Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why "Fear for your Life" Isn't a Reasonable Standard

There's a lot of reaction this week to the verdict in the case of Philando Castile's shooting last year. Naturally, a lot of it has centered on race and the officer's defense that he was "afraid for his life".

As part of this conversation, a friend of mine posted a video to Facebook along with a request for thoughts. The video showed a white man resisting arrest by two police officers (both also white). The man, who is a pretty big guy, puts up quite a struggle, at one point seeming to reach for one of the officer's guns (though he does not obtain it). Eventually the police wrestle him to the ground and pin him. At no time did either officer reach for any of the weapons on his belt. While he was on the ground, they did not continue to strike him in punishment; they simply held him still.

Commentary attached to the video by the original poster suggested that this was evidence of white privilege, if not white dominance: that whites who struggle against police don't need to fear for their lives, while blacks who are compliant with police do. It was this contrast which my friend was seeking comment on.

In response, I wrote the following, more less as a stream of consciousness:

"Fear for your life" is a subjective state of mind. My fear is mine - it is based on the judgments and expectations I have in my own head about is going on around me. 

Juridical standards of "reasonable fear" assume that we can take an average of what
 "most people" would fear given a certain set of circumstances. In some cases, this is in fact "reasonable" - most people will fear if suddenly confronted with a rattlesnake, for example. Most people will also experience fear if a gun is pointed at them.

To believe that we can do this kind of "reasonable averaging" without taking race into account is folly. If I get pulled over, it would not be reasonable for me to fear that the police officer is going to shoot me. Were I black, it would be very reasonable to fear that outcome.

This isn't "White Supremacy", at least not in the sense that there is a conscious, guiding ideology that drives these differences. Rather, there are unconscious and semi-conscious biases that exist in people's heads. We tried to call these biases "racism", but that falters because most people think racism is a conscious thing, a set of beliefs I consciously hold.

We all make judgments in the face of ambiguous evidence. Those judgments are driven by our beliefs, our expectations, and our emotional responses to things around us. This is why negative media portrayals of black men, for example, are so problematic. TV shows don't turn people into conscious racists. But they build up in our mind unexamined expectations about how other people are likely to behave.

Our laws and judicial procedures were developed with an underlying assumption that all people are equal. And so we wish ourselves to be. But in our minds, we are NOT all equal to each other. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality.

The simple answer to this particular problem is rigorous, continuous, serious police training. You can train officers to respond the same to everyone, regardless of color. But you have to recognize that such training has to overcome the differences already existing in their own heads. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of practice, to overcome those mental differences. Some - I suspect many - police officers already have, and many have probably never been seriously tested on the street. I am surprised, in the light of these continuing tragedies, that no one is talking about how we support, train, and discipline our police forces, and what expectations we have for the way they do their jobs.

It seems to me that the legal question we keep asking in these cases - would a "reasonable person" be afraid for their life under a certain set of circumstances - is the wrong question, because there is no singular "reasonable" viewpoint. Our experiences, especially around race, are so vastly disparate that most of us cannot understand what "reasonable" looks like to someone who has a different race, a different background, a different set of experiences than we do.

We will never make progress in our national conversations until we recognize this basic truth: that "reasonable" is not an objective standard, and that fear is based on many things including prejudices. Just because someone is sincerely afraid does not make their actions in response to that fear reasonable.

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