I grew up at Rupar, then a small town in Punjab. In 1946, when I was about 11, like the rest of India, Rupar also witnessed mass marches, demonstrations, and strikes against oppression by the foreign rulers. Hordes of people marched by the front of our house. Once, from tour roof, I even witnessed Gandhiji addressing them, in the town’s vast grain market square.
Now almost 74 years later, living in a small Oregon city in the United States, I am once again awestruck at the courage and dedication of multitudes of people demonstrating about police violence against African-Americans, in hundreds of American cities and many other places around the world.
Getting killed by police is a leading cause of death for black males in America. And black males are 2.5 to 3.0 times more likely, than their white counterparts, to die during an encounter with the police, even though black people are only 14% of the U.S. population.
A 2019 study using verified data on police killings from 2013 to 2018 found that out of every 100,000, one-hundred black males, compared to only 39 white males, were likely to be killed by police in their lifetime.
Very likely most police officers are not biased against black people. But, like many white people, some of them probably do have an implicit bias against them.
According to ‘Shoot, Don’t Shoot’ experiments people tend to be quicker in “shooting” an unarmed black man than an unarmed white man. Also, a 2017 Department of Justice report about the use of deadly force by Philadelphia police, found evidence of “threat perception failure”, where the officer believed an unarmed person to be armed. And this problem was more likely to occur, when the subject was black, even if the officers were themselves black or Latino.
But defunding police, being demanded by some protestors, is not the solution to the problem of police violence against African-Americans. Better selection procedures can help screen out some potentially unfit individuals, and better training programs can tame others.
Also, like Camden, New Jersey, it would help if some of the money used for law enforcement is reallocated to mental health services and public awareness may prevent the need for law enforcement.
Since attitudes of police officers are a reflection of those of the general public, change in the attitudes of the general population is also necessary. But that will likely be a long and difficult process. Still, it is worth a try. In this regard, inclusion in school curricula of Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” and similar other publications can help. Also work of organizations that promote inter-racial amity and work against extremism and divisive politics needs better support.
Finally, we must find equitable and effective solutions to deal with the widening income inequality and increasing homelessness and hopelessness in the United States, which are pushing people to social unrest and some even to the brink of depression and desperation.
Dr. Pritam Kumar Rohila is a retired neuropsychologist and an active peacemaker.