Post-Publication Notes on Blue Bias
© Charles D. Hayes
Notes from a couple of Zoom appearances I have made recently, one at a university and another to a private organization.
I am seventy-eight years old. I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1940s and 50s. During those years, children grew up acknowledging that most of the people who lived in nice homes were white, most nurses and schoolteachers were women, and nearly all doctors, lawyers, and politicians were white men. I don’t recall during those years ever hearing the term white supremacy, but white superiority was accepted as common sense. If you had suggested otherwise, you would have been set straight by adults with a tirade that makes today’s notion of cancel culture seem quaint.
In 1960, on my 17th birthday, I joined the Marines and served a four-year tour of duty. I joined the Dallas Police Department in 1966. I brought my racist indoctrination to the job as did most everyone else I worked with. Having internalized the notions of superiority I grew up with, I still viewed myself as did most others—as not having a racist bone in my body. I began my work as a police officer with over-the-top enthusiasm only to suffer what is commonly called burnout in a little over four years.
George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May of 2020 began a nationwide call for police reform. It raised the age-old question of whether we have a few bad apples in policing, or if instead the whole barrel is tainted. My view is that there is truth in both counts, but it is too easy to misunderstand why.
In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In policing, it is attitude, attitude, attitude. If officers are not up to a genuine and sincere effort to take their oath to protect and serve seriously, then poor public service is the best we can expect. At worst, misconduct will likely follow. Police officers with a jaded mindset are analogous to a person using a GPS with bad coordinates: Every interaction one has with the public is a bit off-kilter.
When citizens call 911, they are requesting a form of thoughtful dominance that will bring order to chaos. It is assumed that alpha males and alpha female officers will respond to the call, because the job requires such a disposition, regardless of whether such a character trait comes naturally to them or not. But unfortunately, because this boldness is required by law enforcement, the occupation is attractive to individuals with authoritarian personalities, people who see the world in simplistic terms: right versus wrong, black versus white, with no room for gray areas, nuance, or the need for deliberation. When racists become police officers, they have effectively been given a license to hate, but the nature of the work and the physical changes that ensue can have a negative effect even on officers with noble intentions.
Peace officers in America have for generations been afforded almost complete autonomy in a culture in which their word has been traditionally accepted as the truth, creating a license to act without needing to worry about consequences, and over time, this has led to abusive behavior as having been effectively grandfathered in as acceptable. Technology has upended this sovereignty, and increasingly police union reps are angry in part because they are being asked, for the first time, to be subject to the law, rather than assuming they are above it.
I know something about bad cops because I was one. I wasn’t corrupt or abusive, but I didn’t meet the standard of education then that I believe is necessary to be a police officer. In Blue Bias, I mention Michael J. Nila’s book, The Nobility of Policing, and his advice that police officers will be “both blessed and cursed to see more of life in a year than most people see in a lifetime,” and that they must be prepared “emotionally and spiritually.” I was not prepared. At the time, I simply did not have the knowledge that would have armed me with the perspective to deal with witnessing so much of the worst of human behavior without becoming overly cynical and jaded.
I let domestic disturbance calls get to me because they seemed so infantile that I became disgusted by them and began to resent being asked to answer them. But a decade after I left policing, I developed an insatiable interest in the behavioral sciences, and as I became engrossed in an ethos of self-education, I began to regret having given up on policing.
In the 1970s, I moved to Alaska and went to work at Prudhoe Bay for Atlantic Richfield. The work schedules offered an equal time off and I began to use that time to study history, primatology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sociology and myriad other subjects. I have been writing books and essays about the value of self-education for more than 35 years.
In preparation for writing Blue Bias, I have spent the past five years studying the history of policing and race in America, and how biology and neuroscience applies to policing.
In my time as a Dallas police officer, I never hit anyone with my fist or a nightstick. I didn’t even carry one. We used chokeholds in those days long enough to get a person handcuffed. I am not exaggerating when I say that if the number of men whom I used a chokehold on were in an average-sized living room, there would be standing room only. But when someone told me they couldn’t breathe, I gave them the benefit of doubt.
