Sunday Commentary II: Troubling Protests in South Carolina, Complex Situation

southcarolina-student

Leaving aside any racial implications involved in the incident at the high school in South Carolina, it troubles me greatly that the students would be protesting the firing of school resource officer Ben Fields.

One student told The Huffington Post that even though he did not agree with Deputy Fields’ conduct in the student arrest, the officer did not deserve to be fired. John Cassibry, a 17-year-old senior who participated in the protest, said, “My belief on Deputy Fields is just that – I do believe he was too aggressive, but I do not believe it was any circumstance to lose his job, nor do I believe it was race-driven.”

Everyone of course is entitled to have an opinion, but what Deputy Fields did, regardless of what the student who ended up being arrested did, was dangerous, it violated use-of-force guidelines, and it was a gross violation of department protocols. Add to the fact that this wasn’t Deputy Fields’ first violation and it was a no-brainer for the Richland County Sheriff.

“From the very beginning that’s what’s caused me to be upset, and continued to upset me, is that he picked the student up and threw the student across the room,” Sheriff Lott said.

To anyone who believes that a 100-student protest vindicates the conduct of the deputy, I very strongly disagree.

The second issue, of course, is the racial implication of this incident. Some have pointed to the fact that Mr. Fields has been dating an African-American woman for “quite some time” as evidence that race was not a factor. There is also the mixed-race nature of the student protest.

I have long believed in the need to have dialogue on issues of race. African-American communities have long believed they have been singled out due to race. Police and their defenders believe that any disproportionality is related more to the concentration of crime in areas with large percentages of minority population.

But, if anything, these situations are far more complex than anyone wants to believe. The issue is generally not that of overt racism in the classical sense. The number of people who believe blacks are genetically or otherwise inferior to whites at this point is minutely small. As is the number of people who believe we should go back to segregation and separate accommodations based on race.

The issue of unconscious bias is far more complex. We need to explore how the brain processes information. As Michael Roosevelt – an expert in implicit/unconscious bias, who has trained thousands of attorneys, judges and police officers – explained in his keynote address at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Justice Summit last spring, the brain is really primed to make a lot of quick decisions based on a lot of information.

He said, “So the research shows, the people that study the brain, it shows that we tend to categorize. This is a normal process.”

“We tend to look at the other people as all the same and we look at our group as unique,” he said. “This is critical. Sometimes we make in the brain, what we call exceptions to the rule.” Or, as he put it, imitating the effect: “You are not like the other black people. I don’t think of you as being black.”

Stereotypes are important concepts. “These are things that we generalize about a group, based on some shared characteristics,” he said. “Often times stereotypes involves projection – what we want to believe about that group.”

Is it conceivable that a police officer could date an African-American while at the same time viewing the subjects he encounters in his line of work as inherently more dangerous if they are black – and therefore, at a subconscious level, respond differently to the perceived threat level based on race?

For some we are delving dangerously into the hypothetical – but if we are really going to get to the bottom of this problem – we cannot simply dismiss conversations about race based on hypotheticals.

Last weekend, we explored the New York Times article that examined traffic stops and arrests and found wide racial differences in police conduct.

The New York Times analyzed “tens of thousands of traffic stops and years of arrest data in this racially mixed city of 280,000” and found “wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct.”

Police officials defend this discrepancy, arguing that “most if not all of the racial disparities in their traffic enforcement stemmed from the fact that more African-Americans live in neighborhoods with higher crime, where officers patrol more aggressively. Pulling over drivers, they said, is a standard and effective form of proactive policing.”

But to me what was really interesting is the two-level data picture that emerged.

As the Times points out, “By itself, that proves little, because other factors besides race could be in play. Because African-Americans are, for example, generally poorer than whites, they may have more expired vehicle registrations or other automotive lapses that attract officers’ attention.”

It is another set of data that ends up more telling, and that is what happens after the vehicle is pulled over. Do the officers use their discretion to search the vehicle?

The Times finds, “In the four states that track the results of consent searches, officers were more likely to conduct them when the driver was black, even though they consistently found drugs, guns or other contraband more often if the driver was white.”

It is important to understand that they are finding contraband more often if the driver is white, probably due to the fact that they are using a lower threshold to search black vehicles than white vehicles.

Finally, this incident draws on another issue and that is the criminalization of disruptive behavior by students. The female student here was disruptive in class and was texting on her phone. The teacher asked her to leave and she refused.

