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On police, black men and the ‘thousand yard stare’

All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.        

Ta-Nehisi Coates —“Letter To My Son,” The Atlantic

A disturbing number of police-involved shootings feature a white officer killing an unarmed or nonthreatening black man. The rhetoric used by many officers to justify their killing tends to put the onus on a particular alleged “stare” interpreted as a sign that the victim was dangerous. Minneapolis police officers Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg described the unarmed Jamar Clark as having a “thousand yard stare” and “this really weird stare,” respectively, before they killed him. We know now from shooting statistics as well as several prominent examples that such rhetoric should be seen as evidence of implicit racial bias, or as attempted justification constructed after the fact.

Jason Sole
Jason Sole

A new criminal justice research study analyzed 990 fatal police shootings in 2015. As reported by Wesley Lowery in the Washington Post (April 7), black men make up 40 percent of the 93 unarmed victims of police shootings, a population-adjusted rate seven times higher than for white men. Even after controlling for age, mental illness, neighborhood crime rate, and whether the officer was attacked, unarmed black men are twice as likely as unarmed white men to be killed by police.

Justin Nix, one of the authors of the study, told the Post, “The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black. … there is some sort of implicit bias going on. Officers are perceiving a greater threat when encountered by unarmed black citizens.” As detailed by Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, & Davies (2004), “The stereotype of Black Americans as violent and criminal has been documented by social psychologists for almost 60 years.” A 2014 study of primarily white police officers found they were more likely to have used force against a black child if they also unconsciously dehumanized blacks.

Rachel Wannarka
Rachel Wannarka

Policing in Minnesota shows clear evidence of racial disparities. The ACLU found that in Minneapolis, Blacks and Native Americans are 8.7 and 8.6 times more likely, respectively, to be arrested for low-level offenses. Tellingly, the ACLU discovered that the disproportionality with which black drivers were arrested for driving violations such as failure to signal was much higher during daylight hours than at night. Neighborhoods in Minneapolis with a higher percentage of black residents also tend to have a higher number of arrests for low-level offenses. To some residents, the police can feel less like guardians and more like an occupying force. It might help if police knew the communities in which they worked, but while the national average for police residency in large cities is around 40 percent, as of 2015 only 5.4 percent of Minneapolis police officers lived within city boundaries, according to MPR.

The term “thousand yard stare” comes from describing soldiers in Vietnam and should evoke sympathy because it is observed in traumatized people. If Schwarze and Ringgenberg actually saw such an expression on Clark’s face, they should have followed trauma-informed protocols including helping Clark to relax, talking through the situation, providing space and time for him to respond, perhaps asking the EMTs for assistance. But these are officers with allegedly violent histories: Schwarze was named in an excessive force lawsuit filed 11 days before Clark was killed, and Ringgenberg was sued for brutality in San Diego, although the case was dropped after the accuser ran out of funds. Within 61 seconds of encountering Clark, Ringgenberg choke-slammed him to the ground and then Schwarze shot him in the head at point-blank range. Two days later they told the BCA investigators (in sequential interviews, held at the same law office) about Jamar Clark’s stare. 

This stare has been put forward after the fact as if somehow justifying the shootings of other unarmed or nonthreatening black men by white officers. In Ferguson, white officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. After an initial struggle, Brown ran from Wilson and then turned; Wilson shot him dead in the street where the body lay for four hours. Wilson said Brown initially “was just staring at me, almost like to intimidate me or to overpower me” and then, right before Wilson killed him, “the face he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there.” In Milwaukee, white officer Christopher Manney shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man with a known history of mental illness. Manney claimed he had no choice because Hamilton took his baton, and that Hamilton had a “1000-yard stare.” Both Wilson and Manney also used dehumanizing rhetoric in describing their respective victims as “like a demon […] bulking up to run through the shots” and as possessing “super human strength.” Neither Wilson nor Manney faced charges for their actions.

In Chicago, white officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old with a knife. Police union spokesman Pat Camden (who often made false claims about police shootings) described McDonald as having “a 100-yard stare. He’s staring blankly” and claimed he lunged at officers. The initial Chicago police press release stated McDonald refused to drop the knife and “continued to approach the officers.” Witnesses contradicted this manufactured narrative, but only a year later, after the city lost a court fight to keep video of the encounter secret, was Van Dyke finally charged with murder. The video showed McDonald was not approaching and did not lunge, while Van Dyke emptied his entire clip into the teen including several shots after McDonald fell.

