An act of violence against any innocent person eludes moral justification, disgraces the millions of Americans and people throughout the world who have united in peaceful protest against police brutality, and dishonors our proud inheritance of nonviolent resistance.
– Benjamin Crump
The constant struggle between the effective use of law enforcement and police brutality has come to a head in recent years with standout examples such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray. This is an issue that has roots in racial tensions, law enforcement techniques, and perceptions of police and minority groups. This issue area has also been the triggering event for large scale protests and the formations of groups such as Black Lives Matter, a movement that has become politically powerful across the nation. This issue is also, unfortunately, cyclical, with this topic returning the forefront of the nation’s conscious after incidents of alleged police maleficence through racial profiling and undue use of force. However, as time continues, the issue of how to address this issue has and will become ever more important for our civil society to continue to flourish.
The history of this issue in its modern context truly started with an incident involving Rodney King in 1991. Rodney King, an African American male, began his infamous night by drinking alcohol with his friends at a local park. As the evening progressed, King proceeded to drive his car, under the influence of alcohol, while “King knew, as he later testified, that he was drunk and that if the police caught him speeding he’d soon be back in prison for violating parole.” After first seeing police lights in his rear-view mirror, King started an eight mile car chase culminating in “a small army of cop cars…and a Los Angeles Police Department chopper.” When finally stopped, four male officers tried to handcuff King and King was shot twice by a Taser. Following the second tasing, a bystander with a video camera “captured five officers pummeling Rodney King with batons more than 50 times as he struggled on the ground outside his car.” Reactions to the footage were overwhelming disgusted, many believing that the officers were out of line in the way in which they exercised their use of force; even George Bush referred to the video as “revolting.” This anger was amplified exponentially after the acquittal of all the police officers involved in the beating, when, after the announcement of the acquittal, “the worst American riot in this century began.” The LA riots lasted three days, killing 53, injuring 2,300, and causing $1 billion in property damage.
As a result of these riots, there was a large push for policy reform within the Los Angeles Police Department. To achieve this goal, the city government formed the Christopher Commission. This commission found that “only forty-two of 2,152 allegations of excessive force from 1986 to 1990 were sustained – or less than 2 percent.” However, “[t]he majority of investigations at that time were done by division staff, not IAD, and the commission found this seriously problematic because division investigators often failed even to interview or identify witnesses.”
After Rodney King and the LA Riots, there have been many other instances of police brutality in many other places within the United States. One of the most gruesome was the assault of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant to the United States. In 1997, Louima was “brought to the stationhouse of the 70th Precinct where New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers took Louima into the bathroom, beat him severely, and sodomized him with the handle of a plunger.” While there was also a study released by Amnesty International which found that there was an “alarming pattern of excessive force by NYPD officers, local authorities predictably refused to recognize that the Louima incident might represent something more than an isolated occurrence.” But what has been found to be true is that “[w]hile the Louima case is unique in its brutal detail, similar incidents involving excessive force occur with disturbing frequency across the nation.”
Bringing the issue forward to the past couple of years, there have been many high-profile incidents involving excessive police force and racial bias in policing. The one that was a catalyst for much of the nation in recent history was the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Martin was a 17 year old African American male, who was fatally shot during a confrontation with George Zimmerman, a crime-watch volunteer. Before the confrontation with Martin, Zimmerman “called the cops to report a ‘suspicious person’ in the neighborhood.” Zimmerman claimed that during the altercation, he “acted in self-defense” while others believe that “Trayvon was confronted – and ultimately shot to death – because he was black.” This incident led to George Zimmerman being charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter of Trayvon Martin. The jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges, which led to small Los Angeles riots, death threats made towards Zimmerman, and marches protesting the verdict.
Following this shooting death there would be more similar high-profile cases, such as the shooting of the unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in 2014. This shooting also led to “protests that roiled the area for weeks”, and after the announcement that Wilson was not to be indicted; there was another wave of protests. What is different from other similar cases, the “Justice Department called on Ferguson to overhaul its criminal justice system, declaring that the city had engaged in constitutional violations.”
Only months before the shooting death of Michael Brown, there was also the death of Eric Garner during a confrontation with police in Staten Island, NY. During Garner’s confrontation with the police, “[a]n amateur video taken during Garner’s arrest shows a plainclothes police officer placing him in what appears be a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy.” After his death, the city medical examiner ruled “the death of Eric Garner…a homicide, saying a chokehold killed him.”
These incidents are not unusual, as mentioned previously, and statistics have shown that there are a large number of deaths caused by law enforcement. Between 1999 and 2013, there have been “between 279 (in 2000) to 507 (in 2012) people … killed each year by legal intervention or law enforcement, other than by legal execution.” During the time period of this study, “there was a 45 percent increase in deaths from legal intervention” in which “96 percent of these deaths occurred among men, of which 78 percent occurred between the ages of 15 and 44 years.” Within the age range of 15 to 44 years, the demographics that had the highest rates of death from legal intervention were American Indians or Alaska Natives, while “blacks and African Americans, and other white Hispanics or Latinos all had rates that were significantly higher than those experienced by non-Hispanic whites and Asians or Pacific Islanders.” In 2016 there were 1092 United States citizens killed by the police. During another study, it was found that “[n]early two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI.” What these numbers have shown is that “the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, MO., last Saturday was not an isolated event in American policing.” Within the report, the demographic breakdown showed that “18% of the blacks killed during those seven years were under age 21, compared to 8.7% of whites”, showing that black individuals were killed at a rate double their white counterparts of the same age.
There is also a final aspect of this view point that is key: police prosecution. While there have been “thousands of fatal shootings at the hands of police since 2005” yet “only 54 officers have been charged.” From those that have been charged, “[m]ost were cleared or acquitted in that cases that have been resolved.” These facts point towards a lack of accountability through the courts of the police. Without a means of finding justice in the judicial system many feel that the police have been placed in a position that they are able to conduct themselves as they please.
This, then, continues the cycle of police brutality in communities as officers are not held accountable for their actions in the legal system.
Over the next few weeks, in our new series “Police Use of Force,” I will explore the issue of police brutality. I will try to research and uncover policies that may be useful in drastically reducing the amount of incidents of unwarranted and inexcusable use of force. Please check back soon for the next installation in this series.
Image Source: ABC