If we engineer a stereotype, and people buy in, should we be surprised when people react to it? Like everything else: ideas have consequences.
Take the trend we are seeing about police in the news, for example. There has been a constant drip-drip-drip of stories framing the actions of police officers in the worst possible light — often before the facts have come out. Police are denied what we would angrily demand for ourselves: the presumption of innocence.
Police actions — tried and condemned in the court of public opinion from day one, often with assumptions of racist motivations — in many cases are eventually exonerated.
But the damage is already done. The message has been sent: the police are bullies, or racists, have hidden agendas, or simply cannot be trusted. And that message has been heard, often by idealistic young people who are at the age where they are looking for worthy causes to rally around.
How does this shape the police officer’s ability to keep us safe? In Allentown, Pennsylvania, it got ugly.
Police responded to a call where a serious brawl had erupted among high school kids. Since theirs is the only role in our society whose explicit job it is to protect us from one another, they stepped into the crowd, and tried to restore calm.
What happened next? Their anger turned toward the police officers themselves. One female cop was knocked to the ground, and punched by one of those in the crowd. Bystanders gathered around to watch, film, and cheer the spectacle:
Before people can feel justified in either attacking a police officer, or cheering others who do so, something else must be present. A contempt for authority, and specifically police authority must be sown in their hearts and minds.
Where does this contempt come from? It is fed by those people who — with no sense of irony — burn and loot, as a means of showing their outrage over injustice; and again by the professional grievance-mongers forever trotted up in TV panel discussions.
What effect does this have?
We all become less safe. The police themselves, the public generally, and even the people (criminal or otherwise) with whom the police interact.
When we supercharge these situations with unfair police stereotypes, we are setting the stage for future overreactions. Civilians will be more likely to resist lawful orders given by cops. Police will be more likely to assume malicious intent in their interactions. And people on both sides will get hurt.