Native Americans are also disproportionately killed by police, and with similar claims often made about a stare. In Seattle, white officer Ian Birk shot and killed Native American woodcarver John Williams, who was carrying a piece of wood and a small knife. Birk described Williams as having a “thousand yard stare” and claimed the knife blade was visible although the knife was found shut at the scene. The King County prosecutor declined to file charges, citing “no evidence to refute Officer Birk’s claim that he acted in good faith” although the shooting was found not justified by the Police Department’s Firearms Review Board.

We have previously described a few of the reasons why Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s decision not to charge officers Schwarze and Ringgenberg was flawed. In his credulous presentation of the officers’ statements, Freeman included Schwarze’s characterization of Clark as having a “thousand yard stare” – that phrase should have led Freeman to question, not echo, the police narrative that Clark posed a danger.

Jason Sole is the Criminal Justice Reform chair of the Minneapolis NAACP, and a criminal justice educator, Hamline University/Metropolitan State University. Rachel Wannarka, Ph.D., is a member of the Minneapolis NAACP Criminal Justice Reform Task Force and St. Paul Federation of Teachers. She is a special education teacher, Boys Totem Town, St. Paul Public Schools.


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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 05/19/2016 - 10:07 am.

    What makes sense to me…

    …is that anytime there is a violent interaction between people of different races that the first basic assumption is that there is probably a prejudice involved. I think it is OK for us to accept that about ourselves as a starting point to help understand each other. I don’t mean an overt hatred but a bias and set of assumptions that we carry around with us.

    It seems that most often people that are loaded with negative bias about people are the ones that claim most strongly that they aren’t “racist”. Think Donald Trump, who claims to be the “least racist person I know” and his comments about “Mexican rapists”. Then you give a person a gun and a uniform and protect him with the assumption that he isn’t racist even often when there is filmed visual evidence and you are asking for trouble.

  2. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 05/19/2016 - 11:53 am.

    More ignorance of policing

    Clearly neither of these authors has the slightest clue about real police work. When combined with their bias and inability to objectively judge the facts, their arguments lose all credibility. For example, Clark wasn’t “unarmed”, he was “attempting to become armed”.

    Unfortunately, like Levy-Pounds, both Sole and Wannarka are more interested in pandering then solving the problem.

    • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 05/19/2016 - 04:43 pm.

      No proof

      The fact that prosecution has not yet occurred does not make it true that Clark was trying to be armed. It would not be difficult for lawyers to challenge that assertion. (See, for instance:

      Of course, better video could have resolved the factual question, as it likely did in Chicago. Variants on Mr. Cage’s comment, complaining of eyewitness bias in the face of “facts” such as the press release issued by the Chicago police (union?), were probably made in their media as well. And they turned out to be wrong, due to the bias of treating police assertions as golden.

      “The initial Chicago police press release stated McDonald refused to drop the knife and “continued to approach the officers.” Witnesses contradicted this manufactured narrative, but only a year later, after the city lost a court fight to keep video of the encounter secret, was Van Dyke finally charged with murder. The video showed McDonald was not approaching and did not lunge, while Van Dyke emptied his entire clip into the teen including several shots after McDonald fell.”

  3. Submitted by Beth Daniels on 05/19/2016 - 02:25 pm.

    Justifications ring hollow

    “I felt threatened” and “He was staring” are not reasons to kill somebody. Police have a responsibility to de-escalate situations, to treat people with respect, and to look for ways to resolve a situation peacefully. As a society we have been desensitized to police violence through many means, including television shows that portray police acting violently and appearing to condone that violence. This has to stop. Police need to be trained differently. Police need to conduct themselves in a manner that builds community trust through exemplary behavior.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/19/2016 - 04:17 pm.

      Working on it

      Police forces have been working to build community trust for many years–effectively in many precincts, even those with significant issues. Anyone who followed positive comments from Mpls. Fourth Precinct residents understands positive efforts to develop relationships there, as well.

      I think the combined effort should be made by true “community voices,” not by branch office representatives of national very special interest NGOs. AARP doesn’t speak for me. NAACP should not purport to speak for the North Side, either. Nationalization of local issues is pure political tactic, not locally personalized consideration.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/19/2016 - 10:47 pm.

    Individual circumstances

    It is racist to automatically assume that then there is a physical confrontation with police that one side or the other is automatically at fault. If a person has a weapon – knife, gun or club – and the police tell the person to drop the weapon, they automatically need to the weapon. If they refuse, it is reasonable to feel threatened and police and trained to protect themselves. If police tell a person they are going to be arrested or if they don’t stop what they are doing they will be arrested, they need to submit. If they resist, they will be arrested with force.

