The Society for the
Psychological
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How Do I Look?

By Dr. Liana Maris Epstein

On Monday the Supreme Court affirmed a key component of Arizona’s SB 1070—the provision that requires police officers to request identification documents from anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.
 
This “show me your papers” provision is known more generally as “cross-deputization” because it deputizes police officers to act as federal immigration officials.

In a country where states’ dissatisfaction with the current federal enforcement of immigration policy is mounting, cross-deputization is an increasingly popular solution. In 2010, when SB 1070 first garnered national attention for the policy of cross-deputization, it spurred a wave of national indignation.

The rallying cry of the movement that followed against SB 1070 (and against cross-deputization policy more generally) was, “Do I look illegal?” But there is an unsung question that SB 1070 prompts, and which speaks to the anxiety of the police officer: “Do I look racist?”

Police officers are tasked with the ability to enforce laws regardless of their own personal ideological bent or political opinions. They do not get to pick and choose which laws to enforce and which to discard. Yet despite this, police officers often become a symbol of the policies they enforce—and when those policies are disliked their image suffers.

When it comes to the policy of cross-deputization, where a police officer must approach a civilian to ask for his or her “papers” the question running through that officer’s mind is, “Do I look racist?” Mounting evidence suggests that the short answer is, “Yes.”

My own research has demonstrated that when cross-deputization is in place, the public (Latino and non-Latino alike) perceives police officers as more racially biased against Latinos simply because these officers are dressed in a police uniform.

The idea that someone has preconceptions about who you are based on how you look is often referred to as a stereotype — and the looming presence of this stereotype can be a very uncomfortable experience. Police officers are no different. They know that this perception exists, and they are bothered by it.

Stereotype discomfort is not merely about hurt feelings. Carefully controlled experiments with police officers have shown that concern with appearing racist not only makes officers feel less satisfied with their jobs and that their job is more dangerous, but also makes the officers more likely to express prejudice and use force against Latinos.

In 2006, the Major Cities Chiefs Association released a position statement opposing cross-deputization policies. Their position is driven, to a large extent, by concern for police officers’ wellbeing. It’s a concern that stems from the suspicion that the years of trust police departments have built within their communities would unravel when police officers are charged to ask themselves the question regarding local citizens, “do you look illegal?”

It’s a question to which the Arizona lawmakers who crafted SB 1070 have given diligent attention. In the wake of the bill’s passage, Arizona released a list of identifiers that police officers could use to spot undocumented immigrants. These included: presence with other “illegal aliens” or in locations “illegal aliens” are known to frequent; presence in a heavy vehicle packed with people trying to hide; lost or uncomfortable appearance; lack of English fluency; and possession of a small bag “not common to the area.” (For the full set of guidelines, the video is available at: http://agency.azpost.gov/video/index.html.)
 
Despite the fact that these guidelines carefully never mention ethnicity or national origin, a picture of who looks “illegal” emerges quite clearly— a cluster of frightened-looking Mexican men in the parking lot of a home improvement store.

There has been extensive research showing that Latinos are aware of this picture in the minds of others. The research carried out by myself and colleagues has shown that the increased level of concern among Latinos over how they are being perceived drives negative expectations about interactions with police officers, anxiety about upcoming interactions, and an aversion to asking the police for assistance.

It is important to note that the Latino community’s sense of increased danger with police officers who have been “cross-deputized” is not a warped perception, but a tangible reality—police officers are, after all, more likely to hurt them under a policy of cross-deputization. Moreover, whether a Latino individual is actually an undocumented immigrant or not has no impact on the level of concern with “Do I look illegal?” or on his or her level of discomfort and danger with the police.

Police officers and Latinos both lose under cross-deputization. At stake in all of this is not an issue of hurt feelings, personal ideology, or political grandstanding. The perception of being seen as “illegal” or racist has real consequences for public safety. It has the potential to spark negative reactions in both Latinos and police officers that will make our streets less safe and our communities more divided.

Past research in psychology has demonstrated that the single best way to avoid entrenched bias between groups of people is not to let it get bad in the first place. Prevention will always be better than a cure.

With SB 1070 and other likeminded cross-deputization policies, we stand on the precipice of a negative cycle of conflict that will be difficult to recover from. We need to implement policy that will prevent conflict — not amplify it.

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Dr. Liana Maris Epstein is a SPSSI member and a social psychologist and Staff Researcher with the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity.

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