Punishment July 28, 2015

Sandra Bland died in police custody, and now there is video available for all to see of her encounter with the trooper who, after 2000px-Police_brutality.svgpulling her over, asks her to put out her cigarette.  She declines, and the cop gets more and more aggressive as she (legally) fails to comply with his requests. Now, you might look at this video and see a very foolhardy young woman. The fact that she ended up dead might seem to indicate that her behavior was unsafe. But that doesn’t make it illegal, any more than believing that you should be polite to police officers makes it legal for a cop to threaten someone with a Taser because they don’t like the person’s attitude.

Clearly there is something very wrong with this picture. And it looks to me like the same kind of very wrong that killed Eric Garner and so many others, and which continues to come across my Facebook feed on a daily basis. What comes clear in the video is a pattern of behavior that is based in a fundamentally flawed—and deeply ingrained—worldview. It is a worldview that is foundational to our justice system as a whole, so it’s not surprising that you would see it in some variety of cops, with startlingly similar tragic consequences. There are two parts to this worldview. One piece is an understanding of the world as a place full of dangerous people who need to be controlled. And the legacy of slavery ingrains in white folks the notion that Black people are suspect just by being—that they are dangerous, and always on the verge of getting out of control. This is the kind of worldview that leads a cop to physically take down a Black teenage girl in a bikini at a pool party. The kids were too loud, and therefore (as Black) out of control, and therefore dangerous.

Part two of this worldview declares that because a group of people (most often people of color) are dangerous and liable to get out of control, any infraction needs to be punished. This worldview sees it as the responsibility of people of color not just to be cooperative, but to be deferential, as any failure to comply is seen as evidence of being dangerous and out of control. The police, then, expect that if these “dangerous” people do not comply immediately, that steps need to be taken. More specifically, people need to be punished for their failure to comply, since failure to comply equals lack of respect, and lack of respect needs to be punished. Of course, sometimes people fail to comply because they don’t speak the language being used, or they are in medical distress, or they are mentally ill. This worldview doesn’t make room for the possibility that there might be factors that the police don’t see. It also doesn’t make room for the possibility that people might feel that they are not obliged to be deferential, that they are citizens who have rights that must be preserved according to the law. It doesn’t make room for the possibility that each person is an individual with their own set of reasons for responding the way they do in any given situation.

It turns out that scientific investigation has taught us some things about punishment, and the effects that punishment has on both the one who is meting out the punishment and the one who is receiving it. For one thing, we know that punishment is reinforcing for the person who is doling it out. Once you get started punishing an infraction, you naturally want to continue—it allows you to feel both self-righteous and powerful. We know that if you think of punishment as the only way to change someone’s behavior, then the only options that come into your head are escalating forms of punishment. If yelling at someone doesn’t produce the results you want then yelling escalates to grabbing or choking or shooting, because if you start by assuming that violence is the answer, then if low-level violence isn’t working, what you have at your disposal is only harsher and harsher forms of violence. Add the adrenaline of a dangerous job on top of this tendency of punishment to escalate, and things can go very badly very quickly.

As the parent of a smart-mouthed teenager I have some experience with just how easy it is to tip into rage when someone you feel should politely comply continues to give you grief. But I don’t carry a handcuff. Or a Taser. Or a gun. I don’t, on principle, lay hands on my kid in any form of violence.

Lord knows my parenting is far from perfect, but it is also based in a very different worldview, rooted in both moral conviction and scientific evidence about what works. Violence begets violence, but cooperation begets cooperation. Everyone has something they want out of any given situation—they might not be able to get what they want, but things go better when you recognize those wants. It is easier to change behavior by helping someone to make a constructive choice than by punishing them for a destructive choice. Bad choices are not the same as bad people. Relationships go better when you start from a place of respect.

Simple principles, but ones that I believe are as sound for policing as they are for parenting—or business or teaching or any other kind of social interaction. We can do better. We need to do better. People are dying.

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