Police brutality, history of policing in America, and what groups like Black Lives Matter think we should do about it.
In 2019, in the United States (US), 1,099 people were killed by the police. This was just a small decrease from the 1,143 people police killed in 2018. Out of those people killed, 23% of them were black people Mapping Police Violence. I hope you caught that. Black people only make up 13.4% of the total population but make up 23% of all people killed in the United States.
Police brutality is seen as the “excessive physical assault or verbal assault during police procedures, such as apprehending or interrogating a suspect” (Agee, 2017). As the internet and social media have grown, FB live, Twitter, and groups like Black Lives Matter have made the severity of Police Brutality harder to ignore. This has caused people to begin having serious conversations surrounding police brutality and racism in the United States.
It seems every day there is a new video posted online showing the excessive abuse and killing of specifically Black men. Recently, this has led to protests in all 50 states and even different parts of the world.
Police brutality goes beyond physical injuries and death, severely affecting individuals’ and communities’ health outcomes. According to Merriam-Webster, white supremacists are people who believe their race makes them superior to other races so they should have complete control over the other races.
Over the years White Supremacists have used the mass media to instill negative biases into the public and the systems that we are told were created to serve and protect communities. These effects are especially damaging for Black males who experience police brutality at higher rates than others.
“Blackness functions as a weapon. It makes the “suspect” inherently dangerous.” – Sherrilyn Ifill
History of policing
This is nothing new to us. Police brutality is an issue that has been oppressing marginalized populations forever. The first cases of policing began with slave patrols formed in 1704, in South Carolina. These slave patrols were the first police forces created to control the movements and behaviors of enslaved African Americans.. kind of reminds me of our police forces now for POC. Patrols were used to apprehend runaway slaves and return them to their owners, instilling fear to prevent other slaves from revolting.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, slavery was abolished, and police officers had to learn to be more creative. They began to enforce “Black Codes.” Black Codes allowed these officers to use systematic surveillance and arrest freedmen for petty offenses.
By the 1880s, the federal government dismantled black codes, replacing them with “Jim Crow” laws (Cooper, 2015; Hansen, 2019). Mid-19th to mid-20th centuries created new urban police forces following Cesare Lombroso’s theories of criminal anthropology. These theories categorized Blacks as deviant and said they were prone to crime.
Although these theories have been proven false, the negative impact proved detrimental to Black males who were stereotyped as aggressive and violent criminals (Pratt-Harris et al, 2016). Which is still true to this day and why Karens cannot stop calling the cops on POC.
The mid to late 20th-century brought the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Campaigns were led by groups of blacks, Latinos, union members, and political radicals fighting to challenge abusive and corrupt policing. Popular leaders during this time included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Huey P Newton, etc.
This movement produced political organizations like the Black Panther Party that was created to challenge police brutality in African American communities. As a result, liberal policymakers promised to start holding police officers accountable and push police departments to hire more officers of color (Agee, 2017).
Although the Civil Rights movements created some accountability, it was too late and systematic racism was already ingrained into policing strategies. Which is still true to this day.
The end of the 20th century brought a new era of policing. Nixon declared the War on Drugs (one of the worst things to happen to poor populations and POC) and that’s all it took for a push for the return of community policing. This era ruled stop and frisk laws did not violate the constitution and brought back old codes and laws, now classifying them as conduct-based codes. Just another name for the same ol’ things.
Along with this came a push for an increase of policing led and funded by the federal government. Police did not like to see poor white people and POC working together to organize against them. Police began tolerating white gays and lesbians, white artists, and white bohemians classifying them as harmless, whereas, their black counterparts were seen as violent. Because of this, the number of groups committed to police reform plummeted (Agee, 2017).
Ronald Reagan expanded the War on Drugs causing drug hysteria. During this time mass incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses skyrocketed from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. The disproportionate representation of Black males cycling in and out of the criminal justice system proved that things were only getting worse. Police forces and the media continued to spread fear and push this narrative that Black communities were filled with violent criminals (A Brief History of the Drug War. (n.d.), Agee, 2017).
In recent years, it’s common for police officers to use these negative perceptions of Black men as justification for police brutality in their trials. They use these biases to plead self-defense, stating that they “feared for their lives.” Police officers who report these criminogenic perceptions in their defense are often acquitted of charges showing that there are no consequences for unjustly taking Black lives (Pratt-Harris et al, 2016). It’s so sad that their victims didn’t get to fear for their lives. Citizens have to comply and be perfect but officers are allowed to continuously “make mistakes.”
