The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Monday, October 17, 2016


The phrase “war on cops” is partly correct. There also has been a war of police against black people. Both have been going on for a long time, and each reacts to the other.

The recent argument is that violence is encouraged by black protests, mainstream supporters and officials who have caused police to withdraw from active policing, putting them in a defensive position with black criminals on the offensive. This is a part of the causal pattern, but it is embedded in a much larger process: counter-escalation of each side against the other. Both political mobilization and violence play a part in the escalation process, and this happens on both sides. A key mechanism is the emotions that pervade both camps: sometimes  righteous anger, sometimes jittery tension that blows up little incidents and feeds the fire with atrocities.

Only a small fraction of each side engage in violence; but for their opponents they become emblematic of the entire enemy camp. The emotions of the most volatile fringes drive the back-and-forth process.

The micro-sociology of emotions shows there is something practical we can all do to de-escalate the conflict. I will discuss this at the end.

Counter-Escalation Theory

Conflict escalates when whatever one side does gives rise to a counter-attack. This doesn’t always happen. Some conflicts come to an end.  The ones that go on longest are where conflict with an outside group increases solidarity; we feel a stronger identity, resolve to fight back harder. The other side does the same. The most dangerous feedback loop is when the two groups become morally polarized. The other side is seen as more and more evil; therefore whatever we do against them is morally right; it is righteous vengeance, it is street justice, it is doing whatever it takes to beat back the menace.

Individuals disappear from view; the cop you are ambushing may be one of the good guys who sincerely believes in community outreach; the black man whose car you are stopping may be a middle-class citizen. But at the moment of confrontation they all fade into the category of the stereotyped enemy.

Since whatever the other side does is seen in the worst possible light, we are quick to see atrocities in whatever they do to us. Whether their attacks come from racism, bureaucratic policy, emotions, or sheer accidents of mistaken identity and poor shooting aim, they are lumped together as atrocities. In our own eyes we are the good guys, so whatever we do is good; our own mistakes are minimized and our violence is viewed as proper, righteous and heroic. Since the psychology of both sides is the same, conflict at a high level of polarization becomes a war of competing atrocities.

Communities which are already isolated are particularly prone to escalation. Police tend to be a closed community, who socialize mainly with each other, and avoid contacts with ordinary citizens when they are off duty. They have strong solidarity, and put up a front to outsiders. The result is that police generally refuse to criticize each other in public, and regard the rest of the society as not understanding them. Somewhat similar processes occur in the black lower-class ghetto, except that there is much more internal conflict.

Escalation does not go on forever, although it may take a long time to run its course. The level of conflict goes up and down depending on other factors, including each side’s logistics and its degree of organization. I will weave in these factors as we survey the sequence of racial violence in the United States.

Gangs and Cops from 1940s to 2010s

The modern history of gangs began in the late 1940s when the first youth gangs were formed, initially by Puerto Rican teens in New York City. Criminal gangs existed before, but those were adults; often they were connected to political factions in the machine politics of big cities, and their members were usually white immigrants. The new youth gangs are best described as fighting gangs, since their main purpose was to project a tough image and to fight against nearby rival gangs. While 1950s news sensationalism publicized them as “juvenile delinquents”,  youth gangs were generally not involved in crime for making a living. They were drug consumers but not yet drug dealers, heroin then being monopolized by adult syndicates. Gangs were more like neighborhood social clubs for working-class teens, now pushed out of the labor force by high school attendance requirements. They evolved an alienated ideology and spearheaded the newly created teen culture of rock-’n-roll music, blue jeans, T-shirts and attitude. These styles were regarded as outrageous by white middle-class traditionalists, but the alienated youth culture soon spread into the mainstream as well. Despite its racial anchoring, a rebellious counter-culture acquired a large sympathy population among white youth and urban adults after they grew up, underpinning a on-going conflict between law-and-order and hipness.

In the 1950s, youth gangs spread in urban black and Hispanic ghettoes, and mushroomed in the 1960s and 70s. In cities like Chicago, large corporate-style gangs formed; in Los Angeles and elsewhere, horizontal loyalties to “color” gangs. Some cities, like Philadelphia and much of the East Coast, continued to have little street gangs-- which produce high rates of violence because their rivals are so close by, and they lack bigger organization to restrain them.

