Dr. Karyne Messina’s Newsletter — Issue #2
Black Men Are Still Being Aggressively Targeted by the Police.
Projective Identification Has a Lot to Do With It.
Despite efforts to reform and regulate excessive police use of force, researchers at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania have found that fatal shootings involving the police remained at the same rate they were at in 2015. Published in October, the report analyzed 4,653 fatal shootings where race and age statistics were publicly available. The researchers found a small decline in white deaths but “no significant change” in deaths for BIPOC. Among armed victims, Native Americans were three times as likely to be killed by police than white people, and Black people were killed 2.6 times the rate of white people. As for unarmed victims, Black people were killed at three times the rate of white people. These are troubling facts given the increase in the use of body cameras, bystander footage, and increased community awareness.
“Fatal police shootings are a public health emergency that contribute to poor health for BIPOC,” concluded the researchers. “Urgent attention from health professionals is needed to help drive policy efforts that reduce this unjust burden and move us towards achieving health equity in the US.”
An ABC/Washington Post poll conducted in late April 2021 asked respondents whether they felt police should be held responsible for mistreatment of Black people in America and fully 60 percent agreed. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they believe Black people and other people of color are unfairly treated by the criminal justice system.
Why, then, are Black men still being disproportionately killed by the police? I believe it may be partly due to an underlying, little-known defense mechanism that contributes to the killing of Black men, a mental maneuver known as projective identification. People employ this mechanism to get rid of unwanted feelings, thoughts, and actions that they don’t want to be associated with and instead engage in a type of finger pointing that, in cases involving the police, too often turns deadly.
Derek Chauvin’s behavior serves as one glaring example of projective identification at work. In his 19-year career as an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, Chauvin was the subject of 22 complaints and 17 internal affairs investigations. He was formally disciplined only once, while racking up several performance medals — significant external validation that likely stoked a desire for recognition and shaped his reputation among fellow officers as a “tough Dirty Harry on the lookout for bad guys.” Chauvin’s sole official reprimand came in 2007 after he forcefully pulled Melissa Barton out of her vehicle as she drove home after grocery shopping, only to learn that her vehicle had not, as Chauvin suspected, been involved in any crime. Chauvin’s behavior during the incident, which ended with Barton being taunted for having breastmilk on her shirt and dismissed as being mentally unstable, was deemed “aggressive” by investigators.
Over a decade later, Chauvin was found guilty on all three charges for killing George Floyd, who lay with his neck pinned under Chauvin’s knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including 2 minutes and 53 seconds during which Floyd was non-responsive. Killing Floyd was reprehensible, to be sure, but torturing a person who is already dead suggests a grave and deep-seated psychological flaw in Chauvin’s character. What is it about being challenged — even by a breathless, lifeless man who is begging for his mother — that makes a man like Chauvin, despite being in a literal position of ultimate power, flagrantly commit murder? That, I maintain, is the pervasive psychological chokehold that is projective identification.
Projective identification is the glue that leads to the proliferation of discriminatory practices. What are the solutions? Unconscious bias training can lead to real change, as long as it is implemented correctly. Police reform is an important step towards enhancing accountability, though experts disagree on best practices. Senate passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would be a major first step towards a unified national protocol.
The bill addresses policies and issues regarding policing practices and law enforcement accountability while establishing guidelines to prohibit racial profiling at the federal, state, and local levels. In addition to mandating the use of body cameras, notable elements include lowering the standard of criminal intent when prosecuting officers, limiting qualified immunity as a defense to liability, authorizing the Department of Justice to issue subpoenas in investigations of police departments for a pattern or practice of discrimination, reporting requirements on use-of-force incidents, and training on implicit bias and racial profiling. This would do much to stem the disparities, but all the body cameras in the world won’t stop someone who is projecting their innermost feelings onto others if the ability to recognize those feelings is absent. That’s why I believe mentalization techniques must be a significant part of police reform.
The American Psychological Association defines mentalization as “the ability to understand one’s own and others’ mental states, thereby comprehending one’s own and others’ intentions and affects.” Mentalization is natural for many of us when the person we are dealing with holds the same opinions as us. But when there is discord in beliefs, mentalization becomes especially important, because it allows us to consider two seemingly conflicting or incompatible ideas — our own and the other person’s. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily share a viewpoint — we can still disagree — but it does mean that we are each free to have and express our own opinions without judgment from the other. Developing this skill takes time and practice to implement. But with help from psychoanalysts, mentalization would become another tool in the fight against discriminatory police practices.
It’s a busy month! In other news:
Tyler Gallagher of Authority Magazine interviewed me on the topic of what we as professional psychoanalysts can do to help unite our polarized society. You can read the interview here and at Thrive Global.
On Thursday, May 20th I will be giving a presentation via Zoom at the 44th annual meeting of the International Psychohistorical Association. The topic is based on a paper I wrote and which was published in the Spring edition of the IPA’s magazine, Clio’s Psyche. “Healing a Divided America: Finding the Source and Healing the Damage” examines the cultural and rhetorical rift that divides so many Americans today, as well as offer suggestions on how we can repair the damage caused by four years of relentless psychological manipulation.
Also, please save October 22 and 23 for a conference co-sponsored by the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis, the Contemporary Freudian Society, and the Washington School of Psychiatry on how the psychoanalytical community must address the widespread apathy surrounding public understanding of the environmental crisis. “Awakening to the Existential Threat of Environmental Collapse: A New Imperative for Psychotherapists and Psychoanalysis” will focus on the serious threat to humanity caused by global warming and the unconscious processes that are associated with denialism. This conference is dedicated to the memory of Harold Searles. More details will be available in the coming months, but you can find early information here.
Thank you for reading, and stay safe.