Why police so often see unarmed black men as threats

Most of the racial prejudice Americans harbor today is subtle and manifests itself in stealthier ways than it did in the past. It shows up in how employers view potential hires, how salespeople choose to assist people at high-end stores, or how teachers dole out punishments to misbehaving students. Often subconscious, these race-based evaluations of character or intelligence have wide-ranging effects.

Extensive research on the subject shows that just about everyone carries this subconscious prejudice, known as implicit bias, no matter how well-meaning they might be. In the criminal justice system, this implicit bias may contribute to the many racial disparities in law enforcement. When it comes to police officers, implicit bias is a widespread concern, precisely because of how devastating its effects can be, with trade publications and federal programs taking steps to address it through training and awareness.

There are law enforcement officials who understand how devastating the effects of implicit bias can be, but no one understands this more than the people living in communities where racial minorities are disproportionately targeted by police and arrested. The reaction to police killings since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, then, is about more than a specific individual incident; it’s also about the overall system that makes such deaths at the hands of police disproportionately common.

But it’s not just police shootings. When looking at the criminal justice system as a whole, there are many, many racial disparities — in incarceration rates, length of prison sentences for the exact same crimes, and even the death penalty.

Some of the disparities are explained by socioeconomic factors — such as poverty, unemployment, and segregation — that make black Americans much more likely to commit crime than their white counterparts. But a review of the research by the Sentencing Project concluded that throughout various time periods in the past few decades, the higher crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons. This means that other factors were behind as much as 39 percent of the disparate rates of imprisonment for black people — and one of those factors may be implicit bias.
Cops stereotype black men without being aware of it

Lorie Fridell is a University of South Florida criminologist who works with cops to help them resist subconscious biases, particularly against young black men.

“Similarly to explicit bias, [implicit bias] groups people into stereotypes and prejudices,” Fridell said. “What’s different is it doesn’t come with outward hostility.”

In police work, this bias can show itself when an officer stops a subject he views as a potential threat. Police officers are legally allowed to use force based on their perception of a threat, so long as their perception is defined as reasonable (usually as judged by a prosecutor, judge, jury, or grand jury). That doesn’t, however, mean they always use force. “Police very often use a lesser level of force even when they’re justified at a higher level,” Fridell said.

But if some cops automatically consider black men more dangerous, they probably won’t show nearly as much restraint against a black suspect as they would against, say, an elderly white woman. So police officers might be more likely to use deadly force against black people that’s legally justified but perhaps not totally necessary.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and California State University Northridge in May reviewed a decade of empirical evidence about cops and implicit bias. They found police officers seem to possess implicit bias that might make them more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones. But this bias may be partly controlled through proper training, and police officers appear to perform better — meaning they show less implicit bias — than participants from the general public.

To test these disparities, researchers have run all sorts of simulations with police officers and other participants. In the earlier days, these simulations would quickly flash images of black and white people, along with different objects, and ask participants to identify if the object was a gun. More recently, researchers have used video games to see how people react to suspects of different races.

Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor, ran some of these tests with a shooter video game. His initial findings showed police officers generally did a good job of avoiding shooting unarmed targets of all races, but when shooting was warranted, officers pulled the trigger more quickly against black suspects than white ones. This suggests that officers exhibit some racial bias in shooting.

In the real world, this could lead police to shoot black people at disproportionate rates. Real policing situations, after all, are often much more complicated: Factors — such as a real threat to the officer’s life and whether a bullet will miss and accidentally hit a passerby — can make the situation much more confusing to officers. So if cops, as Correll’s simulations suggest, tend to shoot black suspects more quickly, it’s possible that could lead to more errors — such as shooting a black suspect when it’s not necessary — in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”

Other research found that the public and police are less likely to view black people as innocent. As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious “dehumanization bias” against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.

In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts.

“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
Better police training can help overcome implicit bias

Perhaps the most optimistic part of all this grim research is that over time, evidence of implicit biases can be reduced through practice and experience. The longer officers and other participants took part in the simulations, the less likely they were to make errors. Some of Correll’s research also found that certain types of training can diminish racial bias.

Fridell, of the University of South Florida, capitalizes on this research to help police departments around the country train their officers all along the chain of command. The training relies mainly on the types of shooting simulations used by Correll and other researchers to test cops, but the training sessions are redeveloped to purposely disprove stereotypes against race, gender, age, and other factors. As a result, the training sessions help officers learn to focus more on other cues — body language, what someone is holding — instead of race. (This training isn’t generally required by law, but it’s becoming more common as concerns grow about racial disparities in the criminal justice system.)
A British police officer poses with a revolver.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Fridell said that this training needs to look beyond race. “In the same way we as humans have stereotypes linking blacks to crime and aggressiveness, we also have stereotypes of lack of crime and aggressiveness,” she said, pointing to women and the elderly as two examples. “For a police officer, this might lead him to be under-vigilant against certain groups.”