Although youth gangs are almost always ethnic and very racially conscious, on the whole their violence is aimed not at dominant white society, but at each other. This has always seemed paradoxical, but is explainable by how violence is organized. In the 1950s, gang ideology was anti- “squares”-- i.e. middle-class white people with their respectability and support of the police. In the 60s, gang ideology aligned themselves with the civil rights movement against white dominance, but scorned the tactics of non-violence and political reform. On the other side, Irish youth gangs made a point of representing whites and acted as a violent militia to resist school integration. Nevertheless, the vast proportion of gang violence was against other gangs of their same race. Andrew Papachristos shows that virtually all gang killings in Chicago have been black-on-black, Hispanic-on-Hispanic, or white-on-white.

Why so much black-on-black violence?

Similarly among the most militant groups on the violent fringe of the 1960s civil rights movement. The Black Muslims, or Nation of Islam, held an ideology that the devil is a white man and that the world is heading for a final war of black against white. Nevertheless, Black Muslims did virtually all their fighting between rival factions, invading each other’s mosques and assassinating leaders like Malcolm X. Their angry anti-white rhetoric upset the mainstream but there were virtually no attacks on whites. Why not? In the segregated society of the time, blacks rarely appeared in white spaces except in the role of service workers; it was a lot easier to carry out attacks on one’s on turf. Black Muslim temples were heavily guarded by a elite members called the Fruit of Islam, on the lookout for attacks; in this atmosphere of suspicion, confrontations escalated and mosques found themselves in local wars with each other. Similarly, the first “color” gang, the Crips, was formed in L.A. in the early 1970s during the height of the civil rights period as a movement to stop violence among black gangs, and channel it into war against whites; in practice, this meant Hispanic gangs.  Within two years, the Crips alliance split, with the Bloods breaking off into a rival color gang (red emblems vs. blue or black); henceforward, the main concern of gangs in these two alliances has been to fight against the other. (There have been more sub-splits and alliances, but the pattern remains the same.) The parallel between youth gangs and religious militants shows something deeper going on: ideological hatred of a strong distant enemy turns the weaker side to violence against more accessible local targets-- against rivals similar to themselves rather than enemies who operate on a different scale of organization.

This is in keeping with general theory of violence. Despite rhetoric of bravery, dedication to fighting the enemy, and self-sacrifice for the cause, most violence is successful when it attacks a target weaker than oneself. In street violence, bigger groups attack smaller ones they happen to encounter; in riots, it is mainly isolates who get beaten up by larger clusters. The preferred tactics of violence on all scales are to catch the enemy off guard, to establish surprise and momentum; to beat the enemy psychologically before beating them physically. Thus burglars prefer to break into houses in their own neighborhood, even if there is better loot to be taken in richer places; but burglars from the ghetto feel uneasy about being in the suburbs, and more psychologically empowered on their home turf. Armed robbers tend to stay close to home, too, but will venture out to no-man’s-lands like semi-deserted commercial districts, or look for isolated victims in interstitial areas with little street traffic. Having a gun is not sufficient to feel strong; feeling dominant in the setting is even more important.

This is one reason why black street gangs virtually never take part in mass shootings in schools; this is a phenomenon among alienated white youth in all-white schools. Black gang violence almost always takes place on their own turf-- on their street, or the streets adjacent to it, the turf of a familiar rival. On the whole, more distant parts of the city are a mystery to local gangs, since they rarely venture there. Although they may have an anti-white ideology, it rarely comes into play as a practical opportunity for violence.

So far, this has been about small group violence, usually armed with no more than handguns. In the world of better organized violence, military and police forces can range more widely; so do insurgent groups like terrorists. Fighting further away from your home base requires more organization. It needs more logistics, ammunition, transportation; better planning and intelligence; more organizational backup to call in for help or to extricate you. And it requires more organizational solidarity-- groups which continually motivate each other to adhere to an ideology and to commit themselves to the emotionally difficult task of confronting the enemy, especially when taking the attack to their turf. Big organizations like armies and police usually undertake such ventures when they have overwhelming numbers and weaponry. Small terrorist groups need the support of closed-off cells, living clandestinely, obsessively planning their moves. Casual street gangs have none of these resources and little of their tight, dedicated organization. Hence their rhetorical commitment to toughness and violence can only come out against easy targets, like themselves.