The recourse by the teacher was to call the police and South Carolina has a criminal statute that makes disrupting a class illegal. But is this the best approach to dealing with disruptive students?

There are other approaches that are probably more effective than introducing young people to the criminal justice system for nuisance level violations of the law. Studies have shown that delaying the intervention of law enforcement is a better practice.

The work of Ron and Roxanne Claassen, authors of Discipline That Restores, is an alternative approach.

Mr. Claassen said that he had already founded the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies when his wife, an eighth grade teacher, came home and said the structure of discipline in the schools is very similar to the structure of the criminal justice system.

Mr. Claassen is the Director of the Restorative Discipline Project and Professor of Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific School of Education. He has served as a teacher, pastor, consultant, trainer and mediator in church, business, school, criminal justice and other settings. He is co-founder of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, as noted above, and founder of Fresno VORP (Victim Offender Reconciliation Program).

Restorative justice in the classroom, he said, does not mean that things are let go or that chaos is allowed to rule. It begins with the concept that whatever response there is going to be to misbehavior is going to be a constructive response.

“What we’ve been working at is developing a series of options so that,” he said, if one approach does not work, they have alternatives. “It is all to work in the direction of the student accepting personal responsibility for what they’ve been doing and thinking about how they want to move forward.”

“When there has been an infraction it can be a process for how you repair that infraction,” he said.

In a case like this, why not have the teacher take the rest of the class out of the classroom and bring in a counselor to talk with the student? It could hardly disrupt the class more than having an officer come and arrest the student, throwing the student across the room.

There has been less talk about why a student would steadfastly refuse to get off the phone when asked, and there is obviously something deeper than the instant issue and that needs to be addressed. Bringing it into a law enforcement realm will make it less likely to be resolved in a satisfactory way.

In the end, we have three different aspects of this incident that need to be addressed. First, the egregious behavior of the law enforcement officer was addressed, but it is concerning that the students would find this incident not egregious enough to warrant firing the officer. Second, the racial aspect is complex and not easily resolved, but punting on this discussion is unlikely to change things. Third, we need a better system to handle student discipline issues and I think a restorative approach is the way to go.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 Comments

  1. Anon

    Is it conceivable that a police officer could date an African-American while at the same time viewing the subjects he encounters in his line of work as inherently more dangerous if they are black – and therefore, at a subconscious level, respond differently to the perceived threat level based on race?

    Is it conceivable that a police officer could use excessive force no matter the ethnicity of the individual?  Where is any evidence of racism by Fields?  Even black students don’t believe this cop was racist.  From what I can tell in a picture, a previous victim (Carlos Martin) of Fields excessive use of force appears to have been white… See: http://www.addictinginfo.org/2015/10/27/cop-who-beat-teen-girl-accused-of-targeting-black-students-rape-threats-imagesvideo/ I don’t understand the need to deflect from the real issue here – excessive use of force against a minor.

    1. David Greenwald

      I see three real issues and only one of them is the excessive use of force against a minor.

      “Where is any evidence of racism by Fields? Even black students don’t believe this cop was racist.”

      I spent a portion of time in the article explaining the difference between unconscious/ implicit bias and classical racism, and yet you chose to use the term racism – why? I don’t believe that the cop is racist, although he does have a couple of incidents in his record that are questionable.

      1. Anon

        Why do you choose to keep introducing “racism” through the back door via unconscious/implicit bias?  Give it up, already!  There just isn’t any evidence of it here, no matter how hard you are trying to find it.  But the evidence does clearly point to repeated uses of excessive force.  I just don’t understand your continued need to deflect attention away from the real issue here.

        1. Tia Will

          Anon

          Perhaps it is because David does not agree with you that there is only one legitimate issue here. While I do not know whether either overt racism or implicit bias was involved in this particular event, I know from personal experience that implicit bias does exist.

          I was raised in a racist household. My parents were very clear that it was not ok for my sister and I to socialize with blacks or Hispanics. And yet, my mother always maintained adamantly that they were not racist. She used as her example my father’s friendship with a black coworker. Almost word for word she would explain that my father felt that his friend was “ not like the other black people”. And that he “didn’t think of his friend as being black. ” 

          I also do not believe that the opinion of a few students ( or even 100) should override the decision of a police superior who feels that one of his officers behavior has been so egregious as to warrant immediate dismissal. This is the decision of the superior officer, not a group of students.

