Newswise — The call crackled over the police radio: A bicycle had been snatched in a Cambridge, Mass. neighborhood and two Black males were the suspected culprits. Two friends of Frank Rudy Cooper were stopped by officers for questioning. Cooper and his friends were high school seniors who had nothing in common with the suspects other than their race and gender.
“It struck me as an injustice and that this was racial profiling, which wasn’t even a term then,” said Cooper, now a UNLV Boyd School of Law professor and expert on race and policing. “I became interested in why the police tend to stop young Black males much more than other subgroups.”
The incident — Cooper’s first of several brushes with racial profiling — ignited a storied career path from college debater who took on high-profile rivals such as lawmaker Ted Cruz to Duke Law student government representative to prominent clerkships and stops to teach at prestigious institutions including Harvard and Suffolk University.
Today, Cooper teaches UNLV courses on criminal law (what you need to prove to prosecute someone for a crime), criminal procedure investigation (constitutional limits on police behavior), and a seminar that applies race and gender to various issues of law, including policing.
Cooper — along with Boyd School of Law colleagues Stewart Chang and Addie Rolnick — also heads UNLV’s Program on Race, Gender, and Policing. The group publishes research, hosts events that bring together an international cadre of scholars, and works hand in hand with law enforcement officers across the nation on issues including excessive force, racial bias, sexual assaults by police officers, and policy reforms.
“Policing — and problems that sometimes arise as a result of bias or misconduct — impacts communities across the nation, and I think discussions on these issues are intellectually interesting and important for equality in America,” Cooper said. “Our goal is to help navigate those issues by challenging the public to call for reforms, as well as helping the police to craft reforms that will meet the needs of communities, particularly communities of color which have a disproportionate amount of police attention and police misconduct. I think we are all better off when we have policing that represents all of us in the way we want to be represented. Police act for us and we want them to speak for a community that’s equitable.”
We checked in with Cooper to get his perspective on the psychological impact of repeated exposure to videos of violent and deadly police encounters that increasingly circulate online; the role that slavery and societal norms surrounding masculinity play into them; and police reforms that might be in the works.
First some background: When did policing begin in the U.S. and how did it evolve to its present-day form?
Most scholars believe there are two strands from which contemporary policing developed in the United States.
One strand is the slave patrols that were established in the South in the 1700s to check any Black people who were out after dark for passes from their enslavers. They were a loose organization of local white men. And, over time, as formal police departments were created they grew out of that experience. Especially around the Reconstruction era, their focus was on monitoring the movements of newly freed Black men. In the North, they developed from something called the “night watch,” which was, again, a loosely organized group of men who would patrol at night to see if anything untoward was going on. These groups, which originated in England in the 1700s, operated primarily in big U.S. cities and eventually became much more formalized in the North after the 1850s.
As we go from the 1850s to the 1950s, there’s a sense — especially in the North — that police departments were captured by big city bosses and just patronage hires. Part of the criticism is that they weren’t particularly professional, so there was a movement in the 1950s to early 1960s that developed standardized procedures for hiring, conduct, and other rules in an effort to have police be seen as significant civil servants.
For decades, there have been proponents and opponents of increased police funding. How does that relate to the race and policing issue?
With the declaration of a war on crime in the Nixon era and particularly Ronald Reagan's creation of the war on drugs in 1982, that gave urban police departments a mission of fighting rampant drug use. Because there was violence during the crack era from the mid-1980s into the 90s, they made the case for more and more equipment.
In the Clinton era, with the support of Joe Biden, there were bills that beefed up money for police departments across the nation. One of these support measures was the offer of free military surplus equipment. That militarization continues in lots of ways to this day. We saw that especially during protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Michael Brown, as well as to some extent prior to that during the Occupy movement — the police were in a very militaristic mode when they were dealing with protesters, using military tactics and gear.
How have social media and technology changed the way Americans of all races view law enforcement?
Social media has certainly put more scrutiny on the police.
The video of the Rodney King beating is seen as a watershed moment — the police officers’ violent, excessive activities came to light, opening some people’s eyes for the first time to the possibility that police misconduct is a problem. But as we got into the social media era, people could now talk about their experiences with the police. Especially in communities of color, people were having a lot of negative experiences with the police and this allowed them to magnify and amplify their voices.
I think it all came to a head with Ferguson when we think of how the ’BlackLivesMatter’ hashtag on Twitter really collected people into a movement against police abuses against Black people. The movement then sprang out into the physical world, with meetings of Black Lives Matter groups becoming a rallying point for the community. And I think it’s an important social moment: The George Floyd-Ahmaud Arbery-Breonna Taylor summer really brought attention to these issues and tens of thousands of people in the U.S. and worldwide marched to protest police misconduct. And we saw a lot of white people participating in this movement. One of the most poignant things was the Portland grandmothers standing on the front lines to protect the younger protesters behind them.