Prevalence and Affected Populations of Police Brutality
Research shows that police brutality disproportionately affects marginalized populations at much larger rates. These groups include individuals with mental illness, experiencing homelessness, sex workers, immigrants, those with disabilities, those with addictions, low-income individuals, and those that identify as LGBTQ.
The American Civil Liberties Union (n.d.) found a series of studies, done by the University of California/University of Chicago, researching the differences in police officers’ responses to White and Black suspects.
- Police officers shot at an armed Black male suspect more quickly than an armed White male suspect
- Police officers chose not to shoot an unarmed white suspect more quickly than an unarmed Black one.
- Police officers failed to shoot White suspects more often than Black suspects who were armed
- Police officers mistakenly shot Black unarmed suspects more than White unarmed suspects.
This study is proof that police officers cannot control their biases while doing their jobs.
Although people of color only accounted for 40% of the population in 2016, they account for more than 50% of years of life lost because of police brutality. This proves that police officers are a danger for people of color.
Law enforcement was found to be two and three times more likely to kill Black and Native Americans than white individuals. Police officers stop and frisk Blacks and Latino pedestrians while driving or walking without cause at greater rates than their white counterparts. These incidents happen so frequently they have come to be known as “driving/walking while Black” (American Public Health Association, 2018; American Civil Liberties Union, n.d.).
Watch here to see how Cop Shows lie to us and give society the perception that police need to use violence to solve crimes.
Causes and Consequences of Police Brutality
It is important to understand the causes of police brutality to understand how we can make changes to prevent it. Police brutality is caused by racial profiling that is spread by the media’s bias and negative portrayals of Black men. Racial profiling refers to “the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on an individual’s race, ethnicity, religion or national origin” (American Civil Liberties Union, n.d., para. 1).
Racial profiling is based on, now disproved, racial theories and stereotypes intentionally spread by White supremacists. Their strategies include using the media to control the perception of Blacks, fueling racism, and discrimination in America. Cesare Lombroso’s theories were used to justify systematic inequalities that instilled fear in the public leading to the brutality of the Black males (Pratt-Harris et al, 2016).
In recent news, there have been multiple cases of Black males being assaulted or murdered with little consequence.
Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black male, died in 2014 as a result of a chokehold after being approached for suspicion of selling single cigarettes. A video was released of multiple officers wrestling him to the ground while he repeated “I can’t breathe” 11 times. The officer was placed on desk duty and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to press criminal charges. The media later alluded to him being deserving of his punishment because he resisted arrest (Pratt-Harris et al, 2016).
Incidents like these reflect the lack of consequences for police murdering Black men and the role of the media shifting the narrative. Pratt-Harris et al (2016) described the difference between the language used in news coverage for riots during the Baltimore uprising versus The University of Kentucky riot. Black protesters were called “thugs” after gathering in protest of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, versus, Whites being referred to a being referred to as “fans” while rioting after national basketball championship loss.
We have also seen this recently with the protests after George Floyd’s death. These negative perceptions lead Whites to believe that Blacks are more inclined to break the law and are more deserving of harsher punishments.
Gayatri Malhotra /Unsplash
These perceptions enforce racial biases which can make officers more anxious while confronting POC, especially Black males, who they are programmed to see as aggressive and dangerous. This can lead to the justification of law enforcement disproportionately killing unarmed Black men.
Police Brutality has been found to have several serious consequences that have lasting effects leading to excess morbidity in Black communities.
- The most devastating consequence of police brutality resulting in physical injuries or the death of the victims.
- A connection was found between increased exposure to law enforcement and death among Black individuals due to increased risk for chronic diseases.
- Police brutality also causes physiological effects including poor mental illness.
- Loss of productivity for victims and their families
- It also results in further strain on the relationship between minorities and law enforcement (Alang et al., 2017; American Public Health Association, 2018).
Police Brutality causes an increase in physiological issues that can lead to an increase in morbidity. These are caused as a result of police encounters, responses to racism and discrimination from the public, or the effects of systematic oppression. Unlawful stops and frisks by police officers have been linked to an increase in chronic diseases. The American Public Health Association (2018) found that residents in neighborhoods with reports of the excessive police force were at increased risk for diabetes and obesity.