An escalated war against the police needs more social resources to go on the attack.

Race riots and politicization

Riots are an opportunity for mass participation. Although gangs may take part in them, a much larger proportion of the local population is involved: In the biggest race riots of the 1960s, 10-15% of black men took part, and another 30-40% were spectators and sympathizers .(Collins, Violence: 520)  As usual in most kinds of violence, a small percentage of the crowd does most of the violence, but the part of the crowd that merely acts as spectators adds to the emotional atmosphere of breakdown of ordinary law. This is what creates a “free space” or “liberated zone” where the police, for a time, do not intervene. In fact, violence between authorities and rioters takes up a relatively small amount of the time during a riot; looting and burning give the crowd something to do, prolonging the dramatic atmosphere that would otherwise disappear if there were nothing to do but go home.

A paradoxical result is that American race riots always take place in the minority ghetto, usually on its borders and main commercial streets where there are stores operated by non-black ethnics. The 1992  L.A. riot after the Rodney King verdict was largely property attacks on Korean and other Asian store-owners; photos show widespread participation by black and Hispanic crowds. The Crips and Bloods called a truce in their normal hostility so that they could take part in the riot.

Riots publicize ideologies of protest. But whatever the slogans and the statements of spokespersons who are quoted in the news, at the line of confrontation mainstream society is always represented by the police. The police are often the only  visible presence of white society in what Elijah Anderson calls “black spaces.” Much of the time they are regarded as an occupying force. A riot not only brings about a confrontation of masses of local people against masses of police, but it is one of those rare moments when locals have enough numbers and enough emotional dominance to be able to defy the police.

The precipitation point for riots has usually been a confrontation with the police. The Detroit riot of July 1967, which lasted 5 days and resulted in 43 killed, 2000 injured, and 7000 arrested, began when police raided an after-hours bar on a hot summer night; in the atmosphere of the civil rights struggle, bar patrons fought back and the small police party retreated. When they returned several hours later with reinforcements, locals pelted police cars with bricks, again causing them to withdraw. The June 1967 Newark riot (26 killed) began when a taxi driver was arrested and rumors of police atrocities spread among taxi drivers. Although the issues of a riot may be framed as white vs. black, or mainstream society vs. criminals and radicals, on the ground the main conflict is between police and locals; and this sets the pattern for polarization within those groups as they perceive each other. *

* Sometimes also the Army is called out to end a riot. But in the US the army is a national institution with a lot of legitimacy; occasional killings by the army (such as Kent State in 1970) do not give rise to anti-army ideologies. Things are different in this respect in Mexico, and in many Latin American, African, and South Asian states, where the army is widely regarded as a political instrument or a corrupt organization. In the US, however, most collective resentment is acted out against the police.

Rioters always lose in the end, but riots give memories of pride and defiance. Their residue over time is to escalate long ground-swells of rebellions, in whatever form they come out.

Riots are better able to make a political statement than gangs. Although they almost never invade white territory, riots attract universal public attention; and although their threat of “the fire next time” is just rhetoric whose reality consists in burning their own neighborhood, the city and usually the nation has to at least temporarily pay attention to the racial divide. This is also an opening for political movements and non-violent demonstrations; the radical-flank effect of riots is to give the moderates more claim to make reforms, lest the violent fringe grow stronger. Liberal politicians and even some conservatives reacted by making reforms in the 1960s, dismantling the legal institutions of segregation. The movement for racial integration also improved the situation of black and other minorities in the middle class.

It left a lower-class black population that continued to be segregated and in an increasingly dead end economic situation. Poverty itself does not mobilize well-organized rebellion, since mobilization needs resources. The inner-city ghetto devolved into the land of the gangs, creating an underground economy of the drug trade, and in some places like Chicago, big corporate gangs taxing the off-the-books economy of the poor. For several decades, riots and demonstrations declined, while the crime rate surged, above all in black neighborhoods.

