Fear to Heal

Authored By 
Michael Sierra-Arevalo
Blog contributor 
Affiliated Fellow

This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the New Haven Register (January 25, 2015)

As the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner continue to stir passions and debate about American policing, the murder of two NYPD officers in Brooklyn and the shooting of two more officers in the Bronx draws a seemingly clear, thin, blue line between communities and police.

But unheard in protestors’ cries and primetime soundbites, underneath blue and Black and “thug” and “pig,” there is a common dilemma that unites both sides of this thin, blue line. In the struggle of race, power, and (in)justice, both camps wrestle with the tragic consequences of an all too human emotion: fear.

For minority men, the names of Brown, Gardner, Rice, and Martin reify the dread of encountering a badge and gun, never knowing what “furtive movement” could cost them their lives.

For those behind the badge, the murder of Officers Liu and Ramos confirms for them that the communities they are sworn to protect are ones of ever-present peril, where any traffic stop could turn into a shootout, where a simple domestic call can devolve into a fight for survival. Worse, they risk their lives for a public that does not appreciate them, that vilifies them while they are all that stands between ungrateful citizens and the violence of decades past.

Both sides have good reasons for their stances. Men of color know  that one man’s reach for his wallet is another’s reach for a weapon; one man’s angry citizen is another’s “demon.” Every time a Black body falls at the hands of the police, it is another whiplash at the hands of an American policing force that can trace its roots back to Southern slave catchers.

Then there are the police who are called upon to mitigate the crime and disorder in marginalized communities. Though policing is not the most dangerous job in the U.S., and the majority of police deaths are not at the hands of criminals, few other jobs come with the real, even expected, possibility of confronting an armed suspect who is willing to take you or your partner’s life.

With the stakes on the street cast as life or death, the emphasis on self-preservation and officer safety can push vigilance to fear, setting the stage for violent encounters with citizens. In her work with the Los Angeles Police Department, civil rights attorney Constance Rice has interviewed hundreds of officers, and finds that police violence is not mindless racism, but that it is often entangled with fear of Black men:

“I have known cops who haven’t had a racist bone in their bodies… But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men.”

Police fear of the stereotypical “violent Black criminal” is grounded in the same torrid racial history of slavery, discrimination, and segregation that has spawned the inner-city ghettos that fear and distrust police. It is the image of this “iconic ghetto” and its associated drug-use, poverty, and violence that is invoked during police stops of minorities. Simple interactions become imbued with dangers of the ghetto, citizens become potential (even likely) assailants. When fear degenerates into violence, residents do not see a scared cop defending himself, but instead one more in a long line of police injustices perpetrated on them and their community.

The path to reconciling the antipathy on both sides of the police-community divide is rooted in empathy. Rice stresses that police are not strictly in “the arrest business,” but instead “the trust business.” After Ferguson, the Department of Justice allocated $4.75 million to fund the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, and earlier this month President Obama proposed a $263 million investment package for police body cameras to enhance accountability and transparency.

Communities and police are divided, but in fear we find a common ground, a common enemy. And while fear can curdle into hate, so too does it provide the opportunity to rise above that fear, be it of police or of dark skin. It provides the chance for courage. 

Michael Sierra-Arevalo is a doctoral student in the Yale department of sociology, and an affiliate fellow at ISPS. His research focuses on police, legitimacy, and interactions between police and community members.