How Psychology Can Help Ferguson Heal

Heal Ferguson mainPhoto: Brett Myers/Youth Radio

[This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 5, 2014.]

Watching events unfolding in Ferguson, we have shared the pain, anger and sadness of so many in our country. The judicial system will determine exactly what transpired between Michael Brown and the police officer. What we do know is this: Michael Brown, an unarmed young African-American man, was shot and killed by police, and a community is grieving, in crisis and in need of support.

As a nation, we must commit to the complex and difficult work of change. Change can start with our willingness to talk honestly with each other and to have difficult dialogues regarding race relations and the persistence of racial bias in this country.

The problems that brought Ferguson to this crisis are not isolated. Distrust between communities of color and law enforcement, more militarized policing, racism and discrimination, and entrenched economic inequities are realities in many parts of our nation.

As psychologists and as president and CEO of the American Psychological Association, respectively, we know that our profession must act.

Psychologists have done extensive research on how stereotypes affect our assumptions about other people, particularly how members of majority groups perceive members of minority groups. Jennifer Eberhardt has researched stereotypes and implicit bias — that is, bias that affects our judgments that we may not be aware of. She found that simply viewing an African-American man’s face made people (including police officers) more likely to “perceive” a gun that wasn’t there. Additionally, Phillip Atiba Goff has found that police officers and others see African-American boys — as young as 10 — as older and less innocent than white boys the same age. Training police about the impact of these kinds of stereotypes on their actions is critical. Ellen Scrivner developed a national training program on community policing, including components addressing racial profiling.

APA is inviting various experts to talk frankly about race, racism, interactions between communities of color and police, and social and economic inequalities on its Public Interest blog at psychologybenefits.org. We hope this virtual discussion will educate, inform and increase the dialogue about these important issues.

What steps must we take now?

• Implement community-based policing nationwide and train law enforcement personnel on how stereotypes, including implicit bias, affect perceptions and decisions.

• Collect data at the federal level on all police shootings and on the racial/ethnic makeup of citizens involved in incidents such as “stop-and-frisk.”

• Fund research that examines the causes and impact of poverty and economic disparity, such as prejudicial and negative attitudes toward the poor by other people who may perpetuate policies that tolerate poverty and social inequality.

• Develop community-driven responses that empower communities with limited resources to advocate for the resources they need, including improved policing and more accountability (e.g., citizen representation on review boards).

• Fund evidence-based interventions to prevent violence, treat trauma and help individuals cope with violent environments.

• Examine bias in media coverage of events involving interactions between people of color and police, and encourage media outlets to include social science experts in their analysis of these stories.

• Develop public/private partnerships to help Ferguson recover and rebuild. We must not allow this community to endure the years of deprivation other communities historically have experienced following extreme police actions, civil unrest and violence.

As a nation, we must take on the challenge of creating a world where everyone can thrive and there is an amicable alliance between police and every community to solve societal problems. As psychologists, we believe this type of substantive change is possible.

Nadine J. Kaslow is president of the American Psychological Association, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine and chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Norman B. Anderson is chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association.

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