In the relatively peaceful period without riots to mobilize political concern, the black-vs.-mainstream divide deepened and entrenched. Civil rights reforms on the legal level mainly benefitted a minority middle class. The worst part of the ghetto has remained black-- that is to say, African-Americans, descendents on the historic slave population; newer dark-skinned immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean on the whole have done better at acquiring middle-class jobs. This class-race-ethnic combination is the core identity for the contemporary race war. Although many black people are middle class and most are not gang members or criminals, * the  police widely perceive themselves as facing a hostile enclave in the midst of the larger society. The cops are not even necessarily white European ethnics; many are Hispanic, some are Asian and a few are black. But on the whole these ethnic groups identify with mainstream society and historically have conflicted with blacks. Cops (whether they are seen as heroes or racists, and whether or not they are white) and black men (whether as dangerous criminals or innocent victims) have become the two counterpart symbols of everyday conflict in America. The African-American lower-class gang culture is the image that outsiders have of where the trouble comes from, and the atmosphere of polarization generalizes this image to all ambiguous encounters with blacks.

* The proportion of the black male population of teens and young adults who belong to gangs is about 10-12%.  Calculated in Collins, Violence: p. 372.

Escalation of police tactics

Police tactics against crime in the ghetto have gone through a series of developments. Traditional policing in the era of official segregation in the South meant white police would arbitrarily enter any black dwelling looking for suspects. But on the whole, crime of blacks against each other was not regarded as very important. In the North and especially in the era of the civil rights movement, police tended to abandon the ghetto. Elijah Anderson reports that in the 1980s and 90s the ghetto was largely unpoliced; both in the sense that police did not patrol there often and that they were slow to answer complaints; moreover when police did arrive at a scene of robbery or violence, they were peremptory towards everyone. In scenes with a good deal of angry talk, the victim or complainant could easily find oneself being arrested. Accordingly, ghetto residents were wary of calling the police. In this atmosphere, residents attempted to provide their own protection, what Anderson calls “the code of the street.” The stance was for everyone to appear tough, especially men but also women, dramatizing by voice and gesture they were ready to use violence. Anderson emphasizes that for the majority of people, the street code is a front, an effort to head off violence; only a minority within the ghetto would actually “go for street,” carrying weapons and living as predatory criminals. As noted, only a fraction, about one-tenth of black male youth belong to gangs, but the “decent” citizens (Anderson describes this as a folk term in some northern cities) also give off a protective veneer, that could impress outsiders that they are dangerous. Thus the street code, meant to act as a show to fend off being a victim, in the eyes of the mainstream and the police, made most ghetto residents appear indistinguishable from violent criminals.

Another tactic, largely by white politicians, was to create severe penalties for drugs. These laws were increasingly enforced, both for sale and for possession, leading the huge growth of incarceration of blacks and Hispanics by the 1990s. Since the drug laws fell on both the criminal segment and many of the “decent” segment of the ghetto, they added to racial polarization. Prisons became the center for spreading the antinomian culture. Severe sentences did not much affect the drug business itself, since those most likely to be caught were low-level dealers, who could easily replaced since they were one of the few prestigious career paths in the ghetto.

The high volume of drug arrests also had an effect on the police. As Peter Moskos shows in his ethnography of the Baltimore police force, and Philippe Bourgois in his research on north Philadelphia drug markets, police know the justice system is overcrowded, and that prosecutors and judges let many suspects off. Police become cynical about the revolving-door process, as well as exasperated by the defiant attitude it fosters among those they arrest. Police respond with their own informal punishment. This includes the tactic known in the culture of Eastern police forces as “a rough ride”-- leaving a prisoner shackled but not secured to a seat in the police wagon while they are roughed up by wild driving. This is apparently the scenario in April 2015 by which Freddie Gray-- a black man who been in and out of court multiple times for minor offenses and parole violations-- ended up dying from a broken spine after being arrested by Baltimore police.

