Race and the Sean Bell Shooting

The recent shooting of New Yorker Sean Bell hours before his wedding has rattled the city. But it's a story that's been played out before. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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TONY COX, host:

Last week we talked about the death of Sean Bell, killed the day of his wedding in a shooting by New York police. Commentator Lester Spence says nothing about what happened was a racial smoking gun, but that doesn't mean there weren't more subtle politics at play.

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): In this semester's black politics class, I've talked time and time again to students about the contentious relationship between the police and black men -particularly in metropolitan areas - not just in theoretical terms but in very practical terms. Telling them, for example, how when I was younger, whenever I was stopped but the police, I would place my ID and all pertinent information on the dashboard and keep my hands there for the officers to see so they wouldn't be scared off by any sudden moves.

When Sean Bell was killed by New York City police officers before his wedding, I could see the way the story would play out even before I picked up the paper. Black leaders will call for a meeting with the mayor, and either Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton would be involved. The mayor would urge caution and at some point he would make a claim as to the lack of apparent racism in the act. And people will talk about how the black community is up and arms and it wouldn't take much for them to explode.

There have been slight differences. Mayor Bloomberg took a stance against the police action, noting that the 50 shots fired into the vehicle Bell drove was excessive, particularly because neither Bell nor anyone else in the car was carrying a weapon. And two of the police involved in the incident were themselves African-American. But these two facts don't change the grand story much, only a few of the details.

The Implicit Association Test, or IAT, was designed several years ago to test subconscious attitudes about race, among other things. One of the recent modifications of the test was to see whether people implicitly associated weapons with African-Americans. People were shown some combination of guns and other objects and then asked to associate them with both blacks and whites.

The research indicates that it is much easier for Americans to associate weapons with blacks than it is to associate them with whites. None of the five officers involved in the shooting had ever fired a weapon before. Quoting the officers, they fired because they were in “mortal fear for their lives.” The research suggests that they were in fear because subconsciously they thought Sean Bell and his friends represented a danger, and this is partially at least because they were black. In the blink of an eye, the police officer saw one of their own being hit by the car Bell drove as he tried to speed off. They fired upon the car. Then they heard gunshots - their own gunshots - and automatically assumed they were being fired upon by Bell.

Now I don't normally believe in diversity training, but it is clear to me that in combination with an aggressive citizen review board, the New York City Police Department needs to do two things. First, they need to do a much better job of identifying and removing candidates who have strong, implicit racial biases. And second, they need to train candidates to identify racial biases when they are at play.

A friend of mine once said that black people were harder on crime than any other group because we not only stand strong against crime when it's committed against regular folk but we stand strong against crime when it is committed by the police.

I think he's right here. Hopefully, this incident will further galvanize black and other communities to take steps that will ensure that the people who, in reality, pay the salaries of police officers do not have to suffer needlessly at their hands.

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COX: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. This is NPR News.

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