Being a police officer today, in my view, requires an extensive education about the history of policing in America just to be grounded in the knowledge about how one’s presence is viewed by the members of minority communities. The history of policing in America regarding race is appalling. As I point out in Blue Bias, every time I hear a police officer express doubts about the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter Movement, all it reveals to me is someone egregiously ignorant of that history.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed, America has experienced two and a half centuries of slavery, ninety-plus years of Jim Crow, three generations of separate but equal, two generations of legal redlining, followed by illegal redlining that is still alive in some states today. Add a century of lynching as a measure of silencing protest, and then being restricted only to menial labor and domestic servants in employment for more than a century, and you must ask, how then could the result be anything but poverty?
From the very beginning, low-income communities have experienced a markedly different standard of policing—a double standard that still exists today. Nothing is written in police procedure that calls for different treatment in low-income minority neighborhoods. Instead, the behavior of police officers is rooted in tradition, as in, “this is how we do it here.”
Officers don’t need to mention that they treat people differently; the subject doesn’t need to be discussed. The double standard has been internalized through actions that began when the first officer donned a uniform with a gun and badge.
Simply stated, the history of policing in America regarding minorities, especially Black and Brown citizens, has been horrific. For decades after the Civil War, once the backlash to Reconstruction began, peace officers in the South arrested Black men en masse on trumped-up charges to supply prison labor for convict leasing by individual white farmers and private companies. Moreover, the atrocities committed by police officers all over America, but especially in the Deep South, were on par with the darkest periods in world history.
The reason for having police departments is decidedly simple: It is to keep communities safe—safe from bad actors and increasingly in many cases, safe from over-policing, as initiated by local politicians who see their police departments as a major source of revenue. Through such policies, the police edict becomes a relentless effort to write traffic tickets and to issue summonses for misdemeanors, for offenses that have much less to do with public safety, and everything to do with funding government.
The issue of police departments as major sources of revenue is notably missing from the calls for defunding the police, but in so many cases this is the underlying reason for many instances of the excessive use of force, simply because these incidents are so often born out of the implicit goal of revenue enhancement.
The impetus begins in the detail room of each shift, as officers are told not to focus on making community safety their highest priority, but instead to focus on petty offenses and to produce results. One of the most egregious examples of this is detailed in the Department of Justice March 2015 Ferguson Missouri Report. Read the report online and don’t kid yourself that this kind of policing is not still going on in many communities. But add to this revelation the fact that the existence of a bedrock implicit racial bias has resulted in a double standard in policing and the mistreatment of African Americans that is deeply rooted in the horrific history of American law enforcement.
Over-policing creates a higher reported incidents rate of criminal activity (albeit of misdemeanors and minor infractions), which is then used to justify more over-policing, even though over-policing created that higher crime rate in the first place. Because police departments are already short of the number of officers needed to meet the demand of 911 calls, the lack of officers to respond to true emergencies, simply because too many officers are out in pursuit of revenue, exacerbates the difficulty in making a neighborhood safer.
Instead of focusing on defunding the police, concentrate funding local governments through sources other than fines for petty offenses. In most communities, police officers know who the active criminals are in the areas where they are assigned—being available to keep abreast of their activity is critical to public safety. However, oppressive tactics aimed at stopping everything that moves in hopes of deterring crime makes any neighborhood a candidate for being what I call a “Cortisol Canyon,” a place which elevates the residents’ stress hormones beyond all reason.
From Blue Bias: “Pick a city: Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, or Ferguson, Missouri. Imagine two young black men are walking on a sidewalk in a low-income residential area, a police cruiser drives by slowly, and one of the young men says to the other, ‘Nothing for us to worry about with those guys in the neighborhood.’ Sounds hysterically absurd when you consider the reality of such a scenario. It is more likely that these young men feel like quarry, prey, a target. And this, in my view, is prima facie evidence of law enforcement missing the point of their very existence.”
There have indeed been improvements in policing in America. There are many police chiefs and individual officers working tirelessly to improve policing, but there are also officers in every major city in America who routinely behave like Derek Chauvin. The look on Chauvin’s face when he had his knee on George Floyd’s neck was a look of entitlement: He was acting in keeping with the double-standard tradition.