    There are many cases when police go too far with someone who is putting up no resistance, or brutalize people in handcuffs. In those cases, large settlements are paid and if there is evidence of a crime, charges are brought. However, if in every arrest, suspects don’t back down or resist arrest brutality but lie, claiming unfair treatment when they actively caused the problem, those who are truly victimized won’t get the sympathy and justice they deserve. A real life version of the boy who cried wolf. It would be great if black community leaders would coach youth on what they can to avoid provoking strong police action.

  5. Submitted by tom larsen on 05/19/2016 - 11:12 pm.

    Same facts, Different story

    I commend the narrative of this “pattern” in police involved shootings. Of all the special interest groups that follow these events, I am guessing PO’s are among the group paying most attention, yet saying the least. So it is not unlikely that DS & MR were well aware of the disposition of these.

    But I have a more local pattern to point out: No alternative interpretation of the “evidence” Mr Freeman released in the case? Has no one spent the 31 hours looking over the facts? No “in depth analysis”? No news is bad news when Mr Freeman invited us all to draw our own impressions.

    I have not been keeping track of my time, but I have looked.

    In the Ambulance Hayes 4 video Freeman even showed at the press conference, MR appears to be escorting JC toward the cruiser, then suddenly he swings his arm up around JC’s neck and they leave the frame with JC’s feet off the ground. It’s a hazy shot, but you see MR’s arm. THE EVIDENCE YOU DO NOT SEE IS THE AUTOMATIC REFLEX TO DEFEND THE WINDPIPE FROM JC. You should at least see a forearm coming from behind his back. I would expect his hand grabbing MR’s arm. Split second reflex is human when face & neck are attacked.

    So what could have restrained this reflex? What could have been preventing, the “gentleman”,
    JC, from saving his own neck? Handcuffs. Absolutely. Handcuffs.
    MR and DS gave statements that he never was in handcuffs. Lapse into your own “1000 mile stare” and ponder what it means that JC was compliant and in handcuffs at this point. This is all video evidence. Then there is unconflicting testimony fro PO’s that he was not in cuffs.

    Two trained cops can apply handcuffs to a compliant person in seconds. The record is “.34 sec”

    A mere 7 seconds elapse from the time DS leaves the frame and JC is led back into the frame.

    And all descriptions of “takedown maneuvers” result in the suspect face down on the ground with the cop on top or above and on one side. Cops can tell you. This explains why some say JC was face down, some say on his back.

    JC ‘stayed back” when instructed by the paramedics. He came away from the back door of the ambulance when directed by the EMT supervisor. And he was cuffed in a jiffy. He was compliant,
    not out of respect for the uniform, but because he knew, deep down inside and in the moment, that he had done absolutely nothing wrong. Forget about the “fight with the girlfriend ” and “interfering
    with the paramedics”-none of that happened, so JC was not aware of any of it. He was safe and street legal. No reason to be arrested.

    The paramedics report he asked “where they were taking her” and it appears they did not answer the simple question, but insisted he step back. Then he called them vulgar names and may have dropped the f bomb. Of course, none of that vulgar language is in evidence from the statements of
    DS & MR. He turns 180 into physical non compliance and verbal silence? I think he said something to MR that MR would not tolerate.

    DS & MR were “a team”. They discuss what goes wrong, what they shall do next time, and are aware of each other’s proclivities. What ever personal methods and justifications they have for themselves, they were not included in their statements.

    A final key to this scenario is the evidence of MR’s squad key on the ground at the murder scene.
    DS drove to the location, the squad was running and his key still in the ignition. MR’s squad key was a single key and it was kept in a “key pocket” along with his other key….the handcuff key. Given his statement and the video evidence, why would he go into his “key pocket” except to unlock the cuffs that were on “the fill in the blank”?

    It goes a long way in explaining why some witnesses swear he was cuffed and some say he was not.

    I can’t fathom what goes on in the heads of Wilson, Van Dyke and now Schwarze and Ringgenberg.
    But I know it is not typical and should not be made to be examples of “necessary force” or
    anything a “reasonable cop” should ever do. Such cases are best tried and put on the record as examples of “the fatal mistakes” that are a real occupational hazard.

    Hodges & Harteau have plans for more cops in the 4th Precinct, but I am afraid 10 or 100 good apples will not overcome the stink in that barrel unless the rotten ones are removed and dealt with.

