What's behind the shootings in Dallas, Minnesota, Louisiana: U of T experts

Getty photo of police and protesters
Police and protesters in Dallas on July 7, 2016, after one person is arrested (photo by LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Just hours after U.S. President Barack Obama addressed police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana he faced cameras again – this time to address the killings of five police officers at a Dallas rally to protest police violence.

The Dallas shootings, which ended with one suspect dead, three in custody and seven people wounded, were “a vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement,” Obama told reporters. Just a few hours earlier, he had taken the unusual step of posting on social media about the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota,  saying Americans should be “deeply troubled” by their deaths.

“We've seen such tragedies far too many times,” Obama wote. “They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve.”

U of T News is asking experts from a wide range of disciplines for their insights into these events. We begin with Peter Loewen, associate professor of political science and director of the Centre for the Study of the United States at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs. 

On the political and social aftermath of the shootings in Dallas:
I think that the obvious thing is that it’s not helpful in any sense and it really turns up the temperature quite a bit. The particular tragedy about the Dallas shooting last night – apart from the general tragedy of people being murdered and the tragedy of both the murder in Baton Rouge and the murder in St. Paul – the real tragedy of the case last night is that the Dallas police department has one of the more exemplary records in the United States – there’s a relatively low murder rate in Dallas. I’m not saying it’s an objectively good record but in relative sense it’s a good record. If any city was going to act as something of a model for better relations between the black community and police departments, it’s Dallas. 

It makes this being potentially about Black Lives Matter versus the police which it isn’t – these murders were committed essentially by terrorists.  

What we have to watch for in the next couple days is how politicians respond to this, how police respond to it and how people within the Black Lives Matter movement and the larger civil rights movement respond to it as well.  

On what this means for the Black Lives Matter movement and its opposition:
I think it’s important that we say the following: Black Lives Matter is one manifestation and one arm of modern civil rights movement in the United States. They don’t represent every African American in the United States and we shouldn’t think that they do... it’s not to discredit them at all but it is to say that we have to move the conversation past your opinion on Black Lives Matter to the substance of it. 

Their large point is that African Americans, particularly African American men are more likely to be brutalized by the police and are more likely to be killed by the police – and the killing is the most tragic manifestation of it but what they’re concerned about equally is the day to day harassment and incivility that black people in the United States face from police that white people don’t face. 

The larger problem is that things like the shooting last night in Dallas which are tragic and really speak to a deep rage and anger in America right now can also obscure our discussion about those facts. 

On how the shootings will fuel campaign politics between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton:
Who knows how Trump in his world is going to view this – I can imagine it’s going to give him reason to double down on whatever his strange beliefs are of how we deal with issues like this. The man is increasingly just disconnected with any sense of what government does and what policy is or how you advance the issue of civil rights. He literally has no thoughts on this, is my intuition. 

For Clinton, it’s difficult. The issue is that Clinton has a relatively tense relationship with the black civil rights movement – at least parts of it - and this is not going to make this easier for her. But I hope that she – and many Democrats and Republicans – will show the kind of leadership that Barack Obama showed last night by identifying this for exactly what it is. Basically a vicious attack – it’s a form of terrorism and it’s not acceptable and on one really who’s credible in the mainstream thinks it’s acceptable. 

On whether or not the events in Dallas were inevitable: 
No, I think people make choices and no choices are inevitable. To say it’s inevitable is to say that the people who made the decision to do those things didn’t have agency. People make choices. 

On the impact of this week’s events on Canadians and race relations here:
The experience of black Canadians is not experience of white Canadians in their interactions with police – the experience of aboriginal Canadians is not on average the same experience as white Canadians with the police. 

I would say that the experience of blacks in the United States vis-à-vis the police is worse than the experience of blacks in Canada vis-à-vis the police but that doesn’t really matter if in either place the experience is unequal between blacks and whites – and it is, in both countries.

It’s difficult for us in Canada, particularly those of us who are not black Canadians, to understand how deeply problematic the relationship is between police forces and black Americans. It’s a day-to-day problem, not a once-in-your-life problem if you’re a black American. 

On gun control in the United States:
The debate around gun control in the United States is unhinged from reality on both sides – there are 300 million or more handguns available in the United States. What law do you think you’re going to pass that will erase the already huge stockpile of firearms that exists in that country that’s somehow going to control the flow of them?

The issue isn’t around mass shootings – those are tragic and seem frequent but the issue is around the day-to-day use of guns and violence – both lethal and non-lethal. I just don’t know what a policy framework would be that would address that to the point of making America look like other countries. 