While overt explicit racism has reared its ugly head during the past five years, the most significant problem we still face is a failure to admit that implicit bias is not about racial hatred or animosity but is instead simply the way our brains catalogue what we assume comprises reality. From the time we are toddlers, our brains sort, categorize, and stereotype, and they do this without our conscious awareness.
Coast to coast, America’s inner cities represent the fallout of both explicit and implicit bias, as does our disproportionate percentage of racial minorities in prisons. In our literature, television, and cinema, black men are often depicted as being exceptionally dangerous. It’s thrilling entertainment, cast this way for effect, and so it’s not surprising to hear of black men who are also wary of black men.
As professor of biology and neurology Robert M. Sapolsky points out in his profoundly enlightening book Behave, we are more likely to assume a glimmer from the hand of a stranger is a weapon—if it is dark, if the person is male instead of female, if the person is of another race. The kind of neighborhood matters too—then back we go from what kind of a day we are having, all the way back to childhood development, our prenatal experience, to our ancestral lineage that occurred millions of years ago, in which evolution equipped our limbic system—all set the stage to make snap judgments based on appearances.
We don’t have to hate or dislike strangers to treat them differently than those who are familiar to us. So, arguing incessantly about whether we are racists or not is a tragic waste of time, and it gets us no closer to solving the problem, which is that our subconscious snap judgments based on our cultural upbringing come to us milliseconds before our conscious awareness has a chance to assess the issue at hand. We are predisposed by nature of our cerebral architecture to be geniuses when it comes to rationalizing, yet we are still unlikely to realize we are simply trying to justify our position.
Neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields is a senior investigator at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and author of Why We Snap. He puts it this way: “Racial prejudice is wired into the human brain. Stereotyping of people as members of outcast groups is also wired into the human brain but by somewhat separate circuits…. The human brain instantly sorts people into different groups along racial lines. This may be difficult to accept, but the latest neuroimaging evidence supports this surprising conclusion…. That there can be no patriotism without a foreign adversary, no maternal bonding without seeing other babies differently.”
For 99.9999 percent of our species’ time on this planet, we were on the dinner menu of large predators and subject to meet warring tribes at any given moment. As a result, evolution saw to it that our limbic system (which consists of the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the thalamus) handles our experience by forming a sentinel awareness which notes and captures anything and everything that may prove harmful in milliseconds before our frontal cortex (our executive brain function) is even aware there is danger. In other words, our brains evolved to jump to conclusions for safety’s sake, and this includes everything that qualifies as being unfamiliar.
Metaphorically, it is like our limbic system photoshops our life experience, not as we think it should be, but as it appears. When you give this some thought from an evolutionary perspective, it makes good sense. Most of human thought derives from our subconscious, and this intuitive and instantaneous response is independent of our frontal cortex, which is what we commonly refer to as our executive brain function. Let’s say you decide through much executive reasoning and reflection that you are no longer afraid of snakes. That’s fine, but it will still not stop your limbic system from freaking out if you are about to step on one.
Now, it is crucial to understand that our brains have been sorting, categorizing, and stereotyping all through our childhood to and through our adulthood and that we have all internalized myriad assumptions about subjects we are consciously unaware of until we have an occasion to proffer an opinion. It is critical to be fully aware that our subconscious assumptions are not based on the way we think things should be, but only as they appear.
In the same manner that, if we had chicken pox when we were young, the shingles virus is now a part of us, the same analogy applies if we have grown up in a culture in which racial bias is systemic. This includes the whole planet. Another way to visualize how we are instilled with this ability to sort and stereotype is to think about how easily we recall drama when we are personally involved. When we study a myriad of subjects, the process requires a concentrated effort to recall what we have learned, but when we have a part in drama, the recall is effortless. In some cases, we can never forget, even when we try. It makes perfect sense that evolution prepared us to easily recall danger in any guise and to make this memory permanent.
As I point out repeatedly in Blue Bias, if police management is not obsessed with keeping their officers from routinely using excessive force, then it is inevitable that they will become abusive because their work will cause both physical and emotional changes in them. Even with good intentions, their biology will work against them.
There are four subjects I will mention briefly that I seldom hear discussed when we talk about policing and behavior.
