When It Comes to Police Brutality, Seeing Isn’t Always Believing

A September 2014 police shooting in South Carolina illustrates the importance of video when it comes to issues of race and policing. It also reminds us, however, that video alone is not enough to overcome or combat the violence resulting from implicit bias.

A recent police shooting in South Carolina illustrates the importance of video when it comes to issues of race and policing. It also reminds us of the complications inherent in crime-related imagery—especially regarding how much people only see what they want to believe. Shutterstock

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On September 4, a South Carolina state trooper named Sean Groubert was captured on his dashboard camera opening fire on an unarmed Black man, Levar Edward Jones, whom he had pulled over for a seatbelt violation.

The incident has come at a time when civil rights activists are calling on the White House to enforce criminal justice reforms that would reduce the number of police brutality cases involving unarmed Black men and boys in the United States. It seems a day doesn’t go by without another report of a Black man being assaulted or killed by a white police officer. Beginning October 10, for example, thousands of people are expected to take part in a planned “weekend of resistance” to seek justice for Mike Brown, the teenager murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Among the priorities of social justice advocates is the implementation of body and dashboard video cameras for officers across the country.

However, although the Groubert case illustrates the importance of video when it comes to issues of race and policing, it also reminds us of the complications inherent in crime-related imagery—especially regarding the degree to which people only see what they want to believe.

The South Carolina video effectively reveals the frequent gap between imagination and reality when it comes to the reasoning behind police violence. On tape, Groubert tells Jones to show the trooper his license. When Jones turns to grab his license from his car, Groubert shouts, “Get out of the car,” seconds before firing his gun. On the ground, clearly injured from the shooting, Jones asks Groubert why he shot him. Groubert’s response: “Well, you dove headfirst back into your car.“

Despite this seemingly incontrovertible demonstration of Groubert’s overreaction, the trooper does not apparently feel that his actions were unwarranted. According to reports, Groubert’s defense attorney claims that Jones reached for his license “aggressively.” Groubert—like many other police officers—perceived a threat of violence, in other words, though he was in no real danger. In fact, law enforcement is the threat to Black bodies, not the other way around.

For some people, though, it’s easier to believe that cops are acting out of concern for their own safety than to say what’s really happening: that the victim’s “blackness” scared the officer into overreacting. The police officers’ fear may be sincere, but it’s rooted in the unmistakably bigoted notion that all Black men are belligerent. Though it has not yet worked in Groubert’s case, this line of reasoning has been used in the past to successfully justify racial profiling.

“Something to factor here is that Black men are stereotyped as hypermasculine and hyperaggressive. And so, that stereotype can easily become a source of unconscious bias,” explained Rinku Sen, executive director of Race Forward, in a telephone interview with Rewire.

“[People will] put that label of aggression on a Black man that we wouldn’t put on a white man simply because the behavior [of a white man] doesn’t signal to the unconscious bias in our brain that this is aggression,” she added. “So the stereotypes that Black men are subject to in society definitely affect individual decision-making among police officers.”

As many have rightly pointed out, this discrepancy in interpretations of behavior is the result of what psychologists call implicit biases. As noted by social psychologist Anthony G. Greenwald and law professor Linda Hamilton Krieger, these “are discriminatory biases based on implicit attitudes or implicit stereotype” and they pose “a challenge to legal theory and practice, because discrimination doctrine is premised on the assumption that, barring insanity or mental incompetence, human actors are guided by their avowed (explicit) beliefs, attitudes, and intentions.”

Former state trooper Groubert had a bias against Jones that justified, in his mind, pointing and firing his gun at a person who he deemed was acting aggressively. In Groubert’s case, at least, the existence of video seemed to have acted as a bulwark against such claims: Melissa Harris-Perry reported on her MSNBC show that the state trooper was out of a job and facing assault and battery charges after the video surfaced. In other words, video—as was the case for Eric Garner, Kollin Truss, Sandra Amezquita, Kajieme Powell, and countless others—was used to prove what Black folks have been saying for decades: this country has a police brutality problem.

In fact, videotape has become a way for all of us to witness implicit bias at work. In South Carolina, Groubert’s dashboard camera captured Jones apologizing at least three times during the incident. You read that right: The man who was shot by law enforcement apologized. Three times. Yet Groubert maintains via his statement that he himself was in peril.

Even so, video is far from the objective proof that some proponents may regard it to be. After all, we cannot see what the police officer is seeing at that moment; there is no singular interpretation of what happened. And without that, video can also be used to reinforce biases and defend guilty people. As Harris-Perry put it on her show:

[W]here some see an aggressive move into a car, others see yet another unarmed Black man shot by a police officer over a minor infraction. That divide about what we believe we see, even when we see the same thing, is a reminder that video, whether by dashcam or bodycam or by bystander phone, is only a tool. To solve the issues of race and policing, we have to do much more than just watch. We have to decide what it is we’re seeing.

