Today’s Mike Myer opinion column continues his Saturday discussion of race relations. In the column, Myer makes the argument that “Perception Really Is Everything”:
Perceptions are everything to us. Reality doesn’t matter as much as what we believe it to be. That’s a key to race relations.
Myer follows this with an assertion:
Another factor we seem to be overlooking right now is that the problem with many black Americans’ mistrust of law enforcement personnel starts with traffic stops, not the killing of black men by cops.
Since this will be where his column is headed, it seems to me that this column would have been more persuasive had Myer provided us with some evidence to support his premise that the mistrust is related to traffic stops. (Perhaps he could have cited a study, survey, or poll that concluded as much rather than just his perception.) Instead, he moves back to his original “perception” issue by retelling an anecdote used by Wheeling’s Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger at a local panel discussion on Sunday in which a black couple wrongly assumed that Schwertfeger was going to charge them in a car accident. He draws this conclusion from the anecdote:
Far more black Americans’ perceptions of law enforcement personnel as a group are formed by traffic stops and other relatively minor contacts than by violent acts. That means George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop came as no surprise to many blacks.
Not to get into a philosophical discussion, but the catch with the previous paragraph is that it’s my perception. Knowing whether it’s accurate is critical.
Myer doesn’t state it specifically, but my reading of the column is that he thinks that blacks’ perceptions of traffic stops may be inaccurate. This would have been a great place for Myer to cite a study of traffic stops – one that suggests that the actual reality doesn’t support the perception that it is race-related. (It seems to me that if you are trying to change how I see the world, some hard-to-refute evidence might get me to question my premises. No, an anecdote by the local police chief doesn’t work for me and I very much doubt that it would work for those who have actually dealt with it.) Myer then calls for more community discussion on the subject as well as further conversations as to whether those perceptions are rooted in reality.
The column’s assertion about traffic stops piqued my curiosity and so I spent some time this afternoon looking at the research on traffic stops. One of the most recent studies I could find was summarized in an article in The Guardian earlier this year. The piece summarized statistics “which come from largest-ever dataset compiled about US police stops.” As the paper described the study:
The stark findings are based on an analysis of records of 1.8 million people stopped by the eight largest police agencies in California in 2018. The data was collected by each police agency and provided to the California Department of Justice under a 2015 state law that mandates efforts to eliminate racial profiling by law enforcement.
Here is the summary:
Black people in California were stopped by police officers much more frequently than other racial groups in 2018, and police were more likely to use force against them, new statistics from eight large law enforcement agencies in the state reveal.
Twenty-eight per cent of all persons stopped by Los Angeles police officers during the last six months of 2018 were black, while black people account for just 9% of the city’s population, the data shows. In San Francisco, the black population has shrunk over several decades to just 5% of the city’s total population, but 26% of all stops carried out by the SFPD from July through December of 2018 were of black people – marking the widest racial disparity in police stops of the eight reporting agencies.
According to the new data, black people are much more likely to have firearms pointed at them by police officers. They also are more likely to be detained, handcuffed and searched. At the same time, when the police search black, Latino and Native American people, they are less likely to find drugs, weapons or other contraband compared to when they search white people.
I realize that the California statistics may not perfectly match the black experience in other states, but I do think they point to a possible conclusion that blacks’ mistrust of police may be based on a reality. (I also think that actual evidence is better than an anecdote from the local police chief.)
In the next day or so, I hope to take a closer look (given the editor’s increasing concern) at our local papers’ recent coverage of bigotry and racism.