Statistics and experiences clash in debate on bias in policing

Janee Harteau
Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau, left, and mayor Betsy Hodges, behind the chief, talked with Richard Howell, pastor at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in Minneapolis (in light suit-colored suit) at a listening session at the Minneapolis Urban League.
MPR Photo | Tim Nelson

Does criminal behavior drive law enforcement's use of deadly force, or is there racial bias among police officers? In a new debate from the Intelligence Squared series, two former cops and two lawyers explore the recent incidents, the statistics and the public controversy surrounding race and policing.

The motion is: "Policing is racially biased."

For the motion: Marq Claxton, Black Law Enforcement Alliance and retired NYPD detective. Gloria Browne-Marshall, professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Former civil rights attorney.

Against the motion: Heather Mac Donald, fellow at the Manhattan Institute, lawyer and author of "The War on Cops." Harry Stern, attorney at Rains Lucia Stern, and former police officer.

For the motion, Opening statement

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Marq Claxton began by bringing out some definitions of the word bias.

The dictionary defines it as a "bent tendency, an inclination or temperament or outlook — especially a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgement," Claxton said.

He then referred to the Black Law Dictionary which lists bias as "inclination, a bent, a prepossession, a preconceived notion or predisposition to decide a cause or an issue in a certain way," Claxton said, stressing that the term is not synonymous with prejudice.

Claxton warned to take statistics with a grain of salt because "actual bias is not easily quantified." Historical and legal context are necessary to understand current numbers in policing and to deny bias based on statistics alone is to reject your common sense as well as the experiences of many people who have lived through racial bias in policing, including himself.

"It is not the everyday police officer who sets the tone and determines the level of bias in policing right now ... it is the system that places not only a certain population of citizens, but our police officers, in increased harm's way. Vote yes for the truth. Vote yes on the motion," Claxton said.

Against the motion: Opening statement

Race and police work is complicated and fraught with confusion and misconceptions, Harry Stern said of his experience as an officer.

Many of his and Heather Mac Donald's arguments were going to be data driven, he admitted, "our argument can be summarized as follows by an uncomfortable but inescapable truth, and here it is, black people commit more crime per capita than other groups."

People who hear this statistic often assume whoever says it is racist and puts the responsibility back on the police, he said.

"People who are proponents of this proposition feel that crime is created by the internal racism and bad thoughts of the police. This isn't the case," Stern said.

The incidents driving conversations like these are only looking at extreme cases, Stern said, and to use these extreme cases to stop police from doing their job would be a mistake.

To listen to the debate, click the audio player above.

Further reading

• St. Anthony PD: Black drivers bear brunt of citations from routine stops

• What's it like to 'drive while black'? Take a ride with these guys

More from MPR News Presents

MPR News presents offers speeches, documentaries and debates — airing weekdays from noon to 1 p.m