Around the year 2000 came a reversal in police tactics. Previously they tended to neglect ghetto crime except for easy busts for drugs. Now computerization added new weapons. One version was COMSTAT, a centralized system put in place by the New York Police Department, that compiles crime reports not in old fashioned monthly or yearly statistics, but in real time; now police commanders could see where crime was surging in the city and flood that area with cops. COMSTAT is credited with having reduced the crime rate in New York City from one of the higher to one of the lowest big cities; it resembles the “surge” that General Petraeus used in Iraq to secure areas from insurgent forces. The main limitation of COMSTAT is that it is expensive to implement. The NYPD is unique in the size of its police force (35,000), and its ability to move forces around; most smaller police departments lack the manpower for local surges.

Computerized record-keeping has been put to a different use in other cities. Patrol cars now have on-board computers, which officers can use-- not only at any arrest or encounter with a suspect, but at any contact with a civilian. Infractions as minor as driving with a broken tail-light or selling cigarettes on the sidewalk now routinely result in a records check. Many minorities living in the gray economy have past infractions; and these are often compounded by failing to appear for court appearances, or failing to pay fines. As Alice Goffman shows in her ethnography of a small Philadelphia street gang, the court system tends to nickel-and-dime poor people to death-- metaphorically, of course, since these are generally fines in the hundred-dollar range that poor people have a hard time paying. The fines mount up since failure to appear or failure to pay results in yet another fine. Everything compounds each other in this system of city administration, policing, and antinomian street culture. Any innocuous police stop can result in arrest on outstanding warrants; it is still a revolving door but the police now are a constant, annoying presence in people’s lives, spreading the feeling that everyone is a suspect. The court system supports itself with fines, encouraged by city administrations under the pressure of mainstream resistance to raising taxes.  And not only big city courts and police forces use this strategy of controlling the poor by collecting fines on them. Towns like Ferguson, Missouri use a version of old-fashioned speeding traps on passing motorists, now updated with computerized records to fine the poorer citizens of their own town for minor offenses and accumulated penalties.

The result is escalation on both sides. The police are now more actively harassing the poor, and the poor are exasperated and defiant like the man in Ferguson who walked away from an officer and was shot in the back.

Middle-class tax revolt, revenue-strapped city administrations, and the predatory use of police as a cash-collecting machine blend together into a Kafka-esque system of feedback loops. Legitimation was given to the process by the “broken windows” theory of crime control, which encourages police to crack down on small offenses like urinating in public in order to eliminate signs of being places where laws are not enforced. Modern day computerization and so-called “best practices” have their worst effect on the street where the two most exasperated components of the system come together: cops and poor black people. *

* Other kinds of escalation in police tactics have happened, such as the militarization of police equipment since the late 1990s. But helicopters, armored vehicles, and body armor are used mainly for crowd control and riots, and probably have little effect on the tensions of everyday policing. Demonstrations and riots, as noted, are occasions where the anti-police constituency gets better organized and more politically effective; so the threatening face of heavy military equipment probably is no more than false comfort for the police.

Escalation of gang weapons and insurgent resources

On the other side, escalation of weapons and tactics has also gone on. In the 1950s, gangs mostly fought with handmade “zip guns” firing single shots. Their most dramatic weapon was the switch-blade knife, which made a sinister motion as the blade whipped out-- but was not itself particularly deadly, since knife fights are mostly for show and usually inconclusive. Gangs became more deadly, and the murder rate picked up in the 1970s and 80s as more guns came on the scene.

Nevertheless, for the most part gang weapons do not produce  much firepower. The accuracy of pistols is poor beyond a few dozen yards; while at very close range, the adrenaline surge tends to produce wild firing. Urban gang members rarely practice on a shooting range; and most patrons of gun ranges are white. There is great admiration for guns in the gang culture, but most gang members are not gun experts. The guns available in the illegal market are often of low quality-- here too the poor tend to get shoddy products. In the gang milieu, these defects don’t matter so much, since most of the time what happens consists of blustering and showing off. Close ethnographic observers of the gang scene find they display their guns, even gesture with them, far more than they fire them. Shoot-outs with rival gangs usually are brief , and getting hit is mostly a matter of chance. Not surprisingly, when shots are fired they often hit bystanders, including children; this is particularly likely in drive-bys where members of one gang fire at a gathering in a park or street that includes members of a rival gang. Hitting innocent victims is sometimes welcomed by gang members since it enhances their reputation for being ruthless.

