It’s the most vicious of cycles: somewhere, amid normal law enforcement, a police officer unjustifiably kills a black man; somewhere, amid peaceful protests, a black man ambushes and kills police officers.
As of this writing, the latest turn came in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where former Marine Gavin Long, after recording YouTube videos in which he called for war on the police, took to the streets and shot half a dozen officers before being killed himself.
Long’s actions can only make police everywhere more likely to overreact to black men (and women, lest we forget Sandra Bland and other black female lives that matter). Somewhere, another wrongful police shooting will take place, and the cycle will resume.
Anguished, angry, and scared, Americans ask, “How does this end?” President Obama has tried to explain to white America why #BlackLivesMatter is not a racist movement but a recognition that in the United States one race in particular has long been treated like dirt. He has denounced police excesses and the ambushes on officers, pointed out that society cannot survive without police, and called on Americans to stand united.
Those are good gestures, but coming together at center stage won’t stop the radicalization and violence in the wings. So what can? Science and technology.
You may think me insensitive, disconnected, or just plain nuts for saying this, but in the absence of other solutions, at least hear me out. First, you should know that I am neither insensitive nor disconnected. Yes, I am white, of mixed parentage. My dad and his dusky-hued Lebanese immigrant family experienced painful discrimination. I married interracially (though today I’m married to a white woman). I lived in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, and I work with and serve black people. Still, no one who isn’t African American can truly know what it is to be black in America.
So, what do science and technology have to do with this deeply human conflict? For starters, the emergent science of human nature can help us to understand why attempts to root out racism in police forces won’t break the cycle. Overt racism may be addressed, but numerous psychology studies show that unconscious racism is deeply embedded in Americans. Specifically, white Americans tend unconsciously to view black men as aggressive and threatening.
Such unconscious prejudice is most likely to come into play in policing. Here’s why: when stopping a car or approaching a suspect, police have no choice but to stereotype. At the critical stage, they have no information about the person other than appearance.
Evidence and theory indicate that stereotyping is an evolved and highly adaptive trait. In the long era of human adaptation, telling friend from foe was a split-second, life-or-death decision. So, while race per se may be a recent social construct, bias is built into our mental apparatus. He who mistook a friend for a foe lost a friend, but those who mistook a foe for a friend often got booted from the gene pool.
The term for this instant stereotyping, which Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book Blink, is “thin-slicing”: the rapid assessment of another person based on a superficial slice of information. The most reliable criterion for “friend” in the past was kinship, and kin are people who look like you.
It’s no surprise, then, that extensive psychological testing shows that we tend to react negatively to people who look different. Fortunately, we can get past that. But in any encounter it takes time and effort to do so. We first have to gather additional information about the person—e.g., this person seems calm, this person seems willing and able to communicate, we have a friend in common, and so on. And we have to remind ourselves that we have built-in biases to overcome.
We often have the luxury of time and safety to get to know someone. But a police officer who approaches a stopped vehicle always knows that he or she may be shot. Likewise, a black driver who’s been pulled over knows that he or she may be shot. There is overwhelming evidence that black drivers are disproportionately stopped and charged with minor offenses. One study concludes that they aren’t disproportionately shot by police in such encounters, but this should be treated with skepticism. We know the data are incomplete, and both science and history suggest otherwise.
In any case, both officer and black driver have to overcome legitimate fears before they’re able to treat each other as non-threatening fellow human beings. Remarkably, that’s what happens most of the time. But all too often, deadly encounters take place, and unless something changes we can expect them to happen more frequently.
Science better informs us about the dilemma human nature poses. What can technology do to resolve it? First let’s recognize that we’re talking about this because of technology. Police have been shooting black civilians for a long time, but video has only recently emerged. The Rodney King beating was a dramatic example, but it stood in isolation for a long time. Now video is ubiquitous.
Video from many angles will help reduce the ambiguities that come out of police shootings and, we must hope, help juries overcome their reluctance to hold rogue police accountable for their actions. New video of the shooting of Alton Sterling may help in that tragic case. To be sure, this requires social action as well. It used to be that no white jury in the South would convict a white man of violence against a black person; justice today is hardly perfect but it has improved and can get better still.
Police play a critical role in society, and they face danger every day. That doesn’t make every officer a hero. Some are attracted to policing because it gives them the opportunity to be violent bullies. This should not be our stereotype of cops, but neither should it blind us to the reality that a portion of police are violent bigots who, to the detriment of the good officers and the public, are rarely held accountable.
But we need to go beyond accountability for bad actors; our aim should to be to prevent deadly encounters in the first place. As a step in that direction, why not equip police cruisers with a wheeled telepresence robot that can approach a stopped a vehicle, video the interior, collect documents from the driver, and allow a two-way initial conversation, while the officer remains in the cruiser?
A check of documents and video and a two-way conversation can reduce tensions on both sides before a face-to-face encounter takes place. If the driver has a gun, he can temporarily surrender it to the robot. If a document check suggests that the driver is dangerous, the officer can summon backup. The robot can stand off and continue to video the entire scene.
My armchair sketch of an idea may be flawed, but the principle is not. Progress in technology and justice have gone hand in hand ever since we moved past trial by ordeal. From photographing suspects (1854), to fingerprint analysis (1901), to the 911 number (1971), to DNA exoneration (1996), technology has helped keep people safer and reduce the wrongful imprisonment of the innocent (though still at an appalling rate).
Looking ahead, technology has the potential to reduce fatalities in terrorist attacks and mass shootings. The NRA likes to fantasize about how much better things would be if everyone packed heat. But this is nonsense. Imagine, for example, if everyone in the Aurora, Colorado, theater that James Holmes shot up had been carrying. In the blind panic that followed, hundreds upon hundreds of shots would likely have been fired. Each new shooter might have been mistaken by others for an accomplice. The carnage would likely have been much worse.
If, however, swarms of drone robots could swiftly respond with, say, taser technology, an attacker could be stopped, and lives could be saved. Better yet, with deep learning, artificial intelligence monitors could help identify potential attackers by their aberrant behavior before they act.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that technology will be flawless or that it can solve all our problems. Injustice is a human problem. But that’s also my point. We can’t make better people, but with the aid of science and technology we can make people act better.