          Finally, I have to wonder why it is that a group of students that all seem to admit that the officer used unwarranted force are so accepting of that force. Could it be that they are being raised to consider violence an appropriate response to irritation, confrontation or disobedience. This is actually far more chilling to me than any consideration of whether or not there was any racial undertones involved.

        2. Tia Will

          Anon

          Perhaps it is because David does not agree with you that there is only one legitimate issue here. While I do not know whether either overt racism or implicit bias was involved in this particular event, I know from personal experience that implicit bias does exist.

          I was raised in a racist household. My parents were very clear that it was not ok for my sister and I to socialize with people blacks or Hispanics. And yet, my mother always maintained adamantly that they were not racist. She used as her example my father’s friendship with a black coworker. Almost word for word she would explain that my father felt that his friend was “ not like the other black people”. And that he “didn’t think of his friend as being black. ” 

          I also do not believe that the opinion of a few students ( or even 100) should override the decision of a police superior who feels that one of his officers behavior has been so egregious as to warrant immediate dismissal. This is the decision of the superior officer, not a group of students.

          Finally, I have to wonder why it is that a group of students that all seem to admit that the officer used unwarranted force are so accepting of that force. Could it be that they are being raised to consider violence an appropriate response to irritation, confrontation or disobedience. This is actually far more chilling to me than any consideration of whether or not there was any racial undertones involved.

  2. Barack Palin

    Liberals hate that the student body themselves aren’t making this about race and don’t want the officer dismissed.  Liberals could learn a good lesson from these children.

      1. Barack Palin

        I can’t make that case.  He probably should be fired.  But the students are still allowed their opinions.

        I’m still waiting for you to make a case this was about race.  And no, don’t tell us about implicit bias and your hypotheticals.  That’s not proof.f

        1. David Greenwald

          I completely agree with you on the issue of he should have been fired and I don’t have a problem with the students having opinions and expressing them. I disagree with them, I think the conduct was too egregious to result in anything short of firing the officer. Anyone else doing that would have been fired, no questions asked – teacher, parent, administrator.

          On the second, my contention in this article is that we need to have the discussion otherwise the same perceptions exist and the same conduct repeats itself. That solves nothing. There is no proof here – there is evidence in both directions and we should discuss and debate that evidence.

      2. zaqzaq

        David,

        It is disturbing that a commentator 3,000 miles away like yourself is upset that the students that know Fields best do not believe he should be fired.  They appear to be looking at a body of work to define Fields and not one incident.  Many of them interacted with him on a daily basis.  These students obviously saw through the propaganda that the sheriff spewed when firing Fields.  They should be commended for their courage to buck the popular trend set by the media by speaking out on this issue where they know the officer instead of being called naive.

        What is truly disturbing were the black political action groups that jumped all over this as evidence of racism simply because the officer was white and the student was black without taking the time to investigate.  I believe the sheriff’s swift firing was in response to this pressure and not the facts of the incident.  Absent the political spotlight the process would have been different.

        As far as defending his actions it is my understanding that the policy violation occurred when he pulled the student from the chair after it was on the ground and not when she fell to the ground.  I would like to know what Fields was trying to accomplish during each part of the use of force.  It did not appear that he was trying to throw her to the ground when she was seated in the desk.  Instead it look like he was trying to pull her out of the desk and her resistance caused the desk to go over.  It then appears that he pulled to hard getting her out of the desk.  Absent national spotlight on the ethnicity of the participants this is a training issue for a 10 year employee with the obvious support of the students.  For those who only saw racism such as yourself the only way to quiet the storm was to fire the officer.

        Concerning previous use of force complaints.  The first went to a trial and the jury sided with the officer that it was NOT excessive use of force.  It is really interesting that individuals on this website that go out of their way to point out that a person is innocent until proven guilty before a trial jump all over the officer when he was proven innocent after a trial.  Fields got smeared with the incident by the media as thought the allegations were true.  Further I have yet to see a video of a police officer using force in the media or on TV that is not disturbing in some way.

        The most disturbing aspect of this whole incident is the reliance on police officers to maintain discipline in the classrooms.  The incident with the defiant student should have been handled by the school administrators instead of calling the police.  It is politically expedient for the school board to attack the officer instead of focusing on the policies they created that led this situation.  How are the school administrators that participated in this incident being disciplined.  Should they?  Many news reports had the school staff commending the officer prior to the video getting out.  So the staff had no problem with Fields conduct until the video became public and the students have protested in support of Fields retaining his job after the firestorm.  It is cowards way to take the easy way out which was firing the officer instead of discipline and retraining.  I see a coward every time I see the sheriff on TV.
        As and advocate of restorative justice I am shocked that you did not call for this instead of the firing of the officer.