The low quality and low competence of gang firepower is one reason they use it mainly against each other. Rarely do they attempt to shoot it out with the police, since they are almost always outgunned, not to mention the capacity of police to call in reinforcements to almost any level necessary to prevail. *

* The most organized violence against the police was by the Black Panther Party during 1967-70, in ambushes, gunfights, traffic stops and police raids. A total of 1 officer was killed and 4 wounded, while the Panthers lost 10 killed. By 1969-71, the Black Panthers were mainly involved in internal violence against splits and rival groups, with another 10 killed.  The Panthers began as a group to monitor police violence by armed patrols, but turned into a combination of political movement and gang, financing themselves by a tax on robberies and extortions carried out by members. 

In recent years, there are occasional postings of cell-phone photos of gang members carrying heavier weapons such as AK-47s. Nevertheless, this looks like the usual blustering, since one rarely hears of such weapons being used in gang fighting, or against the police. Long guns are more accurate than pistols, and can deliver a higher volume of fire. On the whole, they have been used in overt race war only when the local situation gave temporary emotional dominance to insurgents.  In the 1967 Newark and Detroit riots, snipers with rifles fired at police and National Guard troops from their home base in the ghetto. The July 2016 Dallas sniper represents an exceptional level of escalation of firepower, producing a total of 12 casualties. He came from a suburban area and never participated in the gang lifestyle-- which as we have seen, is very poorly adapted for fighting with the police. In this respect, the Dallas sniper more resembles the isolated school rampage shooter, amassing weapons in secret; the difference being both his target-- police rather than school children-- and his military training and his practicing weapons tactics. The Dallas sniper, in effect, was more assimilated into white society, and he used white weapons and followed a white scenario of mass killing.

The strongest similarity is to the so-called “Beltway sniper” in October 2002, who fired on white people from a car, killing 10 over a period of weeks.  This turned out to be a black military veteran, who (unlike gang members) trained for sniper skills, including with his 17 year-old protégé, who did the firing from a peep-hole in the trunk of their car. The motives and tactics of gangs, armed robbers, and grudge-obsessed rampage killers are different. But such tactics propagate by imitation, especially when they are highly publicized in the media. In a situation of emotional escalation of black-vs.-police conflict, one can expect cross-overs as the most militant individuals pick up the most lethal tactics.

The most effective escalation: communications and multi-pronged mobilization

The biggest weapon in escalating black insurgency has been, not weaponry, but publicity and politics.  During the civil rights period of the 1960s, victories were won because different styles of organization fought on different fronts. Non-violent protests by Freedom Riders, church-led alliances, and direct-action organizations like CORE, created a certain amount of attention, especially when they became well-publized martyrs to segregationist violence. Riots engaged more of the black population, and created an unavoidable sense of national emergency. A fringe of individuals and organizations (SNCC, Black Panthers, Black Muslims) emerged that openly advocated violence. Most of the actual gains, however, were won by the most conventional part of the movement, the NAACP and the Urban League, whose lawyers challenged segregated arrangements in the courts. It was more of a tacit coalition than an explicit one, since most of these organizations disavowed at least some of the others. But their combination created the sense of national crisis that eventually moved the balance point of American politics and the judiciary towards integration.

The same pattern is reemerging in the current war of cops and blacks. The side against police violence includes legal organizations, some politicians, organizations of non-violent demonstrations, as well as a violent fringe of militants. We should also count the gang violence of the black community as part of the larger movement or atmosphere of resistance, along with the antinomian thrust of the youth culture. The big difference from the 1950s and 60s is now there is a national mobilization on the other side as well. The civil rights movement was opposed by a mainly Southern segregationist bloc. Today there is a widespread national constituency for cracking down on what is seen as out-of-control lawlessness.  Escalation and counter-escalation have been occuring on both sides. Both sides have gotten more sophisticated in recognizing each other’s tactics. The pro-police side sees that the black insurgency operates in tandem with political and media fronts, and has tried to counter them as abettors of violence.