Neill Franklin, a retired major who served for 34 years in the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, said the need for this kind of training is something he witnessed in his everyday work. As the commander in training units in both the state and local police forces, he often pushed for officers to consider their bias before taking any official action as a cop.

“[W]e all have this subconscious bias. Even me, as a black police officer, I felt the same,” Franklin said. “When I would be in certain parts of the city and see young black males, it would run through my mind, ‘What are they up to? Are they dealing?’ That’s because of what we’ve been bombarded with for so many years from so many different directions, including the media.”

Beyond the simulations and training, Fridell said community policing, which focuses on building ties between local police departments and their communities, can help break down stereotypes. This is what’s called the contact theory: Positive interactions with stereotyped groups can reduce explicit and implicit biases. A cop who interacts with black residents in his town might realize that many of his previous prejudices, implicit or not, weren’t warranted.

Community policing can work in two directions, as well. Just as police’s perceptions toward the community change, so do community perceptions toward police. This could, Fridell explained, make communities less defensive — and therefore less aggressive — during police interactions.

Franklin, now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the war on drugs, worries the training might not be enough in the face of perverse incentives in the criminal justice system. Local police departments are under constant pressure to obtain federal grants, which can be tied in part to, for instance, how many arrests they carry out. As was the case in Ferguson, the tickets issued by police officers can also make up a huge source of money for local governments, which encourages police to issue as many tickets as possible — potentially in the black communities they’re more likely to be deployed in — to bring in more revenue.

Given those incentives, Franklin said, police are encouraged to go after “low-hanging fruit” often found in minority communities that lack political and financial power, magnifying the effects of implicit bias. It’s these types of systemic issues that are at the root of the problem — and might perpetuate systemic racial disparities even if officers are properly trained in how to deal with implicit bias.


Nigeria asks U.S. to return $500 million Abacha loot to country



“General Abacha was one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the people of Nigeria while millions lived in poverty.”

Despite its inability to adequately explain how the more than $500 million Sani Abacha loot recovered from Swiss authorities was spent, the Federal Government has filed an application at a Washington DC District Court requesting that another $500 million (N75 billion) stolen by the late military dictator, recently frozen by the United States Department of Justice, be repatriated to the country.

In February, the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said the money recovered from Switzerland was used for rural development projects but failed to name specific projects the money was used for.

On March 6, 2014, the American Department of Justice announced the freezing of the asset of the late Abacha stashed in various accounts in the U.S. and around the world. The loot was described as the “largest kleptocracy forfeiture action” in the department’s history in a civil forfeiture action brought before the DC District court.

“General Abacha was one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the people of Nigeria while millions lived in poverty,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General, Mythili Raman.

“This is the largest civil forfeiture action to recover the proceeds of foreign official corruption ever brought by the department. Through our Kleptocracy Initiative, we are seizing the assets of foreign leaders who steal funds that properly belong to the citizens they serve. Today’s action sends a clear message: we are determined and equipped to confiscate the ill-gotten riches of corrupt leaders who drain the resources of their countries,” said Mr. Raman.

In the Asset Forfeiture action, the Federal Government through its counsel, Godson Nnaka and Jude Ezeala, asked the court to “enter a decree ordering the forfeiture of the defendant [Abacha] property to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

They also want the court to “grant an order of forfeiture for liquidation of all forfeited/seized assets/defendant property and conversion of all proceeds to liquid fluids denominated in the United States dollar.”

Further, the counsel asked the court to “enter an order directing the immediate return and transfer of the defendant property, in liquidated proceeds denominated in United States currency bank to Nigeria less Attorney fees, cost and expenses.”

Quoting the World Bank, the counsel argued that 70 per cent of Nigeria’s 170 million people are “extremely poor people.”

“For the most part of its history, Nigeria has been ruled by a string of brutal military dictators who oppressed the citizens, suppressed all forms of dissent or opposition and systematically institutionalised graft and corruption in the country.”

How the money was stolen

According to court documents, some of the money was stolen directly from the Central Bank of Nigeria through a fraudulent security vote perpetrated through letter requests from Mr. Abacha’s National Security Adviser, Aliyu Gwarzo, with the help of the late dictator’s son, Mohammed Abacha, and his close associate Atiku Bagudu.

