A Police Shooting and the Power of Narratives

Posted in: Civil Rights

In recent weeks, after an independent investigation, California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, decided not to file charges against two police officers who shot and killed 22-year old Stephon Clark. Prior to Becerra’s decision, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert had made the same choice. We know only a little about the case, that Clark was an unarmed African American man who was holding a cell phone, not a gun, when he died, and that the officers say they believed it was a gun. Controversy continues to swirl around the question whether Officers Terrance Mercadal and Jared Robinet reasonably feared that Clark posed a serious threat to them at the time that they killed him. When we lack the morally salient facts about what took place in a highly charged situation, we tend to gravitate toward the narratives that confirm our view of the world. In this column, I will consider how such narratives might have shaped public reactions to the use of deadly force against Clark and the decision not to prosecute the police involved.

The “Blue Lives Matter” Narrative

One way to look at the case of Mercadal and Robinet shooting Clark is to identify with the two officers and appreciate the fact that police have a very hard and dangerous job to do and must make split-second judgments in the field while vulnerable to lethal attack. Most police officers, we might observe, are decent people trying to do the right thing by keeping civilians safe from violent crime. We can best understand misbehavior like racial profiling, use of excessive force, and perjury, on such an approach, as the work of a few bad apples.

If we look at the Clark shooting through this narrative lens, then we will conclude that the police officers acted in self-defense under the reasonable belief that their lives were in danger. Though Clark was unarmed at the time, the police had good reason to believe that he had a weapon, because he was holding a dark cell phone, and it was late evening and difficult to see. Working through this filter, we might also say that in the absence of independent information suggesting that these two police officers are racist, reckless, or violent, we should presume that they used deadly force because they reasonably believed that they needed to do so. We do not judge people by what turns out to have been the case (Clark was unarmed) but by what someone reasonably could have thought at the time. Why not give the two officers the benefit of the doubt?

The “Black Lives Matter” Narrative

A second way to look at the case is to observe that our country has yet to reckon with its history of racial persecution and oppression, starting with the Middle Passage and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants and continuing on to lynch mobs, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and ongoing prejudice. People who take the Implicit Attitude Test tend to reveal negative associations with images of black people and positive associations with images of white people. This tells us that racial animus lives. Accordingly, when we hear about police officers killing a black civilian, the logical inference is that racism played an important role and that the shooting was unjustified. Indeed, the victim in this case, Stephon Clark, was unarmed at the time, so how could it have been justified? Within this narrative, people have rightly been protesting the decision to allow the killing to go unpunished and not even to prosecute it.


Each narrative has elements of truth to it, and both are somewhat incomplete, as a narrative will necessarily be. We’re always dealing with human beings in these narratives, and humans have a way of departing from people’s expectations. Stereotypes can infect both narratives, putting aside the question of which one conforms better to statistical truth.

The first filter produces a narrative that barely acknowledges the possibility that two police officers who shot an unarmed man might have been doing something wrong at the time. The first narrative thus treats the police as nearly beyond reproach, and it therefore predictably alienates anyone with questions or doubts about the events in question.

The filter that produces the second narrative, meanwhile, may seem to treat police as just a band of racists who routinely bully people of color with shows of authority and physical force. Within this narrative, it becomes hard to process the possibility that removing police from the neighborhoods they patrol—treating them as an affliction on the African American community—may have a deleterious effect on the rate of serious crimes.

Within this narrative, it may also be difficult to absorb the fact that one of the two police officers involved was himself African American, a plot point that at least complicates the racist-murderers narrative. Police are complex people, and a story of black-and-white/good-and-evil could disserve the very population that needs both the assistance of police and a respectful and non-racist mode of policing.

It is not easy to get away from our narratives. During the recent Jussie Smollett apparent hoax, I recall at least one commentator saying that she hoped Smollett was telling the truth. For those who did not hear about it, Empire actor Jussie Smollett came forward to report a hate crime in downtown Chicago; he said that when he was out buying food from a Subway restaurant, he was attacked by two men calling him a racial slur and declaring that he was in MAGA country. They allegedly put a rope on him and poured an unknown liquid on him as well. As it turned out, Smollett appeared to have paid people to pretend to commit the hate crime.

Why in the world would anyone hope that he was telling the truth? How awful would it be if in downtown Chicago, of all places, during extremely cold temperatures (which tend to deter violent crime), an African American man could not leave his house to buy a sandwich without falling prey to white supremacists prepared to do violence?

Put aside some of the implausible features of the story and assume that it is as internally coherent as any other account of a crime. It is telling, I think, that anyone would say that she hoped it was true.

Imagine someone you cared about telling you over the phone that he is bleeding to death. Would you hope that it was true? Probably not, because you are more concerned about the wellbeing of your friend than you are about reinforcing a narrative. Narratives are dangerous when they become more important to us than the truth, and when we find ourselves prioritizing the narrative over the wellbeing of the person falling victim to the designated “bad guy” in the story. Think of how you feel when you read a novel or see a film in which the ending disappoints you. It is easy to start thinking about real-life stories in the same way and insist on the ending that “works” even when it fails to match the facts.

Here is the mindset to which I refer, and I am describing my own thinking at times: I care very much about this cause. Take, for example, the cause of women coming forward with an account of having been sexually assaulted. Then, in a particular case, facts emerge that reduce the credibility of either the complainant or the story that she is telling, or perhaps the accused offers a highly credible and exonerating account of his own actions. I can very much imagine thinking, “I really hope she is not lying. It would look awful for the cause if she were lying.”

I wonder whether it would even have occurred to me when occupying this mindset to think in such a case that if she were lying and if the lie were to surface, then that would mean that (a) no one sexually assaulted her, so she needn’t contend with that trauma; and (b) the man she accused did not actually commit the violent sexual crime. Both of these outcomes are positive, but a fixation on the narrative can prevent us from even seeing that. It is a bit like a doctor I know who predicted that his patient had a particular (very bad) disease. When the tests showed that the patient indeed had this disease, the doctor could not conceal his delight. His narrative of himself as the great diagnostician was more important to him than the health and wellbeing of his patient.

I’ll end with a narrative that has, almost inexplicably, become very important to many people, the tale of Kitty Genovese. Her story is tragic. In the mid-1960s, she was murdered near her apartment building in Queens. The popular narrative has it that she cried out for help repeatedly, leading people in the building to look out of their windows. Those same people, however, reportedly turned off their lights and did nothing to summon police or other emergency assistance.

Social psychologists subsequently developed a theory to explain the “bystander effect” that led 38 people to fail to call for help. The problem with the story is that it didn’t happen that way at all. All but two of the witnesses who heard Genovese’s cries had called the police. Once the massive indifference story got out, though, it was too good to let go. Were New Yorkers just cold and callous people, indifferent to the suffering of strangers? Or was it something about people more generally? Even now, some will talk about Kitty Genovese and seem incapable of processing the truth. Ironically, the truth there may have been linked to police misconduct leading to an innocent person’s death. If we pay attention to the facts and feel less wedded to our narratives, we may be better able to deal with and sometimes even prevent future hardship.