American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2020

George Floyd’s Murder is the Twenty-first Century Emmett Till Moment: How Sociological Research Informs Police Reform

Rashawn Ray, Professor of Sociology and Executive Director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research, University of Maryland; Co-editor of Contexts; and David M. Rubenstein Fellow, The Brookings Institution

Rashawn Ray

Rashawn Ray

George Floyd’s murder is the twenty-first century Emmett Till moment. As former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck, Floyd said “I can’t breathe” 16 times and yelled out for his “momma” who died roughly two years before his killing. As people viewed Floyd’s public execution, three other police officers stood guard and protected Chauvin as he enacted violence on Floyd’s body for eight minutes and 46 seconds. 

Floyd’s death has entered us into a new racial awakening. Over 70% of White people now realize that racism is real. For some, Floyd’s death is a modern-day lynching that harkens back to public lynchings of the past. Whites would gather to watch the hanging of a Black person like it was a picnic. They would even bring their kids and dress in their Sunday’s best. For others, Floyd’s death relives collective memories of their own trauma with police violence. For those of us with Black children or who care for Black children, it reveals the sobering reality that one day our babies will instantaneously go from “cute to criminal” in the eyes and minds of so many, and their parents’ PhDs, or their own degrees, cannot help them outclass racism. 

Statistically, Floyd’s death highlights some troubling patterns—Black people are 3.5 times more likely than Whites to be killed by police when they are not attacking or do not have a weapon. A Black person in the United States is killed every 40 hours by law enforcement and one in every 1,000 Black people can expect to die from police violence. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Korryn Gaines, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott, Michelle Cusseaux, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray exemplify and personalize these statistics.

The interaction between Floyd and the four police officers revealed another troubling pattern — the inability for law enforcement to hold their own accountable. Two of the officers, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, were on some of their first shifts as officers, while the other officer, Thomas Thao, had six misconduct complaints on his record. Lane repeatedly asked Chauvin if they should turn Floyd on his side to improve his comfort and ability to breathe. But this was after Lane pulled a gun on the unarmed Floyd while Floyd sat in his car. The Minneapolis Chief of Police, Medaria Arradondo, took swift action and fired the officers and they were all charged with crimes (including murder for Chauvin). Chief Arradondo is noteworthy because in 2007 he, along with four Black officers, sued his own department for racial discrimination in pay, promotion, and discipline. The city of Minneapolis settled the lawsuit for $740,000, and in 2012 Arradondo was promoted to lead Internal Affairs. Some of Chauvin’s and Thao’s misconduct complaints came while Aradondo was leading Internal Affairs.

For the past decade, I worked with colleagues, particularly in the Lab for Applied Social Science Research (LASSR) at the University of Maryland where I serve as Executive Director, to assemble some of the most innovative and cutting-edge data on policing. We have collected over thousands of virtual reality experimental data points on police officer interactions with civilians from multiple police departments across the country; 30 million tweets on Black Lives Matter; interview data about body-worn cameras from hundreds of officers and civilians; mental health data from officers; civilian payout data on police misconduct; and lists of police reform legislation around the country. These data hold some of the most in-depth findings on the social psychological underpinnings and cultural and structural organizational components of policing that lead to over-policing, racial profiling, and policing killings. They also expose what Alyasah Sewell, Associate Professor at Emory University, calls “the collateral consequences and illness spillovers of policing.” 

My research on policing, published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Social Science Research, Sociological Forum, Journal of Urban Health, and American Review of Public Health, lends itself to a series of policy solutions to restructure and re-envision policing. 

Circumventing Qualified Immunity 

Qualified immunity, which is the legislation that alleviates law enforcement from civil liability, must be abolished in its current form. Under the current system, Chauvin may still receive his pension and Floyd’s family’s own tax money will be used to pay Floyd’s family for his murder and dehumanization if there is a payout in a civil lawsuit. Civilian payouts for police misconduct must be restructured. Currently, civilian payouts are paid through general funds and not police department budgets. Chicago has spent over $650 million in civilian payouts for police misconduct over the past two decades. Given what we know about the impact of education equity and work infrastructure on reducing crime, imagine the dent this funding could have if reinvested in communities like the South Side of Chicago. 

Given this, I recommend shifting civilian payouts away from taxpayer money to police department insurance policies. This is similar to the approach taken in healthcare when surgery goes wrong in the operating room. Comparable to the civil liability hospitals have, police departments should have accountability rather than being absolved from financial culpability. This shift takes a market-driven approach to give police chiefs and elected officials the ability to justify the termination of cops like Chauvin. 

Defund Police

Policing funding encompasses over one-third of many cities’ and municipalities’ budgets. There needs to be a “calls for service and clearance rate analysis” conducted to determine whether resources allocated match output. In most areas, the analysis will show a low rate of return. Over 90% of calls for service have nothing to do with violent crime. Furthermore, the clearance rate for violent crime is abysmal. About 40% of homicides, 66% of rapes, and roughly 70% of robberies and aggravated assaults go unsolved. When coupled with racial disparities in policing, this is unacceptable. Police officers have a series of responsibilities that can be reallocated to other social services, particularly mental health and addiction calls. 