1. The first is that we are accustomed to comparing our gray matter to computers, but it is more accurate to imagine that we have a chemical factory in our heads, and that we are chemically cocktailed to behave tribalistically.
The hormone oxytocin often called the love hormone because of its role in mother and child bonding, is also mysteriously instrumental in socially goading us to ostracize outsiders, but we still do not understand precisely how this works, or what the tipping point is that causes it.
2. The second is that, as history suggests, we do not grow up in this country with a clear understanding about how bias works, and how our limbic system front-loads our life experience to consider risk assessments up front. Recall Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking fast and Slow and this will begin to make sense.
From the time when we are infants, our amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus act in a sentinel capacity in which our brains sort, categorize, and stereotype to keep us safe from physical harm and embarrassment. We make assumptions subconsciously all our lives without being aware that we are doing so, and neuroimaging confirms it. There is an often-quoted example of a little white girl in the south who upon seeing a black infant said, “Look, Mommy, a baby maid.”
If we grow up in a society with systemic racism, it is almost impossible not to have been negatively influenced, at least as a matter of degree in the form of an intuitive nudge. Implicitly biased judgments come to us in milliseconds from our subconscious before our frontal cortex or executive brain function is even aware of the subject at hand.
Simply put, our personal opinions about whether we harbor racial biases are pretty much worthless, and police officers who adamantly avoid bias training, while believing they don’t need it, are the people who need it most. The bottom line is that implicit bias can only be mitigated by people who care deeply about doing so.
3. Third is that police officers who engage in frequent altercations are likely to experience physiological structural changes in their brain, with their amygdala growing larger, causing them to become hypersensitive to insult, or having their authority challenged. Some behavioral scientists refer to this as a sense of entitlement, which is what I believe we saw on the face of the officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. If police management is not hypersensitive about scrutinizing the behavior of their officers, some of them will get out of control just from doing their jobs.
Police work demands hypervigilance. Working in densely populated cities is emotionally difficult—seeing one’s fellow citizens at their worst day after day for years at a time is both physiologically and psychologically taxing. It is hard, extremely hard, not to become jaded and cynical. The frequent excess of cortisol from emotional stress has long-term physical implications, made worse because, after an emotionally challenging incident that causes a flood of cortisol, simply recalling the incident can repeat the surge of cortisol.
4. And finally, police work is exciting and the endorphin rushes one experiences at a slot-machine frequency can become addictive. If officers are unaware of how this can affect them, they can begin to subconsciously escalate conflicting situations to get an endorphin rush without realizing they are doing so. Now, add to these the physical and psychological changes that come with intensive emotional activity, and it is easy to see that police officers can begin to crave the very thing that is causing them personal harm.
My take is that until we acknowledge the biological and tribalistic nature of our species, and how our minds work in mechanically and automatically categorizing and sorting, we are never going to solve the problem of implicit bias.
Implicit bias, the kind without malice, is ubiquitous simply because of the way our brains prize familiarity, but explicit bias, the kind that thrives on hatred is like Covid-19: It is viral, and it is carried via conscious opinion as tradition from one person to another, analogous to the way viruses travel through the air. If a group or race of people has been stigmatized for centuries, then negative feelings are deeply embedded in tradition. We are so thoroughly influenced by conforming to cultural submersion that we develop accents in the regions in which we grow up. Pre-Civil War attitudes are known to still exist in the Deep South. If all it took to eliminate them was a conscious change of mind, we could have put an end to racial prejudice in 1865.
Bias is what brains do. Accounting for our tribalistic nature requires an educational patch that is equal to the task of repairing the mistaken assumptions that our primordial limbic system makes routinely.
In Blue Bias I am trying to improve policing by helping to prevent officer burnout, reduce the incidents of excessive force, help officers adopt a perspective that prevents cynicism, and increase mutual respect between officers and citizens.
And finally, in closing, I hope that what I have said makes it crystal clear that this advice is not just for police officers, but for every person in this country because we are never going to deal effectively with implicit or explicit bias, until understanding how our brains work is common knowledge, or a no-brainer, so to speak. Thank you.
Charles D. Hayes is the author of Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing.