The deaths at the hand of the police of George Floyd, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans have spurred national outrage but now what? To make progress on the complex issues surrounding race and policing, Americans must begin to have a conversation rooted in mutual respect and in facts.
Laying the groundwork for productive engagement, Dr. Will Moravits details how police officers are trained in the use of force and the choices that they confront. The Blue Divide analyzes the past decade’s highest-profile cases of police use of force against people of color and looks more broadly at the criminal justice system, the use of force, and the tragic disconnection between the police officers and the communities of color that they are sworn to protect.
A former police officer, Moravits brings a unique, informed, mutually sympathetic point of view that can be heard by everyone who has an opinion about American policing. Good, bad, or unsure about what to do to ensure safety and justice for all. Here is my conversation with Will Moravits.
Welcome to The Author Hour. I’m your host Benji Block and today, we’re honored to be joined by Will Moravits. He has just come out with a new book. The book is titled The Blue Divide: Policing and Race in America. Will, thank you for taking time and being here with us today.
Will Moravits: Thank you, I appreciate it very much.
Benji Block: For listeners who may be new to you, Will, and some of your work, just give us a little bit of your background and history.
Will Moravits: Well, in my 20s, I spent a few years as a police officer in San Marcos, Texas, gone to the University of Texas at Austin Police Academy, graduated top cadet. Things happened in my life that pulled me away from policing and into education. I earned my master’s degree from Texas State University and then went and got my Ph.D. in public policy from Walden University, so this is my first nonfiction book. I do have research published in a PRB journal where I did a study on the Fort Hood shooting of 2009. My background is a little bit more diverse than that but those are the highlights as it relates to the book.
Benji Block: Fantastic.
Will Moravits: Now, I’m a professor of political science full-time at Saint Philips College in San Antonio and then I do adjunct at Texas State.
Benji Block: Great. With that type of busy schedule, obviously, writing has been a part of your past but why take time right now to write this book? What sort of prompted this as a topic you wanted to tackle?
Will Moravits: Well, I’ve been following this topic for probably about eight years now. A lot of the Black Lives Matter movement started about 2014, it really picked up but it was the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, the rhetoric surrounding policing, the calls to defund the police, and in some cases, I think there was one congresswoman who called to abolish the police and just, the whole narrative around the profession just kind of bothered me, you know?
I totally agreed that what happened to George Floyd was completely tragic and totally illegal but all of these other cases that they kept bringing up, I was like, it’s not quite that simple. I just wanted to write something where your average everyday reader could understand of what the training is like to be a cop and then evaluate that training in light of some of these other high-profile cases.
I also wanted to go into some of the data, take a little bit broader look at the issue. I just felt like we needed to bridge that gap between the public that thinks police are the bad guys and those who support police because I firmly believe that just like in any profession, there are bad apples but we don’t really do that to other professions. My family is full of educators. When a teacher gets arrested for inappropriate conduct or whatever, people don’t go around and say, “Well, we should defund the teachers.” It’s counterintuitive.
I just really wanted to write something that would bring those two sides together.
The Principle: Action is Faster Than Reaction
Benji Block: Well, I’m interested and excited to jump into some of your findings and the writing here. Let me ask you this, just one more kind of practical “why” behind the book or more, I guess of who, when you think of the ideal reader who is going to pick this up? Who are you imagining in your head as you were working on this project?
Will Moravits: There’s really two types of people. One would be those who kind of innately support police but don’t have a lot of information to counteract the prevailing narrative on whether they talk to their friends or whether they’re trying to convince somebody or something that I just wanted them to be able to have the ammunition, so to speak, to make the argument.
The other person and really, the more important person to read the book, would be somebody who comes in from the view that the police are discriminatory against Black Americans or, to use Lebron James’ quote from a couple of years ago or a year or so ago, that they’re out hunting black people. That’s just patently false and I wanted to bridge that gap for that reader that comes in with the negative view of policing.
Benji Block: Well, it’s a hot topic right now. It’s a topic worth discussing and trying to bridge the gap and actually have a discussion around. Let’s dive in and let’s start here because in the aftermath of George Floyd as you mentioned, we did reach a fever pitch and you start to book talking about this so I’ll just quote you here. You say, “There was a — little effort was made by law enforcement or the media to discover who is involved —” this is talking about Black Lives Matter, the protests, right? “Involved in the burning of federal buildings, police stations, and private businesses. It was all excused because of the injustice faced at the hands of the rampant police brutality, calls for defunding the police from the local and national politicians, were proposed to fix this problem.”
I guess my first question, not having done the research that you’ve done, is can you give us a little bit of how we got here? What are some of the streams that have led us to a place where it seems like in a national conversation, it’s everywhere?
Will Moravits: It’s part of a broader movement throughout the country over the last 20 years, I don’t know how familiar listeners are with higher education but for quite a few decades now, higher education’s been promoting this Critical Race Theory that was developed by Derrick Bell and some other scholars about 40 years ago and is kind of the intellectual brainchild of CRT. You get a lot of people that look at any kind of discrepancy between blacks and whites as some sort of foundation and races policy, things like that.
The scholar, Dr. Ibram Kendi wrote a book, How to Be an Antiracist where he makes that argument [that] anytime there’s a disparity between the two groups, it’s because of a racist policy and I think that’s filtered into — when we look at police, and I think the media comes at that topic, not understanding police work, not understanding the law and they just add fuel to the fire.
One of the things that I quoted in the book, I believe it was Joy Behar from The View where she says, “Well, why don’t you just shoot them in the leg or fire a warning shot?” Those are kind of the things that get put out there. Another one that I hear all the time is, “If police were scared, they shouldn’t do their job.” I wanted to address that prevailing narrative and I think that all goes hand-in-hand, that type of broader societal thing of white privilege, of — I’m not making any comments one way or the other about those ideas but I think that’s played into the media’s coverage of these killings over the last eight or nine years.
Benji Block: I think the lack of understanding of what goes into police training would be worth discussing here and so I wonder if you would just highlight some of what, maybe we wouldn’t know as just those outside the profession that cause you to have a different reaction than maybe what the media says or the broader movement.
Will Moravits: I’ll answer in two different ways. The first one often times the media will say, “Well, you killed that unarmed man, somebody that did not have a gun on them.” They look at that and just de facto, that’s an abuse of force. The reality is that an unarmed man can kill you. Many police officers who are killed by firearms are killed with their own gun because a person takes it from them.
In use of force training, when someone grabs a hold of the police officer’s gun, the law in the training says that that person is attempting to then take that officer’s life. If the threat continues in that situation — let’s say the officer takes control and gets some space between themselves and the subject, but the subject continues to pose a threat and continues to try, then they’re legally justified in shooting.
Beyond that, I think people underestimate the ability of a person to harm others. One of the things that I tell my students, I ask anybody in the class were they a high school wrestler, for example. There’s always one or two and I say, “Could you tackle the average cop and take their gun?” They’re like, “Probably”. I’m like, “I would imagine you could,” because cops are not Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
Typically, they’re not trained to fight. Now, there are some that know how to fight very well because they’ve taken Jiu-Jitsu or MMA or whatever the case may be but, the vast majority of police officers don’t have the time for that. They come into work, they do their job and their whole goal is to go home to their family.
The other aspect that I’ll look at from that perspective is, action is faster than reaction. Okay, this is a principle you learn in police training that I talk a little bit about in my book. It comes from the OODA loop, when you make a decision regardless of you’re a cop or you’re the subject, the first thing you do is observe.
Orient yourself to the situation and then you observe, then you decide and then you act. Where action is faster than reaction comes from is, let’s take the example from the training I went through. I would be playing the role of the police officer and I’d stand about 8 to 10 feet away from another police officer who was playing the role of a suspect.
I would have an AR-15 rifle pointed at the chest of the suspect and he would have his gun down by his side and the drill is, as soon as you see him raise the pistol, towards you, you shoot. The subject is going through that OODA loop process before I even begin it. Every time we did that drill, regardless of who was the cop in the scenario and who was the subject in the scenario, both get shot.
That was a drill that we did some simulation training. Think of paintball but with actual guns that’s just loaded with paint ammo. We go through different dynamic trainings and this happened in — we were in a low light situation, meaning, it was dark and we were using our flashlights. That exact scenario happened and sure enough, we all got shot, the two cops, myself and my partner and the suspect were all shot in this training scenario because your brain has to go through that process. But the subject, in this case, has already gone through it before the cop starts it.
