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OP/ED: All Lives Matter, too. BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM, M.D.

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BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM, M.D.

All lives matter, too.

The Black Lives Matter campaign has ignited a furor in the United States. The murder of 5 police officers in Dallas by a gunman who admitted that he was motivated by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to kill white people, especially white cops, should be a wake-up call to those who endorse the vilification of an entire class of people for the misdeeds of a few. In this case, that class is the men and women of law enforcement. It is time for some soul searching.

The abuse of any citizen by a police officer is wrong, regardless of ethnicity. Police must abide by the law and violators must be punished. No one would argue with that point. However, the tendency to generalize accusations of racism and abuse against all police, based on a few bad examples, is both unfair and dangerous.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pioneered the topic of behavioral economics by analyzing the faulty methods by which people make judgments and decisions based on imprecise information. In 1974, they described “attribute substitution”, a heuristic by which a complex decision is simplified by substituting a familiar judgment. Stereotypes are typical example of an attribute substitution because it is easier for the human brain to subconsciously make assumptions about, for example, a stranger’s intelligence based on their appearance rather than their performance. Bigotry stems from this human tendency to “anchor” beliefs based upon isolated ideas, whether accurate or not. These biases lead to the types of errors we see in the conflict between law enforcement and Black Live Matter.

This conflict is based upon a perception in the African American community that they are unfairly targeted by the police based on the basis of race.  The disproportionate number of blacks arrested or incarcerated is evidence to the protesters of societal racism. Repeated videos of alleged police brutality serve as a visual representation of this statistic. Even President Obama has endorsed this position.  There is no doubt that many African Americans dread contact with the police based on a perception that they will be treated unfairly. But assuming that every police officer is racist, or that every police action on an African American is a reflection of racism is just unfair.

On the other hand, the law enforcement community is in a bind. If they are to enforce the law they fear being accused of racism if their suspect is not white.  FBI Director James Comey recently stated that he believed that the “Ferguson effect” or a “viral video effect” had so intimidated police officers into less aggressive law enforcement that the U.S. was now seeing a spike in the murder rate in various cities.  If aggressive policing was the reason for a lower crime rate, then the “chill wind”, described by Comey, might be having the opposite effect. If this effect is occurring, we are all being put in danger.

Both the BLM community and the law enforcement community are competing to be viewed as the “victims” in this conflict. The BLM movement wants the public to empathize with the victimization of innocent African Americans unfairly stopped, arrested or killed by the police. Law enforcement wants us to understand that they are the victims of unfair stereotypes, too, all while taking the risks and making the sacrifices to keep us safe. Director Comey’s comments suggest that every American is also entitled to feel like a “victim” if we are all at increased risk of being killed as the police unofficially stand-down.

The solution to this problem is not waging a PR war to be viewed as the victim, nor is it more hostility or less aggressive policing. Instead, we need more focused empathy. The BLM campaign needs to better recognize that racism is not a societal attribute embedded in every police officer.  Similarly, they need to recognize that their desire for justice does not outweigh the justice deserving of every individual in our society, including all races and the police.

From this perspective, the BLM movement might have better chosen the name, “Black Lives Matter, Too”. That title would have better acknowledged the assumption that “All Lives Matter” and “Police Lives Matter”, while not ignoring the legitimacy of the BLM issues. BLM supporters need to be loud and clear in denouncing both violence towards the police as well as inappropriate accusations of racism.

Law enforcement needs to see this conflict from the BLM perspective. Community outreach, civilian review boards, oversight of policing policies and better training (which includes violence reduction and community sensitivity training) is essential. For example, many police departments assign new (less experienced) officers to the least desirable, highest crime patrols, raising the risk of an inexperienced officer using a firearm when it was not needed.  The most at-risk communities need the officers with the most experience on patrol.

Changing the rhetoric from confrontation to cooperation is important. For example, an oft-heard response to the BLM movement argues that there is far more black-on-black crime than police-on-black crime. This may be true, but that argument, regardless of its validity, does not negate the perception of discrimination against African-Americans, nor invalidate its legitimacy. African Americans should not have to feel apologetic for their race.

The first step to fix a problem is simply to accept that it exists. Unless the police see that the BLM movement has valid grievances, and vice versa, then there cannot be progress. Real progress requires warmer hearts and cooler heads. Leadership from the White House that transcends superficial condolences and platitudes, is sorely missing.  The media must also play a role by downplaying the sensational rhetoric. For example, replaying graphic videos on cable news almost endlessly only serve to heighten tensions and offer little “news”.

The assassinations in Dallas will either be the beginning of the end of this conflict, or merely another bloody skirmish. All too often conflicts cause cycles of heightened tensions and escalating violence. Ending that cycle is necessary if we want a better society. The choice is ours.

 

-Jeffrey Oppenheim, M.D. is a neurosurgeon and the former mayor of Montebello, N.Y.

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