It’s seemingly rational behaviour – people want control over their lives and one way of doing that is obtaining a firearm. They want to feel like they have control. 

Levine also spoke with Ann Lopez, associate professor, teaching stream at OISE, department of leadership, higher and adult education. 

On the need for marginalized voices to be heard:
First of all I need to tell you that I am a black woman from Jamaica – so that’s very important in understanding my social context. 

Secondly, I come to this as an educator.

These issues are very complex and rooted in historical context, however, even with all of what we’ve seen in the United States and what happened in Dallas, I think what to me the situation is calling out for is that space where voices that have been traditionally excluded can be included and that we can begin to have meaningful and courageous conversations around these issues that will involve all voices. 

On violence and our social responsibility:
This is a week when the world – all of us – we have a duty to ensure that we do not allow the anger and the hurt and the pain and the trauma to take us down into a slippery slope. 

Violence of any sort is not a means of solving any problem. I do not support violence – it really takes away from meaningful dialogue. Very important as well for us to give our thoughts and sympathies to the people who have lost their lives and their families because at the end of the day it is about families it is about communities and it’s about our children and the examples we are setting for them. 

On learning from these incidents:
How then can we use these moments of trauma, of anger, of pain of frustration – how we can mobilize this into some positive energy for change. We cannot allow any of these situations that have occurred in the United States in the last week to make us more angry but what it has to do is energize us to find ways that we can create more inclusion, provide space for voices. We have to recognize that the words we speak matter, that the things we say matter, there is impact.

On what Canada is doing well:
In Canada we’re doing a very good job in many ways in ensuring that no matter what your identity is you can feel included.
For us in Canada and in Ontario we are making some efforts and progress in terms of the kind of curriculum, in terms of the kinds of ways we can ensure that all students can see themselves in the curriculum, that their lives and experiences are represented. I think we have a long way to go and work to do.

On education in and out of schools:
The discourse has to happen in education, in our schools, in the curriculum that is used, in the way schools are organized – who are we hiring as teachers? Can students see themselves in the staff? Are students seeing themselves in the administration? Does the administration understand the diverse needs of diverse students?  All of those things, we have to being to focus on. 
Outside of education in the larger society, in the police force, in the boardroom – in all of the other spaces – what does equity and inclusion look like? And how do we work to ensure that those voices and bodies that are not in those spaces are in those spaces and their voices are heard. 

On tackling ignorance:
I really do believe that people have to being to ask themselves personal questions – what is it I need to learn and what is it I need to unlearn? What is it in the way I think of others that may be biased and stereotypical? We have to ask ourselves those questions. 

For example, if I see a young black man coming down the road do I look at him and say “oh my goodness gracious, look at that budding doctor, look at that young man, I’m sure he’s going on to go on to be an astronaut! Look at that young man, what a talent he has, I’m sure he is going to be our next heart surgeon!” is that what we say or do we say something else? 

It’s a long process… I believe it is building relationships across cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, language, sexual identity – we have to being to build relationships across boundaries and cultural experiences so I can begin to understand you and you can begin to understand you in the context of learning.

U of T News reporter Krisha Ravikantharaja spoke with Jooyoung Lee, assistant professor in the department of sociology and senior fellow with the Yale University Urban Ethnography Project. His research focuses on gun violence, its aftermath and its impact on health in urban poor black communities. 

On gun control:

Because this latest shooting in Dallas was a mass shooting and because it was directed at police, I hope that this will mean there will be continuous movements in congress to pass legislation that would make it more difficult for people to get guns. 

That has been the recurrent goal of the Obama administration which has been to close different loopholes that would make it easier for the wrong people to get their hands on guns and to make safeguards so that these kind of things don’t happen with the same amount of frequency. It’s really hard to say what will happen, but that’s what I hope will happen.

On the American presidential election campaigns:

I can see it working in two different ways. The tricky thing about shootings and discussions about gun control is that both the left and right interpret the same events with different lenses. 

Democrats will see this event as an example of why we need stricter gun laws, and why we need to enact legislation in congress that will make it difficult for civilians to buy high-powered guns that are capable of this kind of mass carnage. 

The problem is Republicans – by and large, Republicans – interpret the same events, the same shooting as an example for why more people need to have guns, and so they see the same tragedies through a completely different lens, which is one where the government should make it easier for law-abiding responsible gun owners to buy guns and to have them on their person. 

The interesting thing to me is that both sides actually care about the same things, both sides actually want safety, both sides do not want someone who wants to go on a rampage to be able to do so – but their solutions are radically, radically different. And when these things happen, each side becomes entrenched in these different lenses and the political discussions become polarized. 

