Starting out as a congressional intern in the fall of 2013, I anticipated taking back many lessons when I returned to Texas Southern University to continue my education in political science. But I expected that they would stem from traditional Capitol Hill experiences like taking phone calls from angry constituents, deciphering the maze of underground tunnels that run under House office buildings and making an exciting trip to the Speaker's Lobby.
As a 6-foot-3 Black man, I've been trained my whole life to protect my safety by trying to make myself seem less threatening — dressing in professional clothing, smiling extra hard.
Yet I also brought home something else: the knowledge that, no matter my level of education, work experience or proximity to power, I would always be seen by the police as just a Black man and therefore inherently threatening. As a group of friends and I walked down the streets of D.C. one night near the Capitol Building, we were stopped by police, detained on the sidewalk and harassed for an hour. Apparently, in the eyes of the police, a group of young African American male congressional interns in hoodies fit the description of area burglars — or so they said when I pressed them on why we'd been stopped.
I was the one who was and should have been terrified of these white officers with guns, but my dark complexion, casual attire and height made me the one who was seen as intimidating.
My experience isn't unique. In fact, a 2018 study showed that the taller the Black man is, the more likely he is to be targeted by police. At 5-feet-4, police stopped 4.5 Black men for every white man; at 5-feet-8, the number rose to 5.3 Black men for every white man; and at 6-feet-4, it's 6.2 Black men for every white man.
As a 6-foot-3 Black man, I've been trained my whole life to protect my safety by trying to make myself seem less threatening — dressing in professional clothing, smiling extra hard, not wearing my cap backward, not going out with my do-rag in public. But it shouldn't be my duty to undo hundreds of years of stereotyping of Black men. It should be the responsibility of officers to unlearn their biases and to be trained to distinguish real threats from nonthreats.
Many types of data show that in police shootings, stops, searches and uses of force, there is clear racial bias in policing. We need clear policies to change that, and while it shouldn't be my job to come up with those, either, the stakes are too high to stand idly by.
We need to start by changing the culture of the force from the get-go, and take a step back in the hiring process for law enforcement officers. In many police departments, a psychological evaluation is one of the last steps of the process to help rule out those with explicit racial biases. But many screenings consist only of self-evaluation, and most people aren't likely to report their own biases for fear of jeopardizing their employment.
Many psychologists, instead, recommend a test that includes a thorough background investigation, a polygraph and an in-person interview, as well as comparisons of candidates' profiles over time. These improvements would not only help ferret out the obvious bad apples, but also help identify people who are better able to control their impulses and are skilled at de-escalation techniques.
Law enforcement officers should also be required to obtain four-year degrees. Many police training programs last just six months before participants are handed lethal weapons and sent out to protect and serve. Research shows that officers with four-year degrees are almost 40 percent less likely to use force and are the subject of fewer citizen complaints.
More training particularly helps when done in conjunction with the community being served. Among students who took criminal justice courses that emphasized community policing and experiences like getting to know the community they were working in, 80 percent reported changing views they had had based on stereotypes. Of course, we must also ensure that four-year programs are affordable and accessible to low-income communities so we can have safety officers who actually come from the communities they are meant to serve.
Once sound cadets are identified, officers should be offered ongoing implicit bias training. These are training sessions in which officers undergo exercises to identify their biases — for example, that tall Black men are inherently dangerous — and learn to change behaviors associated with those biases. A Justice Department report said officers typically receive 111 hours of training in firearms and self-defense skills versus just 11 in cultural diversity and human relations, eight in community policing strategies, eight in mediation and conflict management and four in hate crimes.
It shouldn't be my duty to undo hundreds of years of stereotyping of Black men. It should be the responsibility of officers to unlearn their biases.
Yet officers are called on to deal with a whole host of problems, including nonviolent crimes, mental health issues and domestic and sexual abuse. If we expect law enforcement officers to be able to handle these situations, we need to invest in methods to help steer their behaviors away from impulsive reactions influenced by racist stereotypes.
Alone, many of these reforms would miss the mark. But taken together, they could begin to build a version of public safety that serves and builds trust in all of our communities, not one that targets them based solely on how they look, speak or dress.