        1. Tia Will

          zaqzaq

          It is cowards way to take the easy way out which was firing the officer instead of discipline and retraining.”

          I do not pretend to know from 3,000 mies away as you observed whether or not the firing of this police officer was a reasoned judgment based on his past history or due to pressure. However, I do find it interesting that you omitted from your report about this officer’s past that part about him being named as one of 10 individuals as part of an illegal suspension lawsuit involving an alleged gang investigation in which the litigant is black as were the litigants in the claim in which he was exonerated of some charges, while other charges were dropped for unstated reasons.

          This was all in the CNN article that you seem to be referencing and that I posted on earlier when I stated that the reviews on this officer seemed to be mixed and that there was definitely more than just this one incident to be considered.

        2. zaqzaq

          Tia,

          I am aware of the pending case and as I mentioned above “previous use of force complaints” plural.  But as you so often point out individuals are innocent until proven guilty.  That case has NOT concluded unlike the one that I mentioned where the jury vindicated the officer’s conduct.  Even after the jury found the officers conduct was not excessive use of force the media still attacked him with it.  The other is just an unfounded allegation until the civil case is concluded.  A better question is what was the result of the internal investigation with the pending civil case where he is named as one of 10 individuals.  That one deals with an alleged gang fight caught on video.  And remember it is someone that is trying to get money from the deep pockets employer just like the first one.

    1. Tia Will

      Liberals hate that the student body themselves aren’t making this about race”

      I am about as liberal as it is possible to be. I don’t hate the point of view of some members of the student body who have had good experiences with this officer. I suspect that the views on whether or not this is about race vary widely both in the student community and the community at large, just as they frequently do in the comments section here.

    1. Anon

      Good point!  Students need to understand the difference.  While they may have been sympathetic to the officer’s conduct, because they thought the student “had it coming”, it is important to understand what excessive use of force is.  What if the girl had sustained serious/permanent injury?  Police tactics have to be proportional to the conduct/crime…

  3. Tia Will

    To DG: What evidence is there of racial bias, overt or unconscious?”

    I am not DG and am not offering “proof” but only evidence.

    http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/27/us/south-carolina-who-is-ben-fields/

    This CNN article seems to portray two distinct aspects of Officer Fields career. He had received accolades for his work with students on several occasions.

    He also was involved in two lawsuits, one in which he was found by a jury to be innocent of some charges and with some charges dropped for unstated reasons. The charges involved the use of excessive force. The couple involved, the Martins, happened to be black. The composition of the jury was not stated nor was the ethnicity of the involved lawyers.

    He is one of ten defendants in a case in which a then student is accusing he and others of unlawful expulsion from school amongst other charges during a case which is alleged to involve an investigation of gang activity. The claimant, Mr. Reese happens to be black.

    So does this prove anything ?  Of course not. No more than does the support of some students who happen to have had good experiences with him regardless of their race.

    What I see happening here is that there is no strong evidence yet either for or against a racial bias in this case. To raise the question does not seem egregious to me, since it is only a question. What does seem inappropriate to me is to make the absolute claim that there is, or is not racial bias being displayed without further information. While it is fun, and perhaps inherent in the nature of blogging, to assert our own point of view as though it were fact, I think it says more about the blogger than it does about the reality of the situation.

  4. Napoleon Pig IV

    This seems to me much less about race than about abuse of power and tolerance for abuse of power. My own view is that while most police officers are decent people doing a difficult job, the profession also attracts some psychopaths and sociopaths who slip through screening. There should be zero tolerance for abuse of power by officers of the law, zero tolerance for good cops who cover up for the bad ones, and zero tolerance for politicians who pander to police unions or any other special interest group at the expense of innocent citizens.

    Further, students should be taught to question authority, recognize propaganda in all its forms, think critically, and behave more like pigs than sheep. Oink!

  5. Tia Will

    Napoleon Pig IV

    Further, students should be taught to question authority, recognize propaganda in all its forms, think critically, and behave more like pigs than sheep”

    I basically agree with your post. I would rephrase the last part to read:

    “Further, both students and police should be taught to question authority, recognize propaganda in all its forms ( and sources), think critically, and behave more like reasonable and rational  human beings than like either pigs or sheep.

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