Oftentimes, when you think of – well, he didn’t have the gun pointed at you, why did you shoot? One of the things you see all the time in TV shows, one of my favorite shows was Criminal Minds.
Benji Block: My wife too.
Will Moravits: It seems like at the end of every episode, the bad guy’s got a gun pointed at them or an innocent bystander and they sit there and they want to talk them down. That’s bad tactics because you can’t react fast enough in that situation, you have to be the one that acts first. That’s not to say that if someone’s holed up and it’s just them in there, you can’t talk to them in hostage situations. That’s a little bit different but in these dynamic situations where you’ve got somebody with a gun, they’re walking back and forth pacing, they’ve got it down by their side and you know that they’re willing to use it, you can’t just sit there and give them all. They have to drop the gun because of that principle of action is faster than reaction.
Benji Block: I think there’s so much there that can be talked about and I’m glad you dived into all that goes into some of this training because clearly, everybody’s going to have opinions but when you don’t understand some of these things, the conversation gets convoluted really quickly. I appreciate the time spent to try to explain that and action is faster than reaction, we all know that, right?
You can just think about any — I mean, we experience that all the time, action is faster than reaction. So, a great one to highlight. One thing you do is starting with chapter six, you talk about several cases and kind of walk through your findings and how they differ for maybe what we hear in the media. I wonder if you would just highlight one of the several that you put in the book and, I don’t know if you have one, that comes to mind immediately that really stands out to you?
Will Moravits: No, I do.
Benji Block: Okay.
Will Moravits: I do because it made an impact on me when it happened and it really kick-started the Black Lives Matter movement, which had been around prior to the death of Michael Brown. I know Eric Garner is the first gentleman that I talk about in the book but I did it chronologically.
Michael Brown, of course, was a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri who was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. The first thing you see on the media is Brown’s friend who was with him at the time, Mr. Durant Johnson and he’s saying, “Well, he had his hands up saying, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’”
If you remember back, this 2014, members of the St. Louis Rams came out, I think they were still the same St. Louis Rams back then, they came out with their hands up. There was an MS NBC panel that they all put their hands up, don’t shoot and that became this mantra that was perpetuated in the media initially and then throughout society.
Well, the Department of Justice was one of three different organizations that did an investigation into this case, what we find our several things. Number one, Michael Brown had done what was called a strong-armed robbery. He took some cigars from a convenience store. The guy, the convenience store clerk, approached him, and Brown just kind of grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him. Brown was about six-foot-four and 300 pounds, so he was a big gentleman.
Darren Wilson approaches him in the middle of the street with his car and he tries to get out. Brown stops the door from being opened and reaches in and starts punching and in that struggle, he goes for Officer Wilson’s gun. Now, when he disengages, he starts running away from the car, Wilson gets out and attempts pursuit, and then when Brown stops and turns around and charges again, that’s when he gets shot — because remember what I said earlier, he’s already shown that he’s willing to take the officer’s gun, right?
He’s attempted to do it once so you have to assume that he’s going to attempt to do it again. The forensics and everything, they all showed that Michael Brown did not have his hands up. He was charging, witnesses, in fact, quite a few African-American witnesses, they were not interviewed on TV who witnessed the shooting said, “Oh no, he was charging at Red Wilson. He did not have his hands up.”
Those people were not publicized very much and the investigation, the people that were lying, as is often the case, their story would change slightly the more they told it whereas these other individuals, their stories were consistent all the way through. So you had forensic evidence, you had eye witness testimony that a strong-arm robbery was caught on security cameras, you had all this information but yet people still out there were use the “Hands up, Don’t shoot” mantra as if it was actually true and it’s just not.
Part of that is a lack of individuals actually seeking out the truth. Most people don’t have the time to do that for every little news item that comes through their TV or their radio but the media should have. The media really could have helped out a lot had they not just gone with whatever the first story was, which was Michael Brown’s friend saying “Hands up, Don’t shoot.”
If they had done a little bit more investigation, or maybe I don’t know, waited for the facts to come in before they start promoting something, things might have been different but you know, it’s about ratings. They’re all competing to get these big stories out first and that’s not always the most effective way of expressing the truth, unfortunately.
