Unlearning Fear

Tyre Nichols. Philando Castile. Two men, just trying to comply with police instructions, end up dead for no good reason. How do we put an end to this disgrace?

Some deaths at the hands of police are just wrong. Some deaths at the hands of police seem unnecessary, but investigations reveal reasons for police use of deadly force. Sometimes the police are clearly the good guys, and the bad guys are truly out of control, dangerous to the public, and need to be stopped. When any police shooting is caught on video, the only thing we know is that we don’t know the whole story.

Here are a few things we do know: people, liberals especially, vastly overestimate all killings by police and especially the killings of black men.* Black Lives Matter leaders have pushed the narrative of out of control police departments targeting black men. This narrative only increases fear of police to the point that more men resist and/or flee which only increases the risk that force, perhaps deadly force, will be used on them. 

The prevailing narrative ramps up fear to what might be an irrational level, but the deaths of Nichols and Castile illustrate that some amount of fear is rational. Many police departments are trying to train and retrain officers to interact in ways that reduce the violent and intimidating tactics we associate with anyone being arrested. The goal is for everyone to come out alive at the end. Ideally, black men would know that this is happening, understand that the goal is for everyone to chill, cooperate with police, and end up alive, either released when appropriate or working their way through a justice system that is fair to all. 

The recent death of Tyre Nichols helped me understand why fear is still rational if you’re stopped by police. The question is when is it rational to let go of rational fear, that is fear based on reasonable evidence that police just might kill you? 

We, as humans, are not that good at judging risk, yet we do it all day every day. What’s truly challenging is recalibrating our level of fear when the calculations change. Yet, we can do this. Even I, with my long-standing fear of flying, flew on four airplanes in 2022 without any white knuckles. Somehow, the safety record for flying became so compelling that I had to dial back my fear, especially when it was obvious that the only way I could get where I wanted to go was to fly. Fortunately, no recent disasters occurred that would have interfered with my new-found confidence.

This is not the case however, when it comes to interactions between police and the public, especially the black and brown public. I can only imagine the emotions that ran through police departments that were making a serious effort to alter the tone of interactions with suspects in non-violent situations. Decent cops must surely have been devastated to see the videos of the beating of Tyre Nichols. Decent black men may surely have thought that things are never going to change. 

Fear can absolutely be rational. It can also be irrational. One of the challenges young women face is learning to calibrate their level of fear to the social situations they encounter as they enter the world outside their home. (I’m skipping the fear some children learn at home for now.) We’ve all heard about “the talk” that black mothers give to their sons in hopes that they will emerge unscathed from encounters with police. Calibrate your fear. Your best bet to emerge alive is to follow instructions.

And then, Tyre Nichols. Was Nicholas an exception? Yes. But how much of an exception? Were other examples simply not filmed for our viewing? How many examples? How long will it take for young black men to begin to let go of rational fear? If deaths as senseless as those of Castile or Nicholas happen only once a year, or once every two years, or five years, it will be enough to sustain the fear that lingers. Police must intervene to stop their peers who overreact. Young black men could benefit from recalibrating their fear of police, knowing that change is happening. Dialing back the violence and the rhetoric could occur at the same time from both sides. No, the burden shouldn’t be on young black men to unlearn their fear. But the reality is that their chances of sustaining permanent injuries or being killed are low enough to take a chance on compliance. I get why everyone might disagree with me, but I hope both sides will give peace a chance. 

* Sources:

Washington Post Data Base

Roland Fryer studies of use of force

Public estimates of police use of force