On what the research shows:

There has never been any empirical social science research showing that having a gun on you actually makes you safer. In fact, the only peer-reviewed research on that topic shows the opposite. 

There’s a study conducted by some of my colleagues at University of Pennsylvania showing that people who carry a gun on them are four-and-a-half times more likely to be shot than people who do not carry. That’s one important study in a field that is lacking a lot of empirical research on the topic.

And a reason why there isn’t a lot of research on the topic is because the NRA has done such a good job lobbying and blocking researchers from doing this kind of work.

On the fact that that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were reportedly carrying guns when they were shot:

I think both sides will find some common ground here and see that these were two people who were unjustifiably shot and killed. These were in some ways cold-blooded shootings. In the Castille case, I read that he was trying to inform the officer that he had a concealed carry permit and was told to provide his ID, and was shot while actually trying to comply. 

The Sterling case, if you watch the video closely, you see that he was pinned, one of the officers seemed to discover that he [Sterling] had a firearm on him and [the officer] announced that to his college who pulled his firearm and pointed it at Sterling’s face. There were a couple seconds of excitement and yelling and then threats - one of the officers said, “If you move, I swear to god,” and then they shot him multiple times. The picture on the front of The New York Daily News is a troubling image because it shows a man lying there with multiple gunshot wounds, and his arms are empty, he doesn’t have a firearm. In the video, it actually looks like one of the officers goes in and reaches in to his [Sterling’s] pocket and takes a gun out. 

I think both Republicans and Democrats can see that these were both tragedies that should have been avoided. I don’t think there will be a lot of dissension around that.

On how the events in Dallas may affect public protest:

Leaders with Black Lives Matter (BLM) have come out today, denouncing the shooting and distancing themselves from the one person that police killed. 

My big fear is that people in the mass public will look at this event, and without really understanding the nuances of who these deranged snipers were will just think ‘Okay, this was a protest with a bunch of people who are connected to BLM and look at what happens, a bunch of innocent police officers were gunned down.’

I think that this is the knee-jerk response, and I’m afraid that this might happen. I’m afraid that lawmakers will now be scared to allow BLM to gather peacefully, which is what they’ve done historically and I’m worried that police will become even more antagonistic toward the movement. 

Globally, if you look at events since Ferguson around the Michael Brown murder, BLM has been a nonviolent protest movement where people stage sit-ins and where people disrupt events. It’s always been about raising awareness; it’s never been about violence. It’s been about combatting violence by raising awareness so I fear that people will make that link and I think that’s a very problematic link because there’s no evidence suggesting that shooters were related to BLM.

Scot Wortley is an associate professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto. He spoke to Veronica Zaretski about racial tensions and mass shootings in the United States.

On tensions between minorities and the police

This is not a new phenomenon: we have seen it escalate into riots in the sixties and seventies. Those riots were stimulated for police shootings and that was the impetus for the riots. But this is the first time that I can remember a targeted mass shooting of police officers. I can think of none other in the last several decades that fit the same type of scenario.

On mass shootings in the United States

Mass shootings have been escalated in the United States with different victims targeted. I would put this shooting in the same context as the shooting in Orlando where a deranged individual targeted the gay community.

We had the shooting in the Charleston church in South Carolina, where a deranged white individual targeted the black community. I think it is important that we don’t separate this mass shooting from others mass shootings in the states. Maybe the police have not been targeted before but other groups have.

We also live in the era of terrorism and we see an increase of these types of ambush attacks. It would have been much more difficult for the shooter to do this if he didn’t have access to weapons.

It’s interesting that one of the main takeaways covered in media is not that we should take away weapons from the public, but that we should improve the weapons of the police.

The tension between police and Black Lives Matter

This is such a tragedy. What hit me is how these incidents are politicized on both ends. We had the rise of Black Lives Matter movement. That level of concern and outrage of policing black people is not new.

We’ve seen extended media coverage recently as a result of social media and the capturing of some of these incidents on video, which create awareness and a public discussion that didn’t exist in the past.

The two shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana really galvanized the movement again much to the disappointment of police organizations that feel such protests are unwarranted. It was interesting how the tragedy in Dallas is being used to attack the movement itself. 

This shooting is going to probably hurt the credibility of the movement and it’s going to make it easier for those who are against the Black Lives Matter movement. Is it going to now be difficult to conduct a peaceful protest in the wake of this? Is there going to be an emerging narrative that we should not criticize the police in the wake of Dallas? That could slow down productive discussions regarding why minorities perceive bias in the system and productive discussions regarding meaningful reform.  