The Media and Shaping The Narrative
Benji Block: Part of the issue that I see and this comes down to I guess, somewhat some bias but there is an inability to see nuance in stuff like this, right? If a narrative comes out one way and if the story that was told is like “Hands up, Don’t shoot” at first, that narrative doesn’t evolve over time with more information and this happens across the spectrum of national debates where we just have the first story that sort of sticks with the narrative we want to believe and we refuse to evolve. How do you see that sort of happening and adding fuel to the fire in the national conversation?
Will Moravits: It’s a big disservice when the media plays up these things. There was a gentleman by the name of Ami Horowitz, who does these man-on-the-street type videos. He’s, I guess somewhat famous in the political world, he was in Minneapolis after the George Floyd killing and he asked them how many Blacks are killed by the police — unarmed Blacks are killed by police a year.
A lady responds, “Oh like a hundred” and she was like, “Oh, you mean in Minneapolis or the whole country?” And he’s like, “The whole country.” She’s said, “Oh, it’s got to be in the thousands.” The actual number was nine. That same year, 19 white people, white men had been shot and killed by police while unarmed. The narrative really seeps into the public consciousness and they then extrapolate that information to overestimate what’s really going on in society.
People do remember what they hear first. My undergrad was in psychology and I remember when you have to memorize, let’s say 15 words, you remember the first few and the last few and the ones in the middle you have a hard time.
Benji Block: For sure.
Will Moravits: That’s where all the nuance would come from, right? That’s very problematic when you have that narrative and people aren’t out there actually trying to educate, inform, and search the truth. One of the things that I’ve seen in several cases are some are these civil rights activists, whatever, will go through some police training and you know, I have seen YouTube videos that have already do this.
Then in the scenarios, they end up shooting unarmed black people played by a cop but they, afterward, are like, “Wow, I didn’t realize just how dynamic and scary this is.” And this kind of opens their eyes to it, which is why I think towards the end of the book, I encourage the reader to go down your local police station and see if they have a citizen’s police academy and go through that and see, get a little bit understanding of what it’s like.
Benji Block: There’s a lot there. Again, what we’re wanting to do here is prompt people to go pick up the book and so I think we’re giving great flavor and there is so much we could sit on in that discussion. But obviously, the book is there as the resource for people to go pick up, so we’ll leave that right where it was and go to something you did just touched on, which is the data and there is a lot of ways you can read certain things.
The stat that you just gave would be one where then people would push back with, “Well, what are the percentages of black people versus white people in America?” And you go down that road as well but, talk to me a little bit about what you see in the data and what you highlight in the book?
Will Moravits: What often gets told in the media is well, Black Americans are 13% of the US population but make up about 26% of all police killings, therefore, they’re overestimated. White people make up about 62-63% of the country, depending on which census data set you’re using, and make up just under half of all police killings. So the narrative goes, well, that’s obviously whites are underrepresented, blacks are overrepresented, therefore it’s discrimination.
But as I mentioned in my book, you know I was like, “Well, you’re leaving some factors out in that situation.” and the big factor is how often and under what circumstances do police encounter people? From 1980 to 2010, they did a supplemental study in the last few years, the FBI uniform crime reports have shown that over half of all violent crime including homicides in that time frame are committed by black men, young black men.
Police are far more likely to encounter African-American men specifically in the course of their duty depending on, of course, where they live. I mean obviously, if you’re in Central Texas, there’s a — like San Marcus, New Braunfels, there is a lot fewer percentage of black people than say in Houston or Dallas but you do encounter black people at a higher rate than you do Whites nationally.
It’s kind of like — and I say this in the book — it is kind of like you said, well, 6% of the population in this country are black men but black men account for 80% of the fouls called in the NBA. Well, what are you missing? You’re missing the fact that the overwhelming majority of the NBA players are black men so, of course, they’re going to get called at fouls at a higher rate than the white European players or the white American players.
People have to dig deeper into what statistics look at and what statistics mean and I’ll just highlight a couple of the studies that were done in the book. I mentioned several but Washington State University did a study of [a] simulation training with police officers. Think of virtual-reality kind of scenarios you go through and what they found is that police officers, whether they were white or black, were 1.7 times more likely to shoot a white person than a black person in similar scenarios.
