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Police shootings: Ferguson, New York and now Phoenix

Three police shootings in Ferguson, New York City and Phoenix are oddly similar — white cop and unarmed black victim who resists or runs from the officer.

Each side has a predictable narrative.

Police: “The victim was threatening or resistant, appeared to reach for what I thought was a gun, and (often) was a criminal or an otherwise bad guy.”

Victim’s defenders: “He did nothing to deserve getting shot and this type of encounter happens disproportionately with white cops and black victims.”

The basic arguments have been the same for many decades and defenders of each side fall into predictable arguments, and seem oblivious to facts which do differ from case to case.

Our receptivity to these arguments is highly correlated with race. Blacks overwhelmingly identify with the victims. Whites’ attitudes are more mixed, but are generally more sympathetic to the police version of events.

This week’s Think Tank explores these encounters. The issues are old and familiar to me.

• I am a sociologist by training.

• Once upon a time (a long time ago), I was a police officer.

• I spent a year in a major academic research project investigating the factors that contribute to precisely the sort of police behaviors that have been controversial recently.

• I have a spent the last 40 years studying the formation and basis of public opinions. As such, I have multiple perspectives and insight into recent events and how the public reacts to them.

In particular, I’d like to explain why one commonly advanced solution, the Bad Apple Theory (that there are a few bad cops who are responsible for all such events) not only is unconvincing but, if accepted, almost guarantees that there will be many more such incidents in the future. There is a solution, but it requires a more systematic cultural shift, introspection and a willingness to question our own beliefs — all of us.

Tune in and see if, after listening, you agree.