Filler: Nassau police assault case tests our biases

Kyle Howell, 20, of Westbury, on Tuesday, May

Kyle Howell, 20, of Westbury, on Tuesday, May 6, 2014, in Garden City, speaks at his attorney's office about a beating by two Nassau police officers during an April 25, 2014 traffic stop. (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

I don't know whether white Nassau County Police Officer Vincent LoGiudice beat a 20-year-old black man, Kyle Howell, without justification during a traffic stop on April 25. I've watched the video of the incident. I know LoGiudice was whaling on Howell, but the video doesn't show me enough of Howell's actions to say for certain whether LoGiudice did what he had to do to subdue him.

I don't know. Nor do you. The hundreds of Nassau, Suffolk, New York City and state cops who came to LoGiudice's June 3 arraignment on assault charges to applaud and support him don't know. The community members who rallied for Howell and chanted "No justice, no peace!" don't know.

The facts haven't come out. And if the facts do come out, many will ignore them.

So far it seems that people who more closely identify with cops, or white people, or authority, are with LoGiudice. People who identify with youth, or black people, or who tend to oppose authority, are with Howell.

People don't need facts to pick sides, and often don't make much use of them when they appear. We have tribes instead.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the murders of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Simpson. Rarely has an event more clearly highlighted the belief that, in a conflict, people like "us" must be right and people like "them" must be wrong.

In a CBS News poll conducted just after the trial concluded in 1995, 64 percent of whites said O.J. Simpson was probably guilty of murder, while 11 percent said he probably was not. Among blacks, 12 percent said Simpson was probably guilty, while 59 percent said he probably was not. The evaluation of the case was highly influenced by the provable racism and potential evidence tampering by a police officer, Mark Fuhrman, so much so that some people who thought Simpson committed the murders also thought he should be acquitted. But white people knew this as well as blacks did. The evidence that Simpson did it was also pretty strong, but black people were as aware of the evidence as white people.

Stanford University geneticist David Perkins coined the term "myside bias," the tendency of people to give weight to information that confirms their beliefs. Add to that tribalism, in which people are more loyal to those in their perceived social groups than people outside them, and you have a recipe for alternate realities.

I would have hoped that, over two decades, we became more inclusive in our groups, of "us" and "them," and more open to facts.

But then came the 2012 killing of a 17-year-old black male, Trayvon Martin, by a white one, George Zimmerman, 11 years his senior. Again, people divided along lines of race, but also of age and politics and attitudes toward guns and gun-happy guys and gated communities and hooded sweatshirts.

According to a Pew Research Center poll, 86 percent of blacks expressed dissatisfaction with Zimmerman's not guilty verdict on charges of murder and manslaughter, compared with just 30 percent of whites.

Now, we have Howell and LoGiudice, though thankfully, no one is dead.

To adjust for myside bias, people must filter every reaction through the process of "Am I ignoring this, or believing this, because it confirms what I already thought?" That's hard.

Even harder is expanding our sense of "we," and getting away from all this "they." Howell is one of our young men. LoGiudice is our sworn protector. We don't know what happened. If we base our evaluation on who looks like us, or has a job like ours or is close to us in age or circumstance, we tear at the heart of society in the service of biases that might have no basis in fact.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.