“You cannot trust the British Police” (Or, should we try?)

In Ava DuVerney’s fantastic Martin Luther King biopic, Selma, we follow the great man from shortly after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize for the work of the Civil Rights Movement, through the 1965 demonstrations for equal voting rights, which focused largely around the town of Selma, Alabama. The film reaches key climactic moments which focus around the crossing of a bridge, where King (played here in an incredible turn by David Oyelowo) plans to begin a march to the state capital to demand equal voting rights for African American citizens. Repeatedly, on this bridge and elsewhere in Selma, the demonstrators face off with the local police force – a sneering, sweating, hulking brute force of almost cartoonish racism; but, it’s not hard to imagine that in the deep south at this time, the police force was occupied by such meatheaded individuals. Perhaps some artistic license is used to make them appear as vile as they do in the film, but the clashes between Police and Protesters are verified fact – and their race-based roots impossible to ignore. Ultimately, King and his fellow Civil Rights Protesters were successful in garnering nationwide support for their cause, leading to one of King’s most famous speeches on the steps of the Montgomery Capitol Hall. In the film, King signs off by suggesting that he believes equality for African Americans is approaching.

Leaving the cinema, I was sadly struck by the shocking similarity between the footage within the film and that seen on television in the last year concerning inter-group relations between US Police Forces, and African American Citizens. It’s pretty damning that barring the costumes, the riot scenes on the bridge in Selma could have quite easily been transposed to a 2014 news report from Ferguson or New York, and very little difference would be obvious. This is not to say that all police officers are racist bigots – such a two-dimensional view is obviously counter-productive; rather, very little has changed in the ensuing half-century with regards to power relationships between Black communities and predominantly White police departments – not just in America, but around the world.

A while back I touched on the benefits of inter-group contact in both physical and para-social manners – how we ought to be harbouring cross-group friendships in classrooms from an early age in order to form meaningful, equal relationships between groups that may have historically shared a power imbalance. Could something similar offer benefits between minority communities and majority-member police forces in the US/UK? Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that Black people report less positive experiences with the Police, and as a result, less voluntary contact with the Police force than those of other ethnic groups (see Clancy et al., 2001 for more on that issue). Given the benefits of contact, it should really be in the interests of the Police to attempt to engender a more balanced power dynamic with minority groups – to meet on the terms of Black communities, without uniforms or police cars or any of the symbolic tokens of power, and to attempt to reach a common goal – that is, positive inter-group relations. Some interesting work by Eller et al. (2007) directly examined how inter-group contact between participants of different races would act to mediate Public-Police relations. Predictably, Black participants were shown to have lower quality contact with Police, perceived higher police racism and were less willing to cooperate if they witnessed a crime. Importantly, and in line with the Contact Hypothesis, Black participants had higher-quantity, but lower-quality contact. The quality of contact also mediated perceived police racism, and cooperation – so, individuals from minority groups who experience greater quality contact (not quantity) perceive less police racism and are more willing to cooperate.

The crucial take away message here is that young, Black people in particular face incredible levels of scrutiny from Police officers – ongoing stop-and-search initiatives largely target this group. Unfortunately, this high level of contact does not in any way meet the basic rules of Allport’s Contact Hypothesis. Can much be done to tackle this issue? Fortunately, evidence suggests that this is a picture that can be improved; by taking these high levels of contact and encouraging the police to take the reigns to improve the quality of these interactions, we could perhaps take positive steps towards the society that MLK dreamt of on the steps of the Montgomery Capitol Hall some 50 years ago. Ultimately, the real challenge here will be in terms of asking the Police forces who perpetrated violence in Ferguson, or New York, or London, against minority groups, to recognise the power they hold in such scenarios, and to take the first steps to reach out to communities where they will almost certainly face considerable barriers to entry. These barriers are, however, worth overcoming – a world where stop-and-search practices are less discriminatory, where minority group members feel safe enough to speak with a police officer; this should truly be the goal of any individual who has taken an oath to “serve and protect”.

Luke McGuire

19th February 2015

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