The Toronto Star reported that Police Chief Jennifer Evans from Peel Region (west of Toronto) refused to drop the controversial practice of “street checks” (or “carding”). She argued it is needed to fight crime yet can’t explain why racial minorities, especially black people, are three times more likely to be stopped than anyone else.
Here’s what I think Evans and other police chiefs in this country are missing.
According to the latest research from social neuroscience, street checks may be well-intentioned but the practices are poisoned by unconscious prejudices we’ve all absorbed in society, specifically anti-black bias and the related weapons bias (explained below). We have to become aware of the powerful influence of such buried prejudice — and this is especially so for police officers who are armed with guns —for the less aware we are, the more impact this form of bias has. The following excerpt from my new book, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them, highlights the problem:
“Studies have also shown that individuals with higher levels of anti-black bias are much more likely to mistake day-to-day items such as a wallet or cellphone for a weapon when it is in the hands of a black person rather than a white one. Known as weapons bias, this is another focus of implicit race bias, especially in the context of the policing. Bias researcher Mahzarin Banaji and law professor Curtis Hardin reviewed over two dozen experi¬ments on weapons bias and found the results consistent.
To illustrate, participants were shown a series of images and instructed to quickly “shoot” if the person is armed and “don’t shoot” if the person is unarmed. The results were predictable: participants were more likely to confuse harmless things like a camera or soda can for a weapon when held by a black person and therefore “shoot” these unarmed people. However, participants were more accurate when viewing images of white people in the same circumstances, resulting in significantly fewer unarmed whites being shot. These results are, unfortunately, similar for not just whites taking such tests but also for Asian, Hispanics and even blacks. This demonstrates how minority groups who are targets of such bias also internalize negative beliefs. Further, the results are similar among professional police offers. Banaji and Hardin bluntly state: “Such findings have important implications for police officers given the broader finding that police consistently use greater lethal and non-lethal force against non-white suspects than white suspects.”
So, although Police Chiefs and other proponents might argue street checks are useful to fight crime (though there is scant data to back up this claim), the chances of implementing such practices without racial profiling, at this point in society, is pretty slim. Although implicit bias training for police is an essential step, there is limited data to assess its effectiveness — this is a relatively new area of research.
In the meanwhile, we have to ask ourselves: Does the ends justify the means? Is any practice worth it that results in even a single minority community being “collateral damage” to achieve results?
I sincerely hope our collective answer is, “no.”
Shakil Choudhury, “Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them,” (Between the Lines, 2015).