Monday, March 21, 2022

What Can "Objectively Reasonable" Do For You?

A new study (summarized here, published and paywalled version here) explores how the phrase "objectively reasonable" -- a very important phrase in the law surrounding assessments of police misconduct -- changes American perceptions of police officers. The core finding is that "objectively reasonable" makes listeners -- and particularly racial minorities -- think more favorably of the officer so labeled (compared to saying something like "the average police officer").

It's an interesting study, though my initial instinct is that the takeaway from it may be exactly opposite of what the authors imply. The authors suggest that the use of "objectively reasonable", since it is associated with more positive perceptions of the police, primes listeners (such as jury members) to think of the police more favorably than they otherwise would. But I think the effect may be the opposite: by asking jurors whether a given officer acting as an "objectively reasonable" officer would, the fact that "objectively reasonable" brings to mind higher levels of professionalism and conscientiousness means that the actual flesh-and-blood officer being judged is effectively being held to a higher standard than he or she otherwise would have.

Consider a jury deliberating over whether an officer accused of misconduct violated the legally-relevant standard of behavior. If that standard is that of the "average officer", the juror might think "well, their conduct wasn't great -- but then, the average officer isn't that great either. Can I really say that this guy performed worse than average?" But if "objectively reasonable" calls to mind more conscientious behavior, that same juror might conclude that the officer in front of the court did not meet that more idealized conception of how an officer should behave. So telling the jury that the officer they're evaluating must have acted as an "objectively reasonable" officer would cause them to more rigorously scrutinize the officer's conduct.

In other words: an officer whom we've already stipulated is "objectively reasonable" will be viewed more favorably than one who we only stipulate is "average". "Objectively reasonable" is better than "average" (at least for non-White respondents). But for that very reason, an officer whose performance we are trying to assess on a blank slate should be more likely to surpass the standard of "average" than the standard of "objectively reasonable", since the latter appears to be a higher bar than the former. So insofar as jurors are instructed to ask whether an officer behaved in a manner that comports with an "objectively reasonable officer", that should make them less likely to answer "yes" compared to if their standard was that of the "average" officer.

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