In debriefing, they said, “Well, because they thought about it when it was a black person.” They thought, “Oh what’s it going to look like? What’s it going to look like in the media.” So they hesitated a lot of times. You know, it’s not the real world, right? It’s training but Dr. Roland Fryer, who is a Harvard economist, an African-American gentleman, he did a national study for major cities looking at deadly force incidents.
He said the biggest shock of his academic career is he found that there was no disparity between cop shooting and killing blacks and cop shooting and killing whites. So these are not the things that are talked about in the media. The media likes to sensationalize things, right? If it bleeds, it leads, that’s the old adage and so, when a white person gets killed by police no one cares.
I mean, obviously the families and people care but the national media doesn’t care. The most egregious example I can give is Tony Timpa, which I talk about in my book and I don’t want to give it away too much but his death and George Floyd’s are very, very similar. Almost 100% of Americans probably never heard the name Tony Timpa but everybody in America has heard the name George Floyd.
Why is that? Because the media picks and chooses what they want to cover and how they want to cover it because there is a video on both situations. I think all of these things need to be put out there and my hope is as many as possible will read this so they can kind of again, bridge that gap between police officers and the community they serve, especially communities of color because when police pull back from enforcing the law, it hurts the communities they pull back from.
That’s when you see the crime is increased all across the country as cities have defunded the police and they’ve pulled back. They called it the Ferguson Effect back in 2015, now they’re calling it the Minneapolis Effect where you get these high profile cases where police get demonized and so their reaction is, “Well, I don’t want to be the next Derek Chauvin or I don’t want to be the next Darren Wilson.” So they pull back and don’t do their job as effectively as they would like to and who does that hurt? That hurts the communities.
Benji Block: There is so much there, you did a great job of walking us down some of those stats and that road. I think it opens a larger conversation when we start to talk about, like you mentioned, from 1980 to 2010 over 50% of homicides were committed by black men. That type of stat then begs the question of what communities are they growing up in. It opens a larger conversation that I think needs to be had that is a lot of why people don’t understand each other on both sides of this argument.
We line up to either fight against or for the police when really there’s a discussion underneath that that we’re all trying to hit at, that we don’t quite know how to talk about. So, I appreciate you tackling this. Anything you would add before we start to wrap up here?
Will Moravits: When you talk about black-on-black crime because the 90-something % of black people that are killed are killed by other black people. In fact, if you look at the data, the number one cause of death for black men under the age of 40 is to be killed by another black man. For whites in that same age group. It’s accidents like car wrecks, falling off a ladder, that kind of thing.
You ask yourself why that is and a lot of people will say, “Well, you’re deflecting the issue of police brutality by focusing on black-on-black crime.” and I understand that argument, but my argument is all black lives matter not just some. All black lives matter so why are we not putting more attention on making communities safer? Why are we not putting more attention on figuring out why these communities have become the way that they’ve become?
One of my intellectual idols is Thomas Sowell. He grew up in Harlem and he says “When I was a kid in Harlem, it was mostly black and people respect older.” You rarely ever heard any kind of violence or whatever and Harlem today is quite the opposite, so the question is why. Yeah, that’s a bigger issue to tackle and I think this is just one aspect of that but I want the reader to understand that I believe all black lives matter.
I think we need to be more honest in the discussion between policing and race in order to heal and move forward and do better.
Benji Block: Well, for those that are interested in continuing to follow your work, are there ways that they can stay connected to you outside of just the book?
Will Moravits: Where I do most of my, I guess, public information is on Twitter. You can follow me on Twitter @wmoravits23. That’s where I talk about these issues and I talk about other, you know, as a political science professor, I talk about a lot of other political issues as well. That’s the best way they can connect with me is just to contact me on Twitter, follow me if they’d like. I’d be more than happy to continue the discussion.
Benji Block: Great. Well, it’s been an honor to discuss the book with you. Congratulations on the release and the title again is The Blue Divide: Policing and Race in America. You can get it on Amazon now and I believe it will be an interesting read for so many. Will, thanks for joining us here on Author Hour today.
Will Moravits: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.