In May of this year, Betty Shelby was acquitted of the death of Terence Crutcher. Shelby is a white, Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer and Crutcher was an unarmed black man. You may remember the story. Shelby was responding to another call when she came upon Crutcher whose car was stopped on the road. Shelby thought Crutcher was reaching for a gun when she shot him. Another officer who responded to the call (standing by Shelby), used his taser instead of his gun.
In the aftermath of the acquittal, there was some conversation that the verdict favored Shelby’s right to act out of fear over and against Crutcher’s civil rights. That argument started me thinking about fear and the criminal justice system.
Fear And The Criminal Justice System
Assault is “a threat or attempt to inflict offensive physical contact or bodily harm on a person (as by lifting a fist in a threatening manner) that puts the person in immediate danger of or in apprehension of such harm or contact.” Assault is not just about the act of harming another person; it is also about the potential for harm. If someone feels threatened, they can accuse the other of assault.
I’m not a fool when it comes to law. The criminal justice system was designed to support the Constitution which protects the rights of the minority. To serve and to protect is to make sure those who are weak are not hurt. Simply put, the criminal justice system is a place where people can go when they are afraid.
There are unintended consequence of judiciously favoring those who are afraid. If a prosecutor or defense attorney can establish a basis for their client’s fear, they will have a more than likely chance of the verdict being in their favor. Law and Order have come to justify fear over thinking.
So, when a police officer fears another person, even if that person poses no threat, the police officer is justified in their use of force. This is the problem we are facing today. The popular solution has been to focus on how police officers can be trained to deal with bias, profiling, and inaccurate perceptions.
Ask Questions First
I get it. When you are in danger, you don’t ask questions. That makes sense. Billions of years of evolution have trained cells to avoid pain and seek out pleasure. Our brains have developed automatic processes that favor our survival. In fact, our automatic, neuro processing arrived on the scene well in advance of cortical structures. So, it makes sense that we respond first in fear and then ask questions later.
What we are learning about the brain is that the fear response does not operate in a vacuum. And as much as we’d like to think the fear response is accurate, it is not. We consistently get it wrong. Study after study confirms that humans perceive situations incorrectly based on a number of factors. I won’t address those here, but you can start by searching "confirmation bias."
While we might be able to think critically after a stressful experience, our stress response system disrupts our ability to think critically and to perceive accurately at the moment. At higher levels of chronic stress, it’s difficult to see the world as it is. This leads to catastrophizing.
When I haven’t heard from my spouse or children in a while, I get worried. My brain creates a narrative to answer the question, “What has happened to them?” My brain doesn’t present options. It automatically generates a storyline that I believe is accurate. As time ticks by, and there is no response to my repeated texts and phone calls, I become convinced the narrative my brain generated is true. Why else would I not have heard from them? Sometimes, in the midst of my fear, I might hear a voice that says, “Perhaps I’m wrong, and everything is fine.” That’s my thinking system at work. To switch from fear to thinking, however, is a Herculean task. It’s possible to do, but it requires enormous effort.
Why Does This Matter?
Humans are regressing. The functional level of our species continues to decline. We have become more reactive and less thoughtful in our interactions with each other as we try to solve the challenges of our day. There are some compounding factors, including social media, which accentuates our perception of fear.
The decision not to prosecute (or to acquit) a police officers who take the life of someone who poses no real threat to others, is an indicator of this regression. Here are some other factors:
- The criminal Justice system is evolving towards fear based decisions.
- Officers continue to shoot people they are afraid of, even though they don’t pose a threat to the officer's life.
- Courtrooms fill up with people who want their fear of another person justified.
- Lawyers promote fear as a defense for their clients.
- Judges feel pressured to rule in favor of fear.
It leads to a few questions to consider. What evidence can attorneys present to challenge a fear based defense? What will it take for humans to override their bias and flawed, automatic responses? It what ways can a police department engage their community differently? How might communities and families be empowered to reduce violent behavior? What cognitive activities might be engaged to help individuals switch from reacting to thinking? How does a higher functioning and thinking police officer behave under stress? Are there clues to be found in their family of origin? How can they be recruited and what can they teach other officers?
One Final Note (or another long list of questions)
If we only focus on the exact moment a police officer pulls the trigger and kills an unarmed, young black man, we will miss out on other options for solving this problem. How might policing strategies change to be more about resourcing neighborhoods and communities? How might a police department and city hall empower neighborhoods and communities to step up in the face of violence? Who are the leaders in the neighborhood working on these issues? How are police departments supporting their efforts? What economic challenges are neighborhoods facing and who are the people in the neighborhood working to make it better? How might a police department and city hall support these kinds of efforts?
These are some of the ways I think about this problem. What thoughts come to your mind?