The major new weapon on the side of the anti-police insurgency is in the realm of communication: the cell-phone camera. This had its analogy in the 1950s and 60s, when on-the-spot television news was just appearing, and police attacks on civil rights marches made sensational coverage, especially when reporters were also attacked in the mêlée. The new phase of mobilization against the police began in 1991 when Rodney King’s beating by a group of police was filmed by a resident with a new product, the video camcorder. The cell phone camera has made videos recording ubiquitous, and the decentralized social media of the Internet has made it hard for authorities to crack down on it.

Mobile videos of the police in action are not the whole story; they only work in tandem with the range of other tactics and organizations-- demonstrations, riots, political movements, law suits. The police recognize videos as an escalation against themselves. Confiscating cameras becomes a new side-issue and flashpoint for further conflict. There is some validity in arguments that videos capture only a part of the encounter and miss the verbal lead-up to the confrontation; the solution to this, however, could be more recordings, including voice, of police encounters with citizens. It is also true that police body cameras can be dysfunctional or deliberately turned off. All such recording devices become an expanding battleground. One can anticipate there will be more things to fight about in the future.

Counter-escalation on both sides spins off from the same technical innovations. Cell phone cameras and the social media come from the same IT revolution that brought squad-car computers and police tactics of running the record on everyone they stop. Both police and citizens use their electronic networks to call for backup; the police in a more organized way, with greater weaponry and authority; the street people in a more sensationalist way, seeking backup in the form of  collective emotions, demonstrations, and politics.

Are there any paths to de-escalation?

After every highly publicized incident, whether the casualties are among the people or the police, mainstream figures call for calm and reconciliation. These calls have little effect on de-escalating the overall situation. Most violence and conflict in all forms is carried out by small fractions of the population. There is always an array from the most militant fringe, through the seriously committed partisans, to those who are less involved. Between the two sides of a conflict, those nearer the center are the ones most willing to listen to a message of reconciliation.  But it is the extremes who carry on the fight, and drive the level of escalation.

The flashpoint is the police on the streets.  Cops are under tension every time they stop a suspect. Tension is higher if conflict has escalated recently by previous incidents; higher if it is a neighborhood with a high crime rate; higher if there has been a chase, or alarming reports over police radio links.

Tension rises sharply when the citizen isn’t cooperative or is defiant. Richard Rubenstein, a sociologist who worked in the Philadelphia police force, reported that the first thing an officer wants in any encounter are signs that the person will not make trouble. He insists on taking the initiative, and controlling the situation in little details, since these are the warning signs for bigger trouble. Donald Black, who pioneered ride-along observations in patrol cars, calculated that the chances someone would be arrested did not depend on race per se, but on whether the person was defiant-- and in the 1960s black persons were more defiant to the police (not surprisingly, since this was the era of the civil rights movement). Car chases and running away increase officers' tension even more, since these are also acts of defiance. Citizens who turn their backs and refuse to stop are acting defiantly, even if the initial order was something trivial like “move to the sidewalk” (the first step in the 2014 Ferguson shooting).

Adding together any or all of these factors increases tension. Bodily this is experienced as adrenaline rush, the flight-or-fight arousal. The biggest danger with an adrenaline spike is the loss of perception and fine motor control. When heart rate races to 150 beat per minute or more, fine motor control is lost. An officer may reach for a gun when he thinks he is reaching for handcuffs or a taser. Trigger fingers produce wild or uncontrollable firing. Officers in shootouts report time distortions like going into a bubble, vision turning into a blur or tunnel vision on only one part of the scene. Hearing often goes out so that they don’t hear their own gunshots; voices become incomprehensible. It is a situation ripe for miscommunication and misperception.

