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Issues surrounding police shootings lead off ‘DifCon’ series

A rally in memory of Philando Castile, the African-American man shot by police on July 6 in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, outside Gov. Mark Dayton's residence in St Paul. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published October 25, 2016

“The bad news on implicit bias is that it is deeply ingrained in the media, American life and culture.”
Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion

“DifCon: Our Cities. Our Issues” is bringing together UB students, faculty and staff in a weeklong series of discussions of issues that have sparked civil unrest, outrage and protest across the nation over the past several months.

Participants in the first event on Monday cited implicit bias, societal strife, poverty and racism as among underlying causes linked to the shootings that occurred July 5, 6 and 7, resulting in the deaths of two African-American men in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, and five police officers in Dallas.

Led by Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion, the event featured a panel composed of faculty members John Violanti, professor of epidemiology and environmental health; Athena Mutua, professor in the UB School of Law; and Keith Griffler, associate professor of transnational studies. The event was held in the UB Intercultural and Diversity Center in the Student Union.   

“The impetus for continuing this series of difficult conversations — which began with DIFCON12 last semester — was the turbulence of the last few months,” said Miller. “And the vision is that UB is a place where we can have very different ideas but we can ‘lean in’ and talk about tough topics with each other, among our students, faculty and staff.

“The goal is to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and each other.”

The discussion must go beneath surface issues, Mutua noted, into underlying, structural causes.

“The structure of American society provides the context of how we can discuss these issues,” she said.

“We didn’t create these circumstances surrounding these events, but we perpetuate it and continue it through our cultural values and behavior.”

The primary violence is not getting shot or killed, Griffler said: “It is every other form of violence that leads up to that.

“If we take a step back from the issue of violence, we are facing a much bigger problem as a society. A structural problem. What if we put the same resources as post-9/11 into how we might solve this problem that we are all facing?”

A point was made by an audience member that many Americans seem to have a hard time admitting that racial attitudes exist.  

“The bad news on implicit bias is that it is deeply ingrained in the media, American life and culture,” Miller said.

“I’ve done a lot of work in this area and I can tell you it begins very early in an individual’s life and is resistant to training out. The real problem is how to change the cultural issues that are involved because implicit bias is somewhat universal.”

Answering a question as to “How do we eliminate the situations that lead to the shootings?” Griffler said there are several starting points.

“It is partly racial profiling and partly policy changes,” he said. “If you stop and think about how many of these incidents begin with traffic stops. We should begin to look closely at what triggers the criminal justice system.”

“Training can resolve some of the challenges,” said Violanti. “Officers have to transition from talking to ordinary citizens to dealing with criminals in an instant. A decision of whether to use deadly force has to be made in micro-seconds.”

UB Chief of Police Gerald W. Schoenle Jr., also a participant in the event, noted that “Implicit bias is within all of us. And it is especially critical for police officers to recognize it within themselves and within a police department.

“We are working to institute Fair and Impartial Policing Perspective, developed by Lorie Fridell. It reflects a new way of thinking about the issue of biased policing,” he said. “Based on the science of bias, it tells us that even well-intentioned humans and police officers have bias that exists below their consciousness and can readily interfere with their job function.”

Schoenle added that the entire UB police force is undergoing training in recognizing and managing implicit bias.

Continuing to talk with each other, trying to gain insight and understand the other person’s perspective remain key to moving forward, said Miller.

“Here at UB, are we the type of community that recognizes how we can be affected by these issues and talk about how we can learn from them?” she asked.

“What will we learn that we can carry forward?”

“DifCon: Our Cities. Our Issues” is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and the Intercultural & Diversity Center.