Could a change of body language make a difference to American policing?

Plus: how child migrants treat their arduous journeys like a game

9 January 2016

9:00 AM

9 January 2016

9:00 AM

One of the most shocking items of recent news has been the bald statistic that the number of people shot by law enforcement officers in the United States last year was 1,136. Not died by gangland shooting, domestic violence or terrorist attack. But killed by those who are meant to be preventing such deaths. Many of them are black or Hispanic. As if on cue, the World Service this week launched a documentary series to find out why this is happening. What are the deep structural issues that give rise to such inequalities of experience and opportunity in the (supposed) Land of the Free?

The first episode of The Compass: America in Black and White on Thursday, presented by Rajini Vaidyanathan (and produced by Giles Edwards), took a deeper look at how the criminal-justice system operates there by talking to people who have experienced its workings in places as far apart as Kansas and New Jersey. In Nicodemus, for example, surrounded by fields of corn, Vaidyanathan met Derek Moore who is a descendant of one of the original settlers of the town, founded in 1877 by freed black slaves (and named after the biblical figure who reminded his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that those appearing in court should be heard before being judged). Moore had been at a party raided by police and ended up in jail awaiting trial on a drugs charge. The case was eventually dropped but only after he had experienced seven months in prison.

Vaidyanathan did find an officer in New Jersey who understood that the police should be seen as ‘guardians and protectors’ rather than ‘warriors and enforcers’. And he explained how a simple change in body language can make all the difference. When an officer ‘tells’ someone to calm down, they usually gesture towards them with their palms down, he said. Instead the palms should be held upwards, opening yourself up. ‘It’s more welcoming.’

We were given real insights into the other big story of the New Year in Hashi Mohamed’s programme about The Boat Children (Radio 4, Sunday, produced by Tim Mansel). Mohamed himself arrived in the UK as a child migrant, aged nine, sent from Nairobi to make a better life after his father died. He was lucky, he says, because he travelled with his siblings and came by plane, flying in via Paris. The teenagers he met in Italy, at refuges set up by charities such as Save the Children, had usually travelled on their own, with no one to guide them, thousands of miles, across numerous borders, through war zones, hiding on lorries, in leaking boats, walking without food and sometimes water. Why?

‘I just want a better life for my family,’ said ‘Blues’, who arrived in Sicily by boat from Tripoli having travelled there from deep inside sub-Saharan Africa. Neither of his parents could read. They gave him money to pay the people smugglers because they wanted ‘the next generation to do better’.

Mohamed is struck by their bright eyes, their optimism, their sense of adventure, even after all the horrors they have experienced. After talking to Ali, who left Ethiopia for Europe by way of Libya, and having arrived in Italy wanted to make his way to Finland because he had heard that he could get a better education there, he began to realise that these migrants are really only children in spite of how adult they might appear. The journey is almost like a game to them. ‘Each stop is a level to complete.’

Radio 3 began the New Year by renaming CD Review, or rather taking us back to the 1960s and to Record Review, looking backwards for the future — because, we are told, ‘record’ is a more accurate reflection of the way we actually ‘consume’ music these days. We are promised no changes to the format. Phew! Meanwhile on The Essay (Monday to Friday, produced by Elizabeth Allard) five experts introduced us to ‘seismic moments’ in ‘new music’. On Monday we heard from Robert Worby, who sought to explain the significance of John Cage’s controversial work 4’33”.

This was first ‘performed’ at Woodstock in upstate New York on 29 August 1952. David Tudor, a pianist, walked on to the stage, sat down, put his score on to the piano, switched on a stopwatch, depressed one of the piano pedals and closed the piano lid. After 30 seconds he took his foot off the pedal and stopped the stopwatch and repeated these actions two more times until four minutes and 33 seconds had elapsed. Not a single note was played.

We call it ‘the silent piece’ but in fact it’s usually anything but silent. When the poet Ian McMillan chose to have it played as one of his discs on Desert Island Discs the producer ensured we could hear his stomach rumbling so that we knew the programme was still on air. And, as Worby explained, the listeners to 4’33” supply most of the sound material. We are just as crucial to its performance as the composer or the performer, which was actually Cage’s point.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “The police are looking for a black man with a grudge against them.”
    That really doesn’t narrow it down that much.

  • WTF

    Yet another liberal “baiting” article thrown into the public domain with just one plucked statistic to try and make their case.

