  • It appears the suspect did not comply, next is heard one officer shout; “show me your hands; gun!!
  • The same voice as previous shouts again; show me your hands; gun, gun, gun!!
  • A couple of shots are heard in rapid succession, I counted 20 shots from the video playback.
  • The video replay shows a man falling on his knees attempting to crawl, shots continue and he falls on his stomach and stops moving.

Complete analysis of this event suggests multiple different possibilities. The whole video playback which was an aerial video from a helicopter was really dark making it plausible that the officers could mistaken a cell phone for a gun. The behavior of the officers however suggest they were very scared, 20 shots between the two officers in a few minutes with no shots from the supposed armed suspect. These trained officers would have questioned that their suspect was armed if their brains had not been clouded by fear. Another explanation that may cast the motives of the officers in less favorable terms can be summarized in a common aphorism “dead men don’t tell tales”. In an ideal situation the shots would have ceased the moment the suspect fell to his knees without firing back.

Body of Clark lying in his grandma’s backyard after last year’s officer involved shooting.

Thus in the absence of extreme fear Stephon may have survived with a limp. Autopsy reports show a bullet through his right thigh which suggests that this shot was probably what cause him to fall on his knees.

Clearly, fear is what killed Stephon Clark, his own fear that caused him to run and the fear of the officers who shot him because they believed he was armed. These officers were afraid for their lives and in that state made the erroneous decision to apply lethal force in protecting themselves from a young black man armed with a mobile phone.

Thus the narrative that has created a culture of distrust between police officers and minority communities continues to drive a vicious cycle which is leading to deaths of our young Black men.

The fundamental question that we all need to ask is, how do we change this narrative and create a more healthy climate between our law enforcement officials and the communities they serve?

By Dr. Leonard Sowah, an internal medicine physician in Baltimore, Maryland


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan