In discussing police practices, African-American crime, and excessive use of force there seems to be an underlying assumption all sides are making, which I believe muddies the waters. The two sides of possible problematic interaction are not the police vs. all black people, it is the police vs the people they actually encounter, on the street, responding to calls. Most people, black or white, go about their everyday lives without interacting with the police at all. We might see them as we drive, or if they are standing guard at some crowded event. Situations with even the potential for problems usually involve driving offenses or accidents.
Some policemen are just jerks; or worse, they are abusive and dangerous. Is the percentage of police who are jerks or abusive greater than in the population at large? Probably. Is the percentage of police who are jerks or abusive greater than in the black population at large? Probably. But those are the wrong questions. What is at issue is how the police are acting in the problem areas, where they necessarily congregate, and how the people there interact with them. Most people just hanging around on the street, or drunks walking away from a concert, or even political protesters of any stripe are not dangerous – but there’s a much higher percentage of them who are than in the general population, and they can set the others off. Even more, the people the police interact with when they are called to a situation have a much higher rate of being potentially dangerous. Still low in each individual contact, but in the aggregate it means the police are encountering a lot of dangerous people.
In those situations, the police are more likely to be the reasonable person. You might say that being more reasonable than a drunk or the person whose neighbors just called about them is a low bar, and you’d be right. But still, it’s there.
However, the interaction between the police and the everyday citizens, the ones they usually don’t see, can be revealing. Most everyday citizens make an allowance for who the police deal with all the time and recognize that the person they are talking to A) might be more than usually irritable, because of his life experiences over the last two hours or two decades and B) might have gone into police work for bad reasons to begin with. Therefore, the everyday citizen tends to act politely, even if they feel irritated. If the policeman is being a jerk to you, then, Mr or Ms Everyday Citizen, it’s likely he’s at least that bad to other people, and maybe worse. You have received inside information. It’s a little more ambiguous for black (or Hispanic) people. It’s harder for them to discern whether this cop is just generally a jerk to anyone, or does this one have it in for black people especially? Well, the nice Mr. Policeman has the same problem with you. You are being an ass. Are you always an ass, only an ass when someone tells you to do something, or just being an ass because I’m a policeman?
One of the towns that borders ours has had a few knuckleheaded, bullying policemen as long as I’ve lived here. This is mirrored nicely by their knuckleheaded and bullying selectmen and other town officials. They have treated people unjustly – usually each other, and to some extent have been consequated for it. Yet most people in the town go about their everyday business without having a problem with the police for years or even decades.