What’s more, people now have cell phones that can take pictures. There’d already been an increase of misconduct videos and, post-Ferguson, I think a lot of people felt deputized to record police. A number of state judiciaries have ruled that there’s a right to record police doing their jobs in public.
A related development of the modern era is the use of body cameras, which enhance the chances that there would be a recording of police misconduct. Consider the Tyre Nichols video, which was taken by body camera and also a public camera on a light pole. If it weren’t for that footage of the police officers beating him to death, we might not know what had happened. That’s an example of the impact of this. On the flip side, body cameras have been helpful to police in cases of wrongful accusations of misconduct.
How does repeated exposure to videos of police beatings and killings impact all viewers, especially men and people of color?
It has a mixed effect. On the one hand, it enables people to see that police misconduct continues to be a significant problem. On the other hand, it can give people fatigue around these issues because they slowly get used to videos coming out. And when they’re not as dramatic as the George Floyd or Tyre Nichols images, it doesn’t stick to the headlines.
Another issue is that it’s painful — particularly for young men of color but also all people of color to see these constant reminders of this abuse. It could be traumatic in feeling like you empathize with the person being beaten. It can be traumatic in feeling like it signals that you have second-class status.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we should stop releasing these videos, but it can be a double-edged sword. It should be something that validates what a lot of communities of color, especially people experiencing lower socioeconomic status, have been talking about since at least the 1960s. The reason for a lot of the race riots during that era was almost always because of a police encounter that went bad, and that people felt was the result of police misconduct. Policing is part of the story of increasing segregation because officers too often harass black and brown people for being racially “out of place.” It’s my understanding that the United States is more segregated now than before the Civil Rights Act, at least in northern urban areas.
Can you talk about your research into the link between masculinity and conflicts between police and civilians?
My article “Who’s the Man” thinks about why police officers have a greater tendency to get really macho with civilians and why some civilians may then feel like they have to prove their manhood by standing up to the police.
In a nutshell, police have a role of taking charge of situations when it’s needed. That’s why they talk about “command presence,” the ability to take over situations, hopefully verbally, and, if necessary, by physical force. Sometimes that need to take command of situations can be exaggerated by male police officers who feel like their manhood is being challenged by kids on the street who don't listen to them right away. That can lead to conflicts and incidents of violence and police misconduct.
It’s really triggered in some ways by our changing norms of what it means to be a man, but also the traditional norms that a lot of police officers adhere to, which say that you have to punish disrespect. And police have a lot of tools to do so, such as by “contempt of cop,” where somebody didn’t really commit a crime that calls for an arrest, but police charge them instead with something like disorderly conduct or resisting arrest — and that becomes a way of punishing them for not doing things the way the police officer wanted it done. A few prosecutors’ offices around the country have started to reign in the use of contempt of cop arrests.
What role does the language that 911 callers use when describing suspicious behavior, especially in relation to Black children, play in violent police encounters?
Going back to the time of enslavement, there have been mainstream white exaggerations of Blacks’ physical abilities, particularly as threats to whites. Moving quickly forward to today, there are studies showing that a lot of people, particularly whites, tend to overestimate the age of Black children, sometimes by several years. And the way you’d treat a 9-year-old versus a 15-year-old who might be committing vandalism is very different, especially given the tools that police have when they want to intervene in something. It could result in abuse of a child because they’re perceived as being of a higher age or even an adult. That’s sad and we need to work on that as a culture. It’s not so much a police reform but reforming the way our larger society thinks about Black people and Black children in particular, giving them the opportunity to be children.
Another aspect is “white-caller crime.” There’s been light shed recently on white neighbors calling the police on Black people doing lawful or insignificant activities, and it brings the threat that the police will use excessive force. I think the police don’t like it either because when they’re told that someone is acting suspiciously they may come with guns drawn and make a mistake. In fact, New York has adopted a statute to combat this.
The three facilitators of the Program on Race, Gender, and Policing have written an article that talks extensively about multiple incidents of police violence around the nation in 2020 and the phenomenon of “white-caller crime.”
What police reforms have been adopted/recommended/rejected over the decades in the quest to train officers, reduce incidences of violent police encounters, and instill checks and balances across law enforcement?
Under the Obama administration, there were more investigations of police departments that have patterns of abuse, which has long been a power of the U.S. Department of Justice, but had mostly been unused.
One great example happened locally when the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department agreed to work with the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) Office, which talks about voluntary plans to reform police organizations. It works to peaceably come up with reforms rather than being prompted by court-ordered changes in the midst of a lawsuit. Metro points to it as a good example of how it can work because they’d been accused of high rates of police killings, especially of Blacks, and those rates came down after the reforms.
Among the important reforms was transparency around notifying the public when police use of force incidents occurred, as well as releasing body camera footage. Perhaps even more important was de-escalation training — the idea that there’s a continuum of force and to give the people who are involved a chance to comply with police orders and thereby de-escalate the potential conflict. The department has continued to re-evaluate, establish additional reforms, and update policies. The Program on Race, Gender, and Policing has hosted Metro officers to discuss their use of force reports.