Stanford, California 1971. Underneath the sunny palm tree-lined streets of Stanford’s campus, 12 university students are held as prisoners in the dark basement of Jordan Hall, home to one of most fascinating psychological experiments in the past 50 years.
The Stanford Prison Experiment revealed much about the human condition, especially how the psyche responds to authority. Predominantly white, middle class, mentally stable and without a criminal record, twelve students played the role of prisoner and 12 played the role of guard.
Just over a day into the experiment, students internalized their roles. The guards took extreme authoritarian measures, including psychological and physical punishment, while the prisoners began to feel like they had actually committed a crime and lashed out.
In the Stanford experiment, guards felt greater pressure to assert their dominance and their behavior became more authoritarian knowing they were being watched (Hawthorne effect). But the experiment also demonstrated that their aggressive behavior was attributable to the situation, rather than internal characteristics.
Fast-forward. Dallas, Texas 2016. Twelve officers have been shot, five of whom have been killed, by a lone gunman during a Black Lives Matter protest. The protest was a response to the release of the tragically graphic videos of officers shooting down two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, on two separate occasions.
While Sterling and Castile have garnered attention as mpmbols of the injustice and disproportionate killing of minorities by police, the name Dylan Noble has gotten little mention in the resulting media coverage. Dylan Noble was an unarmed, white 19 year-old fatally shot by police in late June. The video of the shooting surfaced July 7.
With the country reeling in the wake of Dallas, political “point scoring” has become an unfortunately, if predictable, outcome. Arguments from both sides focus on statistics, some questioning whether certain groups actually experience police violence disproportionately and some calling for racial reconciliation.
White Americans need to do a better job of listening when African Americans talk about the barriers they face.https://t.co/rmzeEG5HoC
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) July 9, 2016
Race-baiting social justice warriors got the action they wanted. https://t.co/QVD97Nqdrx
— Milo Yiannopoulos ひ✘ (@Nero) July 8, 2016
Time magazine’s 2004 blog of the year explains that black people get shot by cops due to “their violent crime rate” https://t.co/nUVDhDQiX6
— daveweigel (@daveweigel) July 11, 2016
— Matt Lewis (@mattklewis) July 8, 2016
Some, like Matt Lewis, have followed the confession camp, admitting privilege in previous understandings of police violence. However, police violence affects both minority groups as well as whites, as demonstrated by the case of Dylan Noble.
This is not meant to diminish the role race plays before such violence occurs, but to suggest that other forces also influence how authority, especially police authority, plays out in America. Maybe the real issue is that absolute power corrupts completely. In this context, the disproportionate targeting of African Americans by the police may represent a symptom (granted, a very serious symptom) of a larger story.
Explanations of such violence can be chocked up to ‘this incident of police violence denotes a few bad apples that represent America’s problem with race’ rather than ‘this incident of police violence is evidence that there are abuses of authority within the police force.’ What if there are other issues that need to be identified, rather than hiding behind singular answer of racism as the driving force behind a multi-faceted issue?
The Las Vegas Police Department, for example, admitted it had an internal problem with the use of deadly force. They launched a collaborative reform model in 2011, and since then have decreased police shootings by 36%.
The reform included refreshing training programs, community outreach, publishing an annual report reviewing deadly force incidents to the public and volunteering to work with the Justice Department in order to re-instill public trust.
As demonstrated by the Stanford prison experiment, being placed in a position of authority is a huge privilege, but also a huge responsibility. And according to the Hawthorne effect, it may actually place a greater burden on an authoritarian’s ability to act impartially. Officers, some of whom may be as young as 24, witness violence and crime on a daily basis. Police violence has the potential to be a much worse problem, considering the level of maturity, wisdom, and brawn it would take the average American to be subjected to those situations everyday while attempting to remain impartial.
Maybe the focus should be on reducing the gap of civilian oversight and involvement over those who are ostensibly paid to protect and serve? Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper advocates for this position, arguing that reviving community ties will help lessen the divide between the police and the people whom they protect
Similarly, Drew Altman, President of the Kaiser Family Foundation, has claimed that “many of the problems between police and minority communities are uniquely local, and leadership from mayors and police chiefs can make a huge difference if they seek to work effectively with communities and move expeditiously to implement changes.”
Bolstering greater understanding between the police and the community is a two-way street, as Dallas Police Chief David Brown suggests.
“Become a part of the solution, serve your community. Don’t be a part of the problem…we’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in. We’ll put you in your neighborhood – we will help you resolve some of the problems you are protesting about.”
This is not just a problem for certain races; it is a problem for America.