Policing and Public Perception

Banked goodwill between cops and citizens is easily poisoned by negative perceptions. We owe it to each other to do everything in our power to hold ourselves accountable for creating our share of positive perceptions.

As titles of newspaper opinion columns go, Bias by Cop Inspires Her to Seek Change (by Associate Professor Christopher D Benson, University of Illinois) is definitely an attention-grabber!  It grabbed mine.  I considered just setting the paper down, taking a deep breath, heading back out to my squad, and going about my business without churning up any of the nausea-inducing stomach acid that goes hand-in-hand with these kinds of police-critical op-ed pieces.

But, of course, I had to read it.   

I actually read it about four times, trying hard to understand just how the author, or his protagonist on whose behalf he was writing, came to see bias in the first place.  I won’t rehash the entire column here, or go into all the details (read the column, linked below), but here is a brief summary: 

  • Michelle Martinez, a 21 year-old Latina woman and senior at the University of Illinois in Champaign, is a very intelligent and highly accomplished student.  So good, in fact, she was selected as a prestigious Ronald E McNair Scholar.  That means she is a very serious student who stands above even other very serious students, at a school where being at least a somewhat serious student is demanded of pretty much everyone. 
  • Ms Martinez spent much of her summer working on a research project, but one evening agreed to forego the books in order go with friends to “an outdoor public space” that was a “popular nighttime spot for students of color to congregate.”
  • At some point in evening, a Champaign Police officer came into contact with Michelle and her group of friends, they were directed to move along from their gathering place, words were exchanged (exactly what words, we’re not sure because the author does not tell us) between Ms Martinez and the officer, and she found herself the unhappy recipient of a citation, apparently for jaywalking.
  • The officer with whom she had words, and who wrote her the citation, was white (or, for the sake of descriptive accuracy, a non-Hispanic Caucasian) and, therefore, she and her friends were allegedly targeted because they were “of color.”  According to the author of the article, since the place the students were congregated was popular with “students of color” then “that popularity apparently made it a target of Champaign Police, who have come to see these kinds of groups, these kinds of gatherings, as potential threats.”


Interestingly, no evidence of any racial or ethnic bias was presented, details of the encounter were notably scarce and references to them ambiguous, and a lot of faith was placed in the perception of a young adult who, despite her obvious intelligence and academic gifts, is still a young adult whose perceptions may have been informed by her own biases, assumptions, expectations, and input of faulty information.  Maybe the Champaign officer was out of line.  Maybe he harbored prejudiced beliefs.  Maybe his words and actions that night lent credence to Ms Martinez’s feelings she was the victim of bias as a Latina.  If there is evidence supporting her feelings, and Professor Benson’s premise, I’d like to know what it is.  Otherwise, if he is relying solely on Ms Martinez’s subjective – and therefore quite possibly flawed – perception of the reality of the encounter, I think the Champaign Police Department in general, and the officer in particular, is owed an apology. 

The power (and perils) of perception

Okay, so I read the column, my stomach started churning, and next thing you know I’m firing off an email to Professor Benson.  To his credit, he responded politely and, while I still maintain the style and substance of his column failed to support his intent (to examine “the effects of these types of encounters” on perceptions, the community and community relations, etc between the police and public) or present his argument coherently, I do appreciate what he was trying to do even as I disapprove of how he went about it. 

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