News and Media

Overcoming our fear nation

We have become a nation of fear. Fear of Muslims. Fear of black men. Fear of police. Fear of white men with a middle name. “When people are frightened, intelligent parts of the brain cease to dominate”, Dr. Bruce Perry explains, quoted in an article published on the Time magazine website. When faced with a threat, the cortex responsible for risk assessment and actions cease to function. In other words, logical thinking is replaced by overwhelming emotions, thus favoring short-term solutions and sudden reactions. [1]  Responses such as disconnecting from those things and people we fear, drawing upon anger to overcome fear, and finding simple ways to process complex issues.

First, we are all producing about the same percentage of crazy, bigoted, and stupid people from our own communities. It is easier to say a group is bad then realize we as a human race break down about the same no matter what group we are with because we share about 99.9 % of DNA with each other.  We also share about 60 % of our DNA with a fruit fly, so ponder that as well.  There are bad Muslims, bad cops, bad folks from every race. Mental health issues are not confined to a particular sub group of our species. Human nature seems to be about self-interest. Collective interest usually comes to the fore when it serves a self-interest. In short we are all from the same flawed race and have those traits in common.

However, it is not all out of our control.  We need to acknowledge power disparity combined with fear of another and a very rampant gun culture leads us to where we are today.  It is not so simple as just race.  Law enforcement are not bad.  But let us be clear, they have the power and control the encounter.  If an officer believes that a black man is more likely to be a danger they will approach the encounter fearing for their own safety. And the police officer has a weapon. Police officers involved in the killing of black men are not all white.  An officer may feel more secure in a random encounter with someone of their own race and definitely more secure in an encounter with someone they may already know from the neighborhood. This is why studies have shown we need to advocate for community policing.  Lowering the fear and apprehension in the encounter by both parties will lower the risk of over reacting.

Law enforcement work, like the military, may attract a personality type that while effective when combat is required can also be ineffective in keeping the peace. How we recruit our law enforcement needs to be part of the discussion. The Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter was a bully as a high school student and had anger issues his entire life. He wanted desperately to be a police officer. That type of person should never become a part of our police forces. Yet they are, not all, but they exist and everyone in their squad knows who they are. Most officers wish they would go away because a bully does not become less so with the power of the badge.  At a minimum psychological testing and consider more than a high school education to be a police officer.

Anyone who has watched the Walking Dead knows we really do need our police.  They supposed to be the tool of the people for us to feel safe enough to let our kids out of the house. However, racism is real.  It is the result of ignorance and fear. We fix this not by going to our corners but by engagement with those we fear or those who fear us.  This is the time for community leaders to reach out to law enforcement and start arranging for them to come to our elementary schools and talk to our kids. Come to our playgrounds and get to know our families. Come to our community centers and get to know who we are. If we care about our children that is the responsibility of all parties to take on. Today.

The cell phone as a tool of social activism. Those who work the court system know police over reach and over reaction on the street is not new.  However, many in the judiciary would be inclined to believe the accounts as told by a law enforcement officer than my black twenty something client. Your cellphone is the new sheriff in town because it has created a new level of accountability on the street. We need to make sure our legislators do not enact laws that make it a crime to record law enforcement actions. States like Massachusetts and Illinois make it illegal to record a conversation with an on duty police officer. In my almost two decades of criminal defense work I have seen numerous people charged by the police for mouthing off to the police or recently trying to record the police in action. Your elected officials need to tackle this and it needs to be explicitly allowed.

The cell phone as the death of social activism. Your liking a post, retweeting a tweet, or even a rant that goes viral will likely not have lasting systemic impact. Occupy Wallstreet, the marches and protests after the many young black men who have been killed in law enforcement encounters, and the outcry on social media after every mass shooting about gun violence. All examples of lost opportunities. There are real complex problems in our society and we can tackle them by looking for institutional fixes.  Do not let this terrible moment turn into a wasted opportunity.  Set up a meeting with your local city and county counsels. Meet your police chief. Find your allies.  Fix this yourself.

Khurrum Wahid

National Co-Chair of Emerge USA and a practicing criminal defense attorney. @khurrumwahid and

[1] Impact of Fear on the Human Brain,