In a recent discussion organised by Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center, psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett mentioned a man who wrote to her about the moment when he almost shot a boy who was herding cattle, mistaking him for a guerrilla fighter. The example is also in her book ”Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain”.
The brain often makes us act on the basis of our experiences and the brain’s expectations and this plays a role in many, though not all, police shootings.
As former Baltimore judge and city solicitor Andre M. Davis explained during that same online meeting, policing is a very insular business.
These two factors can obviously form a lethal combination. My 15+ years in living in a country that is known for its insularity and my 10+ years in a small city that is known within that country for its fierce insularity have taught me a few things about insularity. Insularity colours people’s views and expectations greatly. And they’re rarely aware of this.
Adam Toledo, the 13-year-old boy who was fatally shot in Chicago on 29 March 2021, hardly had the time to comply with the police officer’s directions. That is, if he even heard those directions and if he heard them, if he heard more than a mere soup of vowels and consonants.
There is a lot of racism among police officers. But there is also a lot of fear among police officers in the US, a country where anyone can own a gun. I have seen this fear first-hand when I called police officers to my home in Florida in the mid 1990s, in the small city that shortly after exploded into riots after police officers shot 18-year-old Tyron Lewis during a traffic stop.
Racism, subconscious racial stereotyping (bias) and fear reinforce each other.
The brain of a police officer has one main biological function in many of the situations police officers encounter, namely to keep the police officer alive.
How do we break through these barriers? In the story of the man who almost shot a boy because he saw a long rifle instead of a shepherd’s stick, the hand that someone else put on his shoulder was enough. Years later, he was still so rattled about the incident that he contacted to Lisa Feldman Barrett about it.
How do you reset a police officer’s brain in that split second before he or she shoots someone?
We’re literally talking a fraction of a second here that can make the difference. That’s obviously very challenging.
This, of course, is apart from the question whether you should allow civilians to own guns because one of the results of the right to keep and bear arms is that police officers kill citizens out of fear that those civilians will shoot them unless the officers shoot first. That’s what their brains tell them.
It is also beside the obvious point that bridges need to be built that cross differences in skin tone and ethnicity. Because let’s face it, subconsciously expecting black or Hispanic people to be more dangerous is as ridiculous as expecting blond or grey-eyed people to be more dangerous.
And if we can overcome that, then we’re dissolving socioeconomic and health disparities at the same time.