Civilians on Police Trial Boards

During meetings, interviews, and ethnographic observations with police officers, I realized that they serve as judge and jury of other officers. In most large police departments, there is a trial board composed of high-ranking officers. They make decisions on misconduct. In this model, most Civilian Review Boards are symbolic and carry little weight in holding officers accountable for misconduct. My research shows that Black and Latino officers are more likely to be sanctioned relative to White officers. If civilians are on the trial board, transparency, trust, and equality will strengthen. 

Bad Apple Enforcement List and Good Apple Protections

As I have written about extensively at The Brookings Institution, bad apples come from rotten trees in policing. In line with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that was passed by the House of Representatives on what would have been Tamir Rice’s 18th birthday, officers who are terminated due to misconduct or who resign while under investigation need to be placed on a national database. This list would have potentially saved 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was killed by Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland. Loehmann left his previous department after being deemed unfit mentally to be an officer. We also need Good Apple Protections for officers who expose discrimination. 

Re-envisioning Community Policing and Officer Health

Community policing is not simply about shooting a basketball or throwing a football with some kids in the street. Rather, community policing is about officers experiencing local communities by living in the neighborhoods they serve, sending their children to the local schools, attending places of worship, exercising at local parks and gyms, and having authentic conversations with neighbors. 

In addition to reallocating funding, there may need to be funding shifts within the police budget for mandatory housing subsidies and mental health services for officers. Housing subsidies will formalize community policing, cut down on commute times, and decrease work hours. Many of the officers who I have studied work 60 to 120 hours a week. Existing research shows the detrimental impact that a lack of sleep has on decision making. A lack of objective decision making exacerbates racial bias, which leads to racial profiling and disparities in police killings.

Police officers also have poor mental health. About 80% of officers suffer from chronic stress and 16% report being suicidal and/or having substance abuse problems. Troublingly, 90% of these officers never seek mental health services. I recommend mandatory psychological counseling for officers every quarter. Rather than only seeing a psychologist after a use of force incident, mandating counseling will normalize and remove the stigma attached to mental health services. 

Upgrade De-escalation Training

Police officers receive nearly 50 hours of firearm training but less than 10 hours of de-escalation training. To address this issue, LASSR developed an innovative virtual reality decision-making program for law enforcement. LASSR’s virtual reality platform tests how the setting, demographics of the virtual reality actors, and demographics of the participants impact decisions. The virtual reality scenarios focus on key social interactions that police officers encounter daily: traffic stops, suspicious persons, domestic house calls, and store incidents. 

The virtual reality characters vary by race and gender but use the same words. We measure how officers’ decisions and the content of their speech vary by civilian demographics. We can also evaluate physiological responses including heart rate, stress as indicated in speech, eye tracking, body movement, and weapon tracking. Participants also complete an attitudinal survey that allows us to examine the impact that attitudes have on decision-making behaviors. We use Implicit Association Tests to measure implicit bias and self-reported responses to measure explicit bias. We present findings and write reports for police departments with recommendations to help officers improve decision making and reduce bias. 

We have presented some of this work at The Brookings Institution, and Long Doan, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, is presenting this work at a session on “Racializing Police Violence” for the 2020 ASA Virtual Engagement Event. In one of the first studies to comprehensively examine implicit attitudes, explicit attitudes, and behavior among police officers, we found that officers, regardless of race or gender, hold negative racial biases towards Blacks. These attitudes lead to Whites relative to Blacks receiving more deference and respect in the virtual reality scenarios. Additionally, we found that the setting mattered. Officers were even less deferential to Blacks when an interaction was more ambiguous. Utilizing the intersectionality framework and drawing attention to #SayHerName, we found that police officers treated Black women with less respect and White women with more respect compared to other groups. 

In closing, Floyd’s death, and the deaths of those who do not become hashtags, continues to crystallize why I, we, must do more. We must use our research to inform the public and help policymakers use social and behavioral science to make informed decisions. Science and empirical truth are under attack, and for too long sociologists have remained on the Ivory Tower sidelines. 

Some of us do not have the luxury to sit in the Ivory Tower and do “pure research.” And, our research is no less important for being community- and policy-relevant. Rather, I would argue that this research is more significant. Statements about “me-research” are disrespectful to those of us whose research highlights the marginalized lives of people dying due to police violence or COVID-19. Being disconnected from local communities outside of the symbolic and physical barriers of the Ivory Tower that detach universities from the neighborhoods they are located in is a privilege that some of us do not have. 

“Public sociology” is impact. It is impact in local communities, city councils, state capitals, and on Capitol Hill. It is time for more sociologists to get off of the Ivory Tower sidelines and use their research to make a difference.