Mr. Bagudu is currently a senator of the ruling People’s Democratic Party and represents Kebbi Central Senatorial District. Though currently standing trial over his involvement in the fraud, Mr Bagudu was recently appointed to head a probe panel into the Nigerian Immigration Service recruitment scandal.

A document filed by the United States Department in the District and Bankruptcy Courts for the District of Columbia, quoted by the Nation Newspaper, gives a comprehensive detail of how the money was stolen from the CBN and the role of Union Bank and defunct Inland Bank in transferring the stolen funds to accounts operated by Mr. Abacha across the world:

“Abacha together with Mohammed Sani Abacha, Bagudu and others, systematically embezzled public funds worth billions of dollars from the CBN on the pretext that the funds were necessary for national security.

“After causing the CBN to release the funds, often in cash, Gen. Abacha and Bagudu then moved the funds overseas, including through US financial institutions (the Security Votes Fraud).

“Over 60 false security votes letters were addressed to and endorsed by Gen. Abacha, each of which resulted in the withdrawal of Nigeria’s public funds from the CBN.
“Subsequently, the funds were deposited into accounts controlled by, or used to purchase assets for the benefit of, Gen. Abacha, Bagudu or other members of the conspiracy.”
“The conspirators transported the proceeds of the Security Votes Fraud out of Nigeria to accounts in Europe that were under the conspirators’ private control, including the Rayville and Standard Alliance accounts at Banque SBA, the Eagle Alliance and Mecosta accounts at ANZ (London) and the Mecosta account at Standard Bank as described below.

“The CBN staff and other individuals known and unknown to the United States generally would deliver the currency stolen with the security votes letters to Gwarzo at his residence.

“Gwarzo and others acting at his discretion would repackage the currency in secure bags and then deliver it to Gen. Abacha at his residence in Abuja, Nigeria.

“Gen. Abacha or those acting at his direction, delivered more than $700 million of these funds to Mohammed Abacha in bags or boxes full of cash.

“Mohammed Abacha gave the cash he received to Bagudu, who later arranged for the money to be transferred to accounts controlled by Bagudu and Mohammed Abacha in foreign countries.

“Transfers included deposits into accounts in the name of defendants Mecosta, Doraville, Standard Alliance, and Rayville, as well as Eagle Alliance and Harbour Engineering.

“In order to move the money overseas, Bagudu deposited the cash proceeds of the Security Votes Fraud into at least one of two Nigerian commercial banks, Union Bank of Nigeria and/ or Inland Bank of Nigeria.”

“Bagudu and/or Mohammed Abacha then instructed Union Bank or Inland Bank to transfer the stolen funds to other accounts under Bagudu or Mohammed Abacha’s control, such as accounts in the name of Mecosta, Rayville and Eagle Alliance.

“Inland Bank or Union Bank made the necessary arrangements to transfer the money overseas. The funds were transferred from Union Bank or Inland Bank back to the CBN to an account held by Union Bank or Inland Bank at the CBN.

“The CBN then transferred the funds from the account of Union Bank or Inland Bank to their respective overseas domiciliary accounts held at banks in either London or New York.

“The specific London or New York account varied depending on which Nigerian commercial bank had been used in the first instance.

“Through these “cash swaps,” at least $137million was transported into and out of the United States, and into accounts held in the name of the defendant corporations.”

Debt buy-back scam

Mr. Abacha also devised a dubious debt buy-back scam to fleece the country of more than $282 million an affidavit filed by the Federal Government’s counsel shows.

“General Abacha in association with his son “Mohammed Abacha, Bagudu and others defrauded Nigeria of more than $282 million by causing the government of Nigeria to repurchase Nigeria’s par debt from one of his companies for more than double what Nigeria would have paid to repurchase the debt in open market. In this fraudulent flipping of Nigerian debt’s the Central Bank of Nigeria paid and was defrauded the following: (a) $141,253,333 paid or transferred to defendant property on or before April 15, 1997; (b) $141,253,333 paid or transferred to defendant property on or before April 22, 1997.”

The counsel, therefore, argued that: “from the foregoing, the conclusion is inescapable that Nigeria is the innocent owner of the funds laundered by defendant corporate entities and therefore entitled to the return of the funds and the interests generated there from.”

Ironically, the Federal Government recently honoured Mr. Abacha, posthumously, with an award for “Outstanding Promoter of Unity, Patriotism and National Development.”


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