Higher levels of anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder are some effects of dealing with exposure to and grieving incidents of police brutality. Black people have been expected to explain police brutality and profiling to non-black co-workers causes added strains (Alang et al., 2017; American Public Health Association, 2018).
Click here for a list of educational resources I have compiled on race.
A consequence of police brutality that is often overlooked, is the loss of productivity. These come in the forms of legal, medical, and funeral bills that cause financial burdens which can add to stress and anxiety. Being injured during a physical altercation with the police could produce the accumulation of medical bills. Incarceration could result in a loss of employment and excessive court fees or costs to get a car out of impound. If the victim is killed during the incident, it leaves the family to use personal time to take off work and grieve.
Lastly, all these consequences lead to further distrust between Black communities and law enforcement agencies. This can cause communities to fear the police, preventing them from utilizing services in times of emergencies and disasters (Alang et al., 2017). People will be less likely to call the police if a crime is committed, possibly putting themselves and others in danger.
Interventions for Police Brutality
To solve the problem of Public Brutality we must look at it as a social problem that doesn’t have a simple solution. We must intervene on an individual, community, and systems level. Focusing on the inequalities that lead to these criminalized behaviors, the resources available to assist these communities, and the policy and laws that protect police officers. During these times, community leaders and groups like Black Lives Matter have begun pushing for the Defunding the Police.
- We have to work with individuals who are in and out of the criminal justice system. This would include treatment for mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Working individually to break these cycles and promote prosperity in Black communities.
- We need to work with Police Departments to give diversity training to officers to combat their personal biases.
- Black Lives Matter uses an approach to addressing the social determinants of health. This creates an increase in resources for mental health and substance abuse treatment, more community programming, and increases in educational and employment opportunities for Black communities
These things give more opportunities to those who previously might have had to turn to criminal activities to provide for themselves and their families (American Public Health Association, 2018).
The American Public Health Association (2018) urges increasing funding for research for the consequences of police brutality on both, and individual and community levels.
- More research will make it easier for policy change and the implementation of new laws to protect citizens.
- This should also include the elimination of laws, policies, and union contracts that allow for the criminalization of black populations and protect police officers from accountability and discipline (American Public Health Association, 2018).
In conclusion, Police brutality is not a new issue. Despite protests and social outrage, police brutality is still a serious problem that is destroying marginalized communities. White supremacists have been using the media to spread fear and racism in the public justifying the criminalization of the Black community.
This has been detrimental to Black males who are profiled and experience police brutality at higher rates. It is everyone’s basic human rights to the same wealth, privileges, and opportunities.
We have failed our Black males who are funneled in and out of the criminal justice system. We need to see changes on all levels if we’re going to be able to fix these terrible wrongs.
A Brief History of the Drug War. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war
Agee, C. (2017). Crisis and Redemption: The History of American Police Reform since World War II. Journal of Urban History, 009614421770546.
American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.) Racial Profiling: Definition. Retrieved February 25, 2020, from https://www.aclu.org/other/racial-profiling-definition
American Public Health Association. (2018, November 18). Addressing Law Enforcement Violence as a Public Health Issue. Retrieved March 12, 2020, from https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2019/01/29/law-enforcement-violence
Alang, S., McAlpine, D., McCreedy, E., & Hardeman, R. (2017). Police Brutality and Black Health: Setting the Agenda for Public Health Scholars. American Journal of Public Health, 107(5), 662-665.
Civil Rights Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.adl.org/education/resources/backgrounders/civil-rights-movement
Cooper, H. (2015). War on Drugs Policing and Police Brutality. Substance Use & Misuse, 50(8-9), 1188-1194.
Hansen, C. (2019, July 10). Slave Patrols: An Early Form of American Policing. Retrieved February 18, 2020, from https://lawenforcementmuseum.org/2019/07/10/slave-patrols-an-early-form-of-american-policing
History.com Editors. (2010, June 01). Black Codes. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-codes
Mapping Police Violence. (n.d.). Retrieved February 8, 2020, from https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/
Pratt-Harris, N., Sinclair, M., Bragg, C., Williams, N., Ture, K., Smith, B., . . . Brown, L. (2016). Police-involved homicide of unarmed Black males: Observations by Black scholars in the midst of the April 2015 Baltimore uprising. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 26(3-4), 377-389.
The History of Police Brutality, and What it Means for You. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2020, from https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/the-history-of-police-brutality-and-what-it-means-for-you-40344
White Supremacist. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white supremacist
U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: United States. (2020, June 25). Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219