WestEd’s Justice & Prevention Research Center conducts high-quality research to help guide decision-making to address challenges of crime, violence, injustice, and other societal problems. The Center’s Director, Anthony Petrosino, co-authored this article with his spouse, Professor Emerita, Dr. Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, reflecting on race and policing from their unique perspectives as an interracial couple and as longtime criminologists.
Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, Professor Emerita
Bridgewater State University
Department of Criminal Justice
Anthony Petrosino, Director
WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center
Following the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests and focus on racial justice, we decided to reflect on our own perceptions and experiences with policing and race. One of us (Carolyn) is Black and the other (Anthony) is White. We met in 1986 as graduate students at Rutgers, School of Criminal Justice in Newark, New Jersey, and were married in 1990. We have two children. We both grew up in middle-income communities in New Jersey, and largely raised our children in a similarly suburban area in Massachusetts before recently moving to Virginia. We have both had long careers conducting research. We sat down and talked about our perceptions and experiences over our lives, from our childhoods and adult experiences as a Black woman and a White man.
Our earliest perceptions about police
Carolyn: As an elementary student at a mostly White, rural school in southern New Jersey, we were taught that police, firefighters, and other public servants were there to help you. The nurse, the doctor, teacher, librarian, and others were supportive adults that you could trust. A popular representative image was that of the friendly, smiling police officer. The person to turn to if ever you were lost, frightened, and needed help. We almost never saw police at our school or in our community at any time. Much of Southern New Jersey was, and still is, agricultural; and I grew up on a farm. Police sightings were rare.
Anthony: My perceptions as an elementary student were very similar to Carolyn’s. I moved a few times during my childhood, but my elementary school years were in largely White, middle-income suburban towns in central New Jersey. My parents, teachers, and others in the neighborhood viewed police as the ones who protected us. The police were viewed very positively. I remember how excited we all were when a police officer came to visit our elementary school!
How our perceptions evolved
Carolyn: My views on the police evolved dramatically. It started with overhearing my parents giving “The Talk,” which Black parents often have with their sons, to my older brothers about how to comport themselves when encountering a White police officer. I was struck by how grave my parents’ facial expressions were, the serious tone of their voices, and how quiet my brothers were. “The Talk” was essentially that my brothers had to be careful with how they moved, to be sure to do nothing that an officer would interpret as “threatening,” and that a simple gesture with one’s hands could possibly get them shot. I never saw police the same way again.
Anthony: My views evolved too, but as I got into secondary school, I became even more positive about police. Part of that was due to my family history. I come from a long line of decorated police detectives with the New York City Police Department. I am dating myself now, but many of the early shows I watched during the early 1970s emphasized the heroism and integrity of police officers, like The FBI and One-Adam-12. Some of the most heroic individuals I heard of were police who had given their lives, in some cases, to protect someone they did not know. People I knew would occasionally grumble about getting a parking or speeding ticket, but for the most part, the interactions with police were rare and usually very positive. We were taught as kids to be respectful to the police and other authorities, but never once did my four brothers or I ever hear a kind of “talk” similar as to what Carolyn witnessed. As I discussed in a prior JPRC Update, by the time I was 18 or 19, I really wanted to be a police officer.
Changing or reinforced perceptions over time
Carolyn: My perceptions were reinforced, for three reasons. First, I began to learn about the history of the humiliating and violent experiences that African Americans too often had with police; especially White officers, who acted with impunity. For example, I was an avid reader as a child, and one of the earliest adult books I read was about the Ku Klux Klan (The Invisible Empire). The local police were sometimes members of the Klan and often responded halfheartedly to Klan violence directed at the Black community. Second, my oldest brother wanted to become a police officer in Philadelphia to thwart or interrupt acts of brutality by White officers against members of the Black community. He thought the presence of more Black officers would curb that abuse. Third, the media began to report more often on police abuse against Black citizens, and that served to reinforce my perceptions. Witnessing these and other developments drove my inclination to distrust police. I was so struck by racial injustice issues that I considered becoming a civil rights attorney and join the battle against institutionalized racism. It was one of the reasons I determined to attend the world-renowned Howard University, an HBCU, in Washington, DC.
Anthony: My perceptions changed as I got older. I became more aware of how Black persons and White persons differed in how they were treated by police and how they perceived law enforcement. Studying criminal justice exposed me to the range of experiences that people have with the justice system. It was not until I met Carolyn and her family during our graduate school years, and got to know them in a more intimate way, that I became much more educated about the “Two Americas” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about across a range of experiences, including treatment by the police. It was brought home to me more directly as a researcher. In the early 1990s, I was part of a team collecting data on police use of their firearms, including during deadly force incidents. For one department, I was noticing several cases involving police shooting Black and Latinx persons driving cars, with the officers claiming they fired their guns in self-defense. I asked an Internal Affairs Department detective, naively, “Do that many suspects use their cars to ram into officers?” He said, without batting an eye, “That’s all [expletive].… Police use that excuse to cover up.”