Adrenaline-produced distortions explain why shooting incidents happen where it turns out the suspect did not have a gun, or was reaching for an ID; situations where stops for trivial reasons blow up into killings. Since adrenaline takes time to subside, the cop may empty the magazine of his gun, even after the suspect is motionless on the ground. Catching these details on video certainly looks like an atrocity.

Teaching awareness of body signs and emotional control

What can be done? The key is training cops to keep their bodily tension under control.  Sociologist Geoffrey Alpert found that officers who are better at controlling the escalation of force have a more deliberate and refined sense of timing in the moves of both sides. More attention to such micro-details should train more police officers up to a high level of competence.

Individual officers vary widely in their use of force. About 10% of police account for the bulk of all force reports; and less then 1% fire their guns in multiple incidents. (Collins, Violence: 371) The polarized viewpoint see cops in general as being out of control; but the real issue is to make better officers out of the fraction that cannot control their emotions and physiology.

Adrenaline can be lowered, for instance by breathing exercises described by Army psychologist David Grossman. Police training should incorporate more explicit awareness of the distortions caused by tense confrontations. Weapons training tends to go in the opposite direction, stressing quick reaction, and training for automatic “muscle memory” in the default scenario that saving lives depends on rapid action. Police tend to be trained for extreme situations rather than clear assessment and self-control.

In the field, police dispatching and radio calls tend to turn situations into scenarios where the suspect is regarded as extremely dangerous.  Citizen calls to the police may say, someone might have a gun; or that someone might be engaged in a burglary. The dispatcher tends to turn this into a simpler form, there is a gun or a burglar. When messages are transmitted from one patrol car to another, the process by which rumors are propagated takes over. As psychological experiments have shown, each link in a chain of oral reports tends to simplify the message, leaving out any special qualifications and turning it into the most obvious cliché.  In the case of police transmissions, the more cars called to a scene, the more likely the message is to turn into an extreme threat; weapons are definitely asserted to be present; hostages tend to mentioned whether they exist or not and the suspect becomes reported as saying he will won’t die alone.

The combination of these processes explains events like the incident in Cleveland  in November 2014. The officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone of perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation.

Such events are preventable. The answer is not so much after-the-fact criminal charges and court trials-- these rarely result in conviction, and focus on punishing individuals rather than on the improvements that can be made in police procedures. Better training can be undertaken at local initiative by police forces willing to do so. This should include techniques for becoming aware of one’s own adrenaline level and heart rate-- body signs monitors like those used in physical exercise would help here. And techniques should be emphasized for getting adrenaline under control.  There also should be better training of police dispatchers, to make them aware of the distortions they introduce into messages; and making patrol officers aware of the rumor-like exaggeration in their own chains of messages to each other. A useful role of Federal and State governments would be to review police training programs, to assess whether they are sufficiently teaching bodily and perceptual awareness of the distortions of adrenaline rush. Emphasis needs to be upon best methods for calmly and accurately assessing the situation before escalating it.

What about the other side of the counter-escalation, the anger, hostility, and defiance in the black community? I have focused on what can be done by police to control their use of force, because this is where public policy might be implemented. But escalated conflict is driven by the extremes at both ends of the distribution, and the tough guys of black and Hispanic communities would  be harder to reach.  Nevertheless, the message is much the same.  Be aware of one’s own adrenaline, one’s rush of emotions, the situational blurring of attention to everything but the impulse to dominate. And be aware of the same processes going on inside the person on the other side-- awareness of how to calm police down rather than rile them up. A glimmer of optimism comes from group psychology programs in California prisons, where convicted murderers learn to re-experience the events that led to their imprisonment, and to focus on better control of their emotions. Prisoners who completed the program and were released on parole had a re-arrest rate much lower than usual. It is not impossible that in the future self-training in micro-situational awareness could spread even in the most violent part of the population.

Framing the issue as racism doesn’t solve it. Cops without racist attitudes, under these kinds of tense situations, and with their adrenaline out of control, can trigger off violent atrocities. The answer isn’t in the attitudes; it is in the micro-techniques of how to behave in confrontations. There is a workable solution. Whether we will implement it or not is another question.


Randall Collins. 2008.  Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.
Randall Collins. 2012: “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Conflict.” American Sociological Review

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