    Minnesota has the good sense to not have the death penalty and, despite Mr Freeman’s simple
    but egregious opinion that longer sentences equals greater justice, there still needs to be improvement in what is done when liberty is taken from criminals. Corrections in Mn could be
    a different system….one good enough for police.

    For MR & DS…they have a tough row to hoe. They will assemble a mature conscience one day
    and recall the errors of their youth…perhaps.
    Meanwhile “murder” has no statute of limitations, but , “It’s a mess” as Freeman says and he should clean it up…now.

  6. Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/20/2016 - 07:37 am.


    My favorite part is the suggestion that the cops could have asked the EMTs for assistance. Sorry, but the reason the cops were there was because the EMTs called them to deal with Clark. They were also busy treating Clark’s victim, who they couldn’t get to the hospital because of Clark.

    Clark was on probation for throwing a brick through the window of his girlfriend’s apartment, dousing it with lighter fluid, and threatening to burn it down. Regardess of what the victim said later, Clark was going to be arrested that night.

    As I have said before, the cops probably could have arrested Clark without shooting him. It was not a good outcome. But distorting the facts and misinterpreting the law to suggest the officers should have been charged doesn’t do anyone any good. Meaningful change needs to begin with dealing in reality.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/20/2016 - 08:36 am.

      FDM, indeed

      Facts Do Matter. Thanks for this reminder. I’m afraid too many “alternate realities” are based on alternate “facts,” as well. Such is life in a propagandized world of opinion.

      • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 05/20/2016 - 10:57 am.

        I don’t think there were sufficient facts there to charge the officers in this case, but I do believe that the officers in this case appear to have blundered themselves into the situation where the shooting became a “reasonable” response. I do also believe that the fact that many of these shootings of unarmed black men have police repeating stereotypes about the thousand-yard-stare or the brute that is impervious to pain is troubling, and perhaps indicative that these stereotypes have been internalized by some officers.

        • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/20/2016 - 12:39 pm.

          Quite possibly…

          To speak of the stereotypical this or that need not carry emotion in the speaking. Sometimes it does. The term itself is neutral. We’ve dissected this specific scene in prior threads, so reconstruction is probably not significant now; however, it’s safe to suggest no two encounters are identical in nature and perception–so, we must admit accumulated training and experience, along with on-the-spot perception, control the action at a particular scene. Absent clear evidence of error or abuse, I think we must support civil authority. If we don’t, we no longer truly have such surrogate authority, just an aberration of our own making. We need to be aware.

          We probably now have two generations of citizens who do not fully trust certain measures of authority, beginning with mine, I suppose (and we are all over 65 ). That said, we also acknowledge the significant differences between blind trust-measured trust-measured distrust-abject distrust. Our trust is realistically measured, I’d say, and certainly supported by accumulated knowledge and experience. Those in the margins of our day (Weather Underground, etc.) have not and will never trust to any degree. That’s clear, as well. Some of what we hear and see today comes from that residual aberration of our generation.

          Today the national thesis seems to be one of measured trust vs. measured distrust, for the most part. That’s OK, probably encouraging society to improve information flow. We’ve certainly accomplished that, along with the attendant disinformation flow. Certainly we must get a better perspective of those with complete distrust, but not through media lenses and twitter feeds.

          FDM: Facts Do Matter

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/25/2016 - 12:48 pm.


          I have little doubt that neither of the cops should be employed as cops, or in any other way armed with the authority to kill. They should absolutely be fired for being dangerously incompetent. HOWEVER, there were likely no “innocent” parties to the final outcome. Quite frankly, they all showed up to the show down, and Mr. Clark drew last.

  7. Submitted by Richard Zetz on 07/11/2016 - 10:07 pm.

    Thousand mile stare

    I would like to see any scientific reference to research on this term used over and over by police in their case reports to justify arrests and other actions. The only references I see are police training manuals and not sociological peer reviewed literature. Perhaps a good investigative journAlist could take on this project, If police are trained to respond aggressively to this perceived behavior then they justify there actions by using this as a reason for their action then this concept should clearly be supported and continuously reconfirmed as valid with peer reviewed supportive studies. If the supportive studies are not there then get rid of the concept and the related training From my experience police in a small family friendly ” quiet ” resort in Deleware are trained with this concept and have used it to justify beating the crap out of and giving a concussion to a citizen. I cannot find the science supporting this; can anyone? Also, if all that is needed is a high school education to join a police force, how can one expect a policeofficer to learn such a complex concept and especially implement it properly?

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