When our son got older, Carolyn and I had that same “Talk” with him that she, as a child, had witnessed her parents giving. I found it somewhat humiliating as a parent to tell my son he could not do the things I had done with impunity as a teenager. It was not just about police. We also talked about not playing the immature games I had played as a kid, like ringing neighbors’ doorbells and running away, because a White homeowner might perceive his actions with fear. It was tricky to say those things but also reinforce to him that he should not let other people’s wrong perceptions change how he viewed himself.
Our feelings about the recent murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police
Carolyn: The Floyd murder was a modern-day public lynching in my view. It was not done under the cover of darkness. The officers did it in broad daylight and even saw that they were being videotaped. Historically, a lynching was a public affair, conducted in a carnival-like atmosphere. Derek Chauvin placed his hands in his pockets in a cavalier fashion as he suffocated Mr. Floyd and as other officers stood by. That these officers could act with such utter disregard for Black life was outrageous. And it was not just the Floyd murder. It was the culmination of several egregious racial offenses that occurred within a short span of time. The Black jogger in Georgia, the Black EMT worker in Louisville, the Black birdwatcher in Central Park, on top of years and years of such incidents.
There have been some hopeful signs, however, since these most recent awful crimes. First, outrage has come from more than the Black community. Protesters have been from various races, ethnicities, economic classes, and from rural, suburban, and urban areas. The response has also been worldwide. Second, more police officials have denounced this murder. Traditionally, many police leaders either equivocated when asked to comment, or worse, remained silent on such tragedies. Finally, there seems to be real momentum for police accountability. The use of qualified immunity for police officers, for example, is getting a second look. But the real question is, will meaningful change come in law enforcement policy and practices, and in police culture? Will the perpetual suspicion of law-breaking based on the presence of melanin in one’s skin finally come to an end?
Anthony: As a big fan of police, as someone who wanted to be a police officer, and as a human being, I felt ashamed as much as outraged as I watched that video of how Mr. Floyd was treated in the last minutes of his life. I tried to visualize one of my loved ones in that position. This was, to those of us watching, a murder, but it brought home for me how the police can take a life in a second, in what Professor Lawrence Sherman of the University of Cambridge called “extralegal execution.” No representation, no appeal, no judge, no jury . . . just killed on the spot, based on perceptions and actions of officers. It underscored how important it is to constantly work to improve policing of all types.
But it is broader than policing on the job, as in what happened with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (the EMT worker), and Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, who was killed by police). Think of the other scenarios recently in which a Black person has been killed. I think often of how terrifying it must have been for Ahmaud Arbery to be followed and killed by three men while jogging, or for Trayvon Martin walking home from the grocery store and being attacked and killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator in Florida, or how Bothman Jean was relaxing in his home when he was shot dead by an off-duty officer who walked into the wrong apartment. Those are tragic events, but then there are many non-fatal encounters that can feel like harassment. I will never forget reading about the experience of the famous Black lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, earlier in his career when he was a prosecutor for Los Angeles County, being pulled over in his car by officers — with their guns drawn.
Carolyn: African Americans and other people of color have vocalized and denounced police violence and racial injustice for decades, but their accounts were largely ignored. George Floyd’s murder was repeatedly shown in the media. Countless people viewed it. Most Americans found it repugnant and wish to see change occur. More people now understand the objective of the expression, “Black Lives Matter.” “All Lives Matter” is not and will not be true until Black lives are regarded as equal to White lives. This is America’s original sin, and it appears that more people are finally recognizing that we must begin to honestly deal with this ugly truth. George Floyd’s killing may be the catalyst that moves this country closer to the often-cited quotation in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Anthony: The Floyd murder and the other awful events we have mentioned seemed to have brought us to a point in which more honest self-reflection and conversation about race is happening across many areas of life. The issues are so much deeper and pervasive than policing. But law enforcement, because of the gravity of the decisions they make, must be a priority for intensive examination. A religious leader once said, “When you point the finger at someone else, there are usually three fingers pointed back.” The police killing of George Floyd has inspired me to reflect on my own behavior and how I can make more of a difference as a husband, father, neighbor, and as a colleague within WestEd. What can I do as a researcher? What kinds of research would help inform policing and other institutions as we confront the role of racism and bias in our society?