Judith Andersen, an assistant professor of psychology of the University of Toronto Mississauga, who has worked with Peel Regional Police says the events of this week highlight the urgent need for evidence-based police training programs that lead to better use of de-escalation techniques and more accurate assessments of when lethal force is necessary.

“It is no longer OK to ask simply for ‘more’ police training,” Andersen told U of T News writer Arthur Kaptainis by email. “We must rely on empirically supported police training in order to reduce unnecessary use of force during police encounters with the public.

“It is clear that current police training is not sufficiently targeting the key factors that most often determine the outcome of an incident: police stress and its impact on access to training and decision-making. It is not sufficient simply to talk about police stress during training. Officers must engage in stress control techniques actively during real-world encounters.

“There needs to be a paradigm shift in police training – first, a focus on the individual, then a focus on how to use the tools and use-of-force options available. A tool is only as good or effective as the person using it. This is particularly true during stressful or life-and-death encounters. The Dallas incident is yet another example of the explosive climate in the United States between police and the public. Given the paucity of evidence-based police-training programs in the U.S., it is difficult to predict what the police response to this incident will be. It is unlikely that the tensions and use-of-force encounters will improve on their own without the adoption of evidence-based training programs.

“Some of the largest police agencies in Canada are moving towards evidence-based training, and our team is working in collaboration with a number of them. It is my hope that more agencies will follow their lead. Only then will we be able to begin to reduce violence and resolve tensions between the police and the public.”

Veronica Zaretski also spoke with Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. His research focuses on the intersections of race, crime and criminal justice. He recently penned an article on his research with black male police officers in the GTA for The Walrus: Teaching Police that Black Lives Matter.

On race relations in the U.S.

I think these shootings and the unrest that has followed are a product of America’s long and troubled history with respect to race relations.  I truly believe that America is still trying to deal with social, legal and political changes that followed the civil rights era. 

Evidence suggests that many Black Americans have not truly benefited from the gains made by the civil rights movement – persisting poverty, residential segregation and mass incarceration are evidence of this. 

In fact, some scholars suggest that mass incarceration and the war on drugs that helped fuel it were politically motivated means of scaling back Black progress. On the other hand, White America feels as if it is losing political power, fueled by the election of Barack Obama as well as continued concern about immigration which is changing the racial composition of the nation.

On race relations in Canada

I think both the U.S. and Canada have troubled past when it comes to race relations.  We should not forget that slavery was practiced by both the British and French (two of our founding nations) on the territory that would become Canada. 

Likewise, legalized segregation existed in Canada up until the 1980s, long after it had been abolished in the United States. Canada has done a very good job of forgetting this history.  Combine this erasure with a Multiculturalism Act and large-scale immigration from around the world and it is no surprise that Canadians feel superior to their American neighbors when it comes to race relations. 

Granted, different histories and different social, political and economic environments do distinguish Canada and the United States from one another.  However, our police and the remainder of our justice system are also plagued with problems related to racism and discrimination. 

Take for example the fact that Aboriginal Canadians are more likely to be incarcerated than African Americans in the US.  Likewise, until very recently, a Black man was more likely to be stopped and searched in Toronto than he was stopped and frisked in New York. 

Neither of these facts are ones that most Canadians are familiar with.  This is due in part to the fact that the Canadian government largely refuses to make racially disaggregated criminal justice data publically available.  Why? In the absence of information to the contrary, we have no problems of racial discrimination or racial disparity in the Canadian justice system…

On how the shootings in Dallas might affect Black Lives Matter

I think the events in Dallas will overshadow recent actions taken by BLM Toronto to bring attention to issues of racism and racial injustice in Canadian society.  In the long term, however, these events will lament the need for ongoing discussion and action around these issues.

On how gun violence will play out in the American election

I suspect that these shootings will further polarize the American public and American politics.  How that will pan out for either candidate is yet to be seen.

I think one of the key messages that must be made clear is that police abuses and perceived police abuses erode the legitimacy of both the police and the state. 

People who think the police are discriminatory or biased or that they abuse their authority are less likely to abide by the law.  As the current situation continues to escalate and views towards the police worsen, we can expect more unrest and unfortunately more violence.

While I respect Americans’ right to gun ownership, research indicates a clear link between the presence of guns in a given area and the level of gun violence. I think American society would be safer with less, not more guns.  Finally, if the Second Amendment permits Americans to bear arms in order to defend against a tyrannical government, Americans need drones not guns – as comedian Jim Jefferies has pointed out.

Read an Op Ed by Professor George Elliott Clarke 


The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief