What's the Best Way to Eliminate Racial Bias in Policing?

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Why you should care

Because getting shot for speeding can ruin just about anyone’s day.

OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail With OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! To kick things off, we’re shelving anything PC and launching debates. Nothing is off-limits, and we’ll go where most fear to tread. Each Wednesday, we’ll post a provocative question, with a focus on topics that might make it onto the show. Our question this week delves into race: Should we use robots as police officers to eliminate racial bias?

We’re searching for immodest solutions, and nothing is off the table, robots or otherwise. Do you have any suggestions — no matter how wacky — that could eliminate racial bias in policing? Let us know by emailing thirdrail@ozy.com with your thoughts, and we might feature your proposal next week. Here, OZY’s Eugene S. Robinson weighs in with his own immodest proposal about why we should color-code cops:

The headlines reflect an all-too-familiar narrative: Someone, very possibly someone Black or Latino, crosses paths with a police officer, and that someone comes out much the worse for wear. In the almost three years since Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri — not the first such shooting, nor the last — little has been done to solve the problem of cops shooting people who should not be shot.

But our fix is so simple that we’re kicking ourselves for not having thought of it before: made-to-order policing. Citizens of color should have the choice to interact with cops of the same race or the same cultural background. In practical terms, it would look like this: An African-American driver is pulled over for, say, not signaling a lane change. The attending officer will, in the spirit of good public service, ask the driver if she’d be more comfortable with an African-American police officer. If so? Then the attending police officer calls it in and sits with the citizen until an African-American officer shows up.

Women who are sexually assaulted … are sometimes given the option of conducting their interviews with a female officer. It’s not convenient, but it’s better policing.

Efficient? Since it could add as much as an hour to the traffic-stop process, no. But patience is a virtue, and we’d prefer people be allowed to choose inefficiency rather than have the default be brutality. Indeed, waiting would likely healthily gum up the fear-based, adrenaline-powered works that encourage escalation. Besides, plenty of times in criminal law enforcement, we choose inefficiency. Women who are sexually assaulted, for instance, are sometimes given the option of conducting their interviews with a female officer. It’s not convenient, but it’s better policing. The idea is that a female officer will be more understanding and less threatening, and that this might matter a great deal to a woman who has been victimized by a man.

Besides which, it just seems like good business to give members of the tax-paying public the choice, when stopped, to get the most evenhanded, sympathetic hearing possible. It’s good business for cops too: Wrongful-death lawsuits don’t exactly help police officers, police departments or the municipalities that ultimately foot the bill. But for gateway traffic issues, it seems tailor-made. At least to us.

To be sure, race-based policing might not work with violent crimes and criminals. A 12-year veteran of a police force in Northern California, who asked that his name not be used, thought the idea was ridiculous. Cops who work in crime-ridden neighborhoods “don’t have time for stupid shit like this,” he said. “Not when a traffic stop for a brake light might yield a pound of coke.” And it’s fair to wonder exactly where we’ll find all of these Black and Latino cops: While U.S. police forces are much more diverse than in previous generations — about 1 in 4 officers today is a person of color, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and 12 percent are Black — it’s also the case, almost everywhere, that people of color are more likely to be traffic-stopped than white people.

There are also questions about whether “segregated” policing would be good for society. But realistically speaking, considerations about the “perfect America” mean nothing to me when facing cops with guns drawn after I’ve rolled through a stop sign. And, oh yeah: Three of the Baltimore cops involved in the death of Freddie Gray were African-American. So it’s not clear that racially representative police forces can fix the “relationships that are strained in so many cities across the U.S. right now,” argued Cara E. Rabe-Hemp, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University, in a recent phone call. “Especially when use-of-force problems are pretty consistently caused by a small and known number of officers.”

And yet, in the face of 963 deaths last year alone, according to the Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, our solution seems as good as any. Well, we can dream, can’t we?

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.