Saturday, February 21, 2015

Circles of Confusion

I was in a conversation with some acquaintances about the best way to respond to a police officer in a dodgy situation. There was the recommendation to do whatever the officer says and that shifted the argument to the worst-case scenario of an interaction with an officer. The ex-police officer in the group broke it down in two ways - on the one hand, he said, if the officer is in the wrong (intentionally or not) going along with him can result in a false/mistaken arrest and, at most, a night in jail. On the other hand, not going along could result in being beaten.

This is where the conversation took an interesting turn for me, because, as far as I'm concerned, going along with an officer who is violating the law and/or the rights of the individual they have detained doesn't have a night in jail as a worst-case scenario. Winding up in prison for a crime one didn't commit is the worst-case scenario. To back up what seemed like something of an extreme (rather than simply highly unlikely) scenario, I fell back on the fact that I am often mistaken for one Mike Pondsmith. Now, any number of people who have seen the pictures of both us note that we look nothing alike. Which is true - it's also beside the point, because what's really at issue is the intersection of what we have in common and the imprecision of many people's mental pictures of people unlike themselves.

If you describe a middle-aged black man, somewhat overweight, bearded, deep voice, salt-and-pepper hair, propensity for dark clothing and hangs out with gamers/comic book fans, that's an accurate description. Where it leads to confusion is in the fact that it's not precise enough to differentiate between the two of us. Imagine the entire population of the Earth, standing together in one huge crowd and arranged so that if you start from any given person in the group, a person close to your starting point is more similar to that first person than someone farther away, and that all people equidistant from a given person have the same level of similarity and dissimilarity to that person. (Of course, in reality, this mob would likely look different for every observer and likely for any given starting trait; this is what makes it a thought experiment - well, along with the fact that it's simply not possible to get the entire population of the Earth into one place...) Any given description of a person would create a shape (a circle will do for this experiment, although it would likely look more like a set of formless blobs) that encompasses everyone who fits within it. The more accurate the description, the closer the specific person you're describing is to the exact center of the circle. The more precise the description, the smaller the circle.

The description of Mike Pondsmith that I created above is accurate enough that Mr. Pondsmith would be well within the circle of people defined by those traits. But because of the imprecision of that description, the circle extends out far enough that I'm within it as well. Which is all fine and good. What trips people up is their understanding that the circle is more precise than it really is, in large part because, in their personal experience, the number of people who reside with in that circle is typically one. So when I walk up, the "Mike Pondsmith" label appears over my image in the onlooker's mind's eye, and they say, "Hey, Mike!"

While there has been a lot of research into the unreliability of memory as a whole, this interplay between people's own understanding of the precision of their memory and how precise it actually is may be more to the point.

Which takes me back to the conversation about what to do in an interaction with a police officer. One of the issues that I think that many African Americans have with dealing with law enforcement is the idea that police and prosecutors, in order to increase their chances of arresting and convicting someone for a crime, often rely on as imprecise a description as they can get away with. Recall the case of Timothy Cole.

A chain-smoking, African-American rapist who used a knife. That was the man the Lubbock police should have been looking for. But it was a nonsmoking, asthmatic black man they eventually settled on.
Timothy Cole went to prison for the rape of Michele Mallin - and died there from complications of asthma - rather than Jerry Johnson because when the police showed Mallin a photograph of Cole, she identified him - her mental picture of her attacker left a large enough circle for both men to fit within it. The police and prosecutors (and, apparently at some point, a jury) then ignored the parts of the description and other evidence that would have made their description of the perpetrator more precise, but would have sent them back to searching for the criminal, as it would have excluded Cole.

And so they built their case against the bird they had in hand. Rather than a night in jail while things were sorted out, Timothy Cole spent the rest of his life behind bars.

Making this point about the imprecision of memory and description, I freely acknowledge that situations like Timothy Cole's are very rare. But "very (or even extremely) rare" and "not worth worrying about" are not the same thing. And I think that this is part of what drives a certain level of resistance to the police when a person confronted feels that their rights are being violated. For the person who recommended that going along with the officer was always the best policy, the idea that it could turn out very, very badly never crossed his mind. Hence a night in jail as the worst-case scenario. But then again, he, in common with most police officers in the United States, is white, and is likely accustomed to a world where descriptions of people are precise enough that the idea of arresting an asthmatic when the perpetrator is described as a chain smoker seems ridiculous.

But for those of us for whom a remarkable level of imprecision is our daily experience, it may make sense to privilege protecting yourself in the moment above trusting that things will work out.

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