    Its lazy and cheap journalism to say that 1136 people were shot by the police in America but nothing more on what were the circumstances. Its no different to the Obama statistics on deaths or injuries involving guns where no breakdown or motives are made just to make it look bad. If say 1110 were shot in the execution of a crime or refusing to put down a weapon, then most would say its their own fault. If a burglar gets shot breaking into a home and gets killed in the process, is anyone really concerned. If a Muslim terrorist like the one in Philadelphia last week who gets shot after firing 13 times at a cop, is it a crime stat worth reporting, not really unless you’re a liberal and you need it for making an anti-gun statement.

    The point being, the actual events involving an illegal shooting by a cop is very low and someone using a fire arm protecting their home or ‘dropping’ a terrorist doesn’t really count. Remove all this dross and the actual fire arm events that should be investigated for bias is minuscule BUT the actual events in major cities like Chicago or Baltimore with illegal guns is significant but brushed under the carpet in Cologne fashion.

  • kayerob

    Of The 1000 Police Shootings Just 4Percent Involved A White Officer And A Black Suspect.Three Fourths Of The shootingS Occurred When The Policemen Were Being Shot At Themselves or Defending Civilians.
    In Other Words The Officers Were Doing Their jobs.

  • Jack Smith

    More blacks choke on a hamburger than killed by policemen. More black people are killed by lightning or tornadoes. Ergo hamburgers, lightnings and tornadoes are racists.

    What an idiotic and poorly researched article. And obviously full of lies. I hope some rich guy sues her for blasphemy.

  • Thanks Tank

    Having lived in America for a bit their policemen range from reasonable to outright nutjobs who would never be allowed in a force in most of the western world.

    There is a serious problem with many of them.

    • Gilbert White

      It is a bit of surprise that the police makeup reflects the society they serve?

      • Thanks Tank

        If they do then that America functions at all is a credit to them.

  • Gilbert White

    Doubt but if ugly simian blacks changed their body language it would go a long way? Even Mrs Obama has it?

  • Minstrel Boy

    English police officers used to be selected, as were the Irish ones, for their stature and basic education. There were lots of them and they were unarmed, except where circumstances required the use of firearms.
    The rot set in when WPC’s were given equal pay, despite being unable to singularly arrest most adult males, or teenage boys. There soon followed a drive to recruit often myopic, physically underdeveloped university graduates, apparently to prove that some men could be as useless as the women employed. They were. Sadly, many of them and their female colleagues were punted upstairs into ‘non-confrontational’ administrative roles and they are now frequently directing officers to accomplish tasks they were unable to carry out.
    I have seen a number of such useless officers running terrified from violent physical confrontations. I do not blame them for this. They were unarmed, provided with only the minimum of anti-stab armour, and were never physically equipped to contend with violent thugs in the first place. Of course, if you are foolish enough to step in and do their job for them while they are running away, they are very likely to return when it is safe and arrest you on a trumped up charge to cover their own physical cowardice. Time for a change of approach!

  • WTF

    To put deaths in the USA in perspective, the CDC issues figures for all types of deaths which is
    worth a look but here is the general idea of annual deaths per 100,000 people of the population.

    Unintentional deaths including accidents, cars, falling or poisoning – 41.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

    All Suicides 13 deaths per 100,000 people, Gun Suicides 6 per 100,000 people.

    All homicides 5 deaths per 100,000 people, Gun homicides 3.5 per 100,000 people

    Additionally only 20% of gun homicides are NOT criminal related so 0.7 per 100,000 people are true victims of gun homicides. Based on this fact, you are 60 times more likely to die from an unintended accident than being a victim of a gun killing let alone death by cop.

  • Mr Marginalia

    What if most of these “victims” had changed their body language?

    No longer walking towards officers in a threatening manner when asked to remain still. No explosion of visible rage when told to get on the ground. No more fidgeting and reaching in the seat of their automobiles when required to place their hands on the wheel. An end to the billowing of shirts and the movement of hands towards pockets when an officer has a gun pointed at them.

    I think you’d see a sharp drop in “injustices” if these “victims” behaved sensibly, like the rest of the population.

  • fundamentallyflawed
    Whites are 1.7 times more likely to be shot when you factor in certain criteria such as number of homicides committed.
    Yet articles like this continually perpetuate the myth that this is somehow a White Cop/Black Suspect issue of racism.
    By the same people who are ignoring the chronic educational underperformance of White working class boys but continually go on about gender pay gaps and female university uptake