While sufficiently tragic on face, the death of Trayvon Martin becomes even more deplorable when the uninformed proffer opinions. An exemplar of this was reported by Bloomberg Media. Bloomberg interviewed Lorraine Howes, a professor emerita at Rhode Island School of Design. Howes teaches a course on the history of dress.

While sufficiently tragic on face, the death of Trayvon Martin becomes even more deplorable when the uninformed proffer opinions. An exemplar of this was reported by Bloomberg Media. Bloomberg interviewed Lorraine Howes, a professor emerita at Rhode Island School of Design. Howes teaches a course on the history of dress.

During the interview Howes stated that viewing a person as dangerous because they’re in a hooded sweatshirt is akin to being nervous about tinted windshields or dark sunglasses because they make it difficult to identify a person. “You could put a sinister aspect on anything that conceals,” Howes said. “It’s not necessarily suspicious; it all depends on the aspect that has been put on it.”

Howes may know a great deal about the semiotic analysis of dress, but it is apparent she knows little about the workaday travails of law enforcement. A significant portion of the average police officer’s daily burden concerns identification and reconciliation of potentially dangerous circumstances and people.

Before going further, it should be clearly stated that the self-admitted shooter in the Martin incident was not a police officer. His motivations, proclivities, sentiments, etc. are not the focus of this particular discussion. This editorial offers him no defense, implied or otherwise. Onward…

Policing scholar Jerome Skolnick wrote about the omnipresent specter of potential danger and how it shapes police thinking. Skolnick coined the term “symbolic assailant” to denote the dangerous “other” for whom police constantly watch. Skolnick argued that people can symbolize potential threat through a constellation of “gesture, language and attire that the police have come to recognize as a prelude to violence.” This does not mean symbolic assailants are necessarily predictable. Rather, police respond to vague indications that violence is possible. This is due to the fact that officers often find the threat of random danger more emotionally compelling than a predetermined and inevitable peril. This goes to a basic fact of human nature: fear is usually couched in the unknown. The thought that something awful — might — happen can have a deeper emotional resonance than the certainty of it.

A prime example of this can be found in Howes’ dismissive remark about tinted windshields. Tinted windshields are in and of themselves innocuous. They remain so unless you happen to be a lone officer who just stopped a car with completely blacked-out windows in the middle of the night. You’re by yourself, no backup for miles. As you exit your patrol car, you walk cautiously up to the driver’s door. All the while you have no idea who’s inside. One person or five? Are they armed? Are they a fugitive? Are they high? Psychotic? Point is, you have no way of telling except to go take a look, but by virtue of doing so, you expose yourself to unknown risk.

From this we can return to the symbolic investiture of Trayvon Martin’s “hoodie.” Wearing a hoodie no more makes one a probable criminal than wearing suggestive clothing makes a woman amenable to sexual assault. That said, sometimes a hoodie and sunglasses aren’t just a hoodie and sunglasses. Ask Ted Kaczynski.

Cops know this. Another eminent policing scholar, Egon Bittner, describes how cops mentally weave together disparate bits of information, “New facts are added to the texture, not in terms of structured categories but in terms of adjoining known realities. In other words, the content and organization of the patrolman’s knowledge is primarily ideographic and only vestigially, if at all, nomothetic.”

More plainly: that person; wearing those clothes; in that place; at that time; behaving that way… police weigh the matrix of available information against what is otherwise “normal” for the given circumstance. Psychologist David Schneider calls this process the development of “diagnostic packages” which our brains use as “perceptual shorthand” (i.e. stereotyping).

When perverted, this process leads to prejudice. In all other ways, it’s how humans navigate daily life. Cops are human. They may misjudge situations, but unlike the rest of us, they are cast into potential danger with much higher frequency. Unless you’ve worn the badge on that cold lonely night, it may be tough to understand.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com