by Regan Hewitt
Associate Professor of History Glenn McNair’s academic research focuses on crime and criminal justice, but he hasn’t just studied the subject — he’s lived it.
“I’ve spent a dozen years in law enforcement, and four of those years as a police officer on the street,” McNair said. In addition, McNair pointed out that he’s an African-American man and has had what he describes as “weird experiences with police officers, like getting pulled over at gunpoint.”
McNair gave a talk entitled “Why Police Shoot Black People: A Police Officer’s Perspective” on Monday, Feb. 23. His talk showcased both the perspective of a former police officer and that of an African-American citizen. “I have a unique background that will allow me to give a perspective that I haven’t really heard or seen in the media anywhere since [the events of Ferguson] happened,” McNair said, in an interview with the Collegian prior to the talk.
Speaking without notes to a nearly full Community Foundation Theater in the Gund Gallery, McNair divided his presentation into two parts. First, he focused on the use of violence against African-Americans, as well as police officers’ perceptions of themselves and police culture.
Police officers work within a job McNair described as “isolated” and “authoritarian,” which can sometimes translate to a similarly aggressive lifestyle. McNair also noted that policing in America is inherently racist — based on separation of neighborhoods — and increasingly militarized.
However, he emphasized that police officers often do not perceive themselves as black or white, but rather as “blue,” and strive to stick together, which is why public criticism of police departments or officers by other officers rarely occurs. “Their [work] culture is heightened because it’s a life-and-death situation,” McNair said.
He also went over the Homeland Security policy on use of deadly force — which he indicated was often, but not always, the general police guidelines — for his audience to gain an understanding of what went wrong and what went right in the various violent events that McNair showcased.
The second portion featured seven video clips, which McNair played once without his commentary and then a second time, during which he paused the videos and added commentary to explain the situation from both the policeman’s point of view as well as those of the citizens’ in the clips. These video clips included well-known incidents, such as those resulting in the deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice.
McNair said, “I want to explain what went wrong with [these incidents] just from the perspective of a police tactical response. Race has a lot to do with it, but it’s also responding to situations in way that reflects poor training … or reckless attitude.” In many of the videos, McNair pointed out that instead of “de-escalating the situation,” which is what police officers are trained to do, these policemen heightened the sense of fear and panic.
During the interview, McNair said he wanted the talk not only to interest Kenyon students, but also to encourage a continued discussion about issues related to race and law enforcement. “My impression is that young people are far more outraged about this,” he said. “I felt like the stories petered off after December. … Young people are more willing to question authority … and I want to engage that.”