As the Albert Keim Lecture speaker on Feb. 16, author and public affairs professor Charles Epp said distrust and fear of police among black and Latino populations results from stopping and searching their people and cars when no crime has been committed. His talk was part of Black History Month observances at EMU and was sponsored by the Washington Community Scholars' Center, the Jeremiah Nonviolence Network and the EMU history department. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

People of color have good reasons for viewing police as racist, law as arbitrary, says University of Kansas expert

The reasons and ways in which police stop and investigate citizens indicate a racial hierarchy, argued Charles R. Epp in a lecture coinciding with Black History Month at Eastern Mennonite University. Given as one of the Albert Keim History Lecture Series, Epp’s talk centered around his co-written book Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship.

Epp and his colleagues collected stories, studies, and statistics for 10 years, culminating in the publication of Pulled Over in 2014. Epp, who is a public affairs professor at the University of Kansas, said his interest in police stops was piqued by  anecdotes from black and Latino students. He also had several students who were command-level police officers, and he observed a microcosm of the “clash of cultures” between those demographics.

Studies he cited show that police are much more likely to stop and search black and Latino people as opposed to whites. Other studies indicate that police are more likely to use violence against people of color as well. Fifty years after the civil rights riots and the marches from Selma, Alabama, and 40 years after the police reforms in response to those altercations, we still have Michael Browns, Epp noted. There is widespread distrust and fear of police among black and Latino populations.

Epp said that this fear and distrust do not result from blatant racism, such as an officer using slurs or being impolite in conduct, but rather from the system of stopping and searching people and cars when no crime has been committed. Termed “investigatory stops,” this tactic has been encouraged in police departments across the nation since the 1980s, he said. As opposed to traffic safety stops, which are in response to illegal or irresponsible driving with clear consequences, investigatory stops are an attempt to preemptively fight crime by stopping suspicious-looking people, trying to find drugs, or seeking to detect other illegal activities.

Because most investigatory stops don’t result in stopping crimes, police leaders have admitted that this policy becomes “a numbers game,” said Epp, in which police profile and stop as many “suspicious” people as possible in order to catch more criminals.

According to one study Epp cited, a young black man has a 28 percent chance of being stopped over the course of a year for investigatory reasons. By comparison, a young white man has only a 12.5 percent chance. And while stopping rates decline for all genders and races as they age, a black man must be around 50 years old to have as low a chance of being stopped as a 25-year-old white man. Whether because of outright training or indirect cultural norms, police officers apparently interpret “suspicious-looking” as “being black.”

“You don’t have to be a frank racist to be influenced by these stereotypes,” Epp said.

Student Hans Bontrager-Singer said he appreciated how Epp emphasized that police training is responsible for much of the racial stereotyping.  “I think it is important to remember that the police are – for the grand majority – trying to do their job the way the force says they need to do their job,” said Bontrager-Singer.

But police assuming, and acting as if, blacks and Latinos engage in more illegal activity than whites “causes real harm to individuals and has a corrosive effect on . . . democracy,” said Epp. Tensions between people of color and the police are rising not just because of events like Ferguson, but because this mutual distrust is reinforced daily by investigatory stops, he stressed.

Epp noted that each race has learned different “lessons” regarding police stops. For white people, if you are not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear – that’s their lesson. But if you violate the law, eventually you will face consequences based on the severity of your infraction.

For people of color, however, the lesson is different. You “come to view police and the law as arbitrary and unpredictable,” he said. Despite not being given a reason for being stopped, feeling violated, or being held indefinitely without cause, “the best you can do is sit quietly. . . and try to avoid serious confrontation.” Such practices breed fear, and enforce a racial hierarchy of first- and second-class citizens.

Despite evidence that they’re discriminatory and have repercussions, investigatory stops are still lauded as an effective way to prevent crime and create safety, Epp said.

“The problem is not aberrant police practice,” he said. “The problem is a best police practice.”