In other words, every police officer in the country could have a camera to review his or her actions, but without confronting biases, Black people will still be in grave, often fatal danger.

As a Black woman, as I watched the video of Jones, I saw a young man who was doing what he was told, the way I believe my 32-year-old brother or younger nephews would. Where I see a man who is innocent until proven guilty, however, a person like Groubert sees a gun-toting Black bogeyman.

It’s absurd when you think about it, except that hundreds of Black people are dying each year at the hands of police officers because our society isn’t acknowledging the reality of implicit bias. That scares me. I fear for my family, and my future family, because of how law enforcement acts out their fears.

Earlier this year, The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams discussed this same danger over the verdict—after a retrial—finding Michael Dunn, who shot a 17-year-old Black boy named Jordan Davis over loud music in 2012, guilty of attempted second-degree murder. Williams warned Black teens that their world is full of “chronically terrified white people” wearing fear goggles that transform a young Black boy holding a puppy into an armed Black mobster (Samuel L. Jackson) from the movie Pulp Fiction. She advised them to, among other things, stay inside.

Some days it feels like staying inside might be the answer, especially considering how frequently people can’t agree on the intentions of cops who are recklessly firing their guns. Here, too, implicit bias comes into play—this time, for those supposedly meting out justice.

When the George Zimmerman verdict came down last year—that is, when jurors decided he was not guilty of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin—Sen explained in a Colorlines article how our legal system is not set up to provide justice in a situation in which a person is harmed because the other person was acting due to biases they’re not completely aware they have.

We saw that racism not only in Martin’s death but also in the actions of the jurors in the Zimmerman trial. Given that one such juror, known only as B37, told Anderson Cooper that—among other things—Martin was responsible for his own death, Sen pointed out that the juror “could credibly assume [an unarmed] Trayvon Martin was ‘trying to do something bad in the neighborhood.’”

As a way to hold people with implicit bias accountable to their actions, Sen suggested focusing on the impact of a given situation, such as the death of an innocent person, rather than the intentions of the individuals in question. Because most people aren’t aware enough of their bias to be able to acknowledge it as prejudice, Sen said that this approach will allow us as a society to lower “the heat level and [make] it possible to have an actual conversation, sometimes even to really solve a problem.”

Avoiding explicitly pointing out people’s bigotry, she wrote in her article, “is about getting past white defensiveness, and it does enable people to engage constructively.”

“It’s hard to prove implicit bias as well as explicit bias or intentional bias,” Sen added later to Rewire. “So what might happen in this case is the judge might say to the jury, ‘Listen we’re all vulnerable to stereotypes of aggression among Black men. And we need to be extra careful to examine this case on the merit of the evidence rather than on stereotypes or on biases.’ So that’s another thing that could happen in a particular case that would be focused on impact. Does [Jones’] behavior warrant the impact of the officer using his weapon?”

Some activists and academics, meanwhile, are working on confronting bias from a structural police perspective too. This year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University a fellowship for her research on implicit bias. About Eberhardt’s research, the foundation explained:

Her studies regarding visual attention and racial bias in modern policing  and criminal sentencing offer concrete demonstrations that stereotypic associations between race and crime directly impact how individuals behave and make decisions, often with far-ranging ramifications. These associations also influence the extent to which individuals are able to discern—literally to perceive—important visual details in crime-related imagery, as well as distinguishing features in African-American faces.

Currently, Eberhardt is working with the Oakland Police Department to help improve policing on real-world scales, by “studying racial biases among its officers and how those biases play out on the street,” the San Francisco Examiner reports. Her research shows that “police officers are more likely to mistakenly identify African American faces as criminal than white faces; in addition, officers are more likely to judge faces that are the most stereotypically black as the most likely to be criminal.”

To this end, Rinku Sen advised in our interview that “when you’re trying to address unconscious bias you have two choices as an institution: one is to remove the opportunity for someone to exercise that bias. If you have an officer who consistently stops men of color, for example, then you might assign that officer to a different beat, where there are fewer people for him to exercise that bias on.”

The other choice Sen suggested was to “make the officers take a minute to stop and think.” Here, she said, is where video cameras can come into play—not only as potential proof of police wrongdoing, which, again, may not always be effective, but as a chance to throw another hurdle in the way of knee-jerk violence. Knowing that a record of the situation will exist, a police officer may reconsider the potential impact of opening fire: how it might affect his career and, hopefully, the individual at the other end of his firearm.

“Body cameras are partly designed to do that,” she said. “It’s to give officers the sense that there will be another check [on misconduct] and to make officers take two seconds more to decide whether they’re going to pull out their weapon, whether they’re going to use their weapon, or whether they can deescalate the situation in some other way.”

Reforms like these, supported by racial justice organizations like Race Forward and researchers like Eberhardt, provide some hope for an otherwise devastating situation. However, they are just the beginning. We must continue to confront the ways in which our society has institutionalized the killing of Black men and boys, carried out and defended by those who truly believe their biased actions were justified.