On the surface, incidences of police brutality may appear to be nothing more than trigger-happy and power hungry cops who give a bad reputation to an otherwise ethical and moral police force. In many respects, this statement is true. A few rotten apples often affect attitudes towards the entire barrel, yet many police officers care about their communities, want to do some good in those communities, and hold human life to the utmost importance. It is important to recognize, however, the racist and discriminatory tendencies riddled throughout the criminal justice system and substantiated in our law enforcement across the nation. Such tendencies are embedded in the United States from a long history of genocide, enslavement, and segregation committed by our ancestors and still felt to this day by those it affected. Racism, prejudice, and discrimination is still alive and well in a nation where we would love to forget about it. Unfortunately for them, it is perpetuated every day from media outlets portraying stereotypes of minorities, to our court system where minorities face discrimination at nearly every level of the court process including the prosecutor’s decision whether to charge and the sentence issued by the judge. The severe beating of Rodney King in 1991 by police officers in LA and the resulting LA riots would set into a motion a series of events that brought race to the forefront of the conversation regarding police brutality and misuse of force.
Police brutality is defined as using “excessive physical force or verbal assault” in the pursuance of a crime or the apprehension of an offender (1). Where deadly use of force crosses the line to police brutality is when the use of force exceeds that which is necessary to create a calm and safe environment. According to the Washington Post as of May 30th, 2015, there have been 385 fatal police shootings in so far in 2015 (2). Of those 385 victims, 27% were Black despite Blacks only representing around 14% of the total U.S. population (2). Whites, on the other hand, accounted for 46% of the victims while they represent around 63% of the total U.S. population (2). Blacks are, therefore, overrepresented as victims of fatal police shootings while Whites are underrepresented as victims of fatal police shootings. Furthermore, of the 62 victims who were unarmed when fatally shot, 66% of them were either Black or Hispanic (2). The more publicized incidences of police brutality and misuse of force have sparked a massive response from the public which has resulted in the formation of activist movements such as Black Lives Matter. These movements have made a huge impact on society’s understanding of why Blacks are disproportionately victimized by excessive use of force.
At the heart of the issue is underlying ideas of race including stereotypes we attribute to certain races that affect how we perceive the entirety of the group. Aggression and violence is typically applied to Blacks and is further perpetuated by media outlets such as music and television. Typical portrayals of African Americans as gangsters, drug dealers, and pimps as well as lyrics in rap and hip-hop music that promote violence contributes to society’s behaviors and attitudes towards Blacks. Such stereotypes culminate into the view of Blacks as the prototypical criminal (3). It is no wonder, then, that disproportionate numbers of Blacks are fatally shot by police as there is a greater perceived imminent threat regardless of whether they are armed with a weapon or not. Furthermore, the concept of “negro-phobia” is used to describe the fear of Blacks, specifically the fear of being victimized by Blacks (3). Tamir Rice serves as a prime example of negro-phobia.
Warning: May be graphic for some viewers.
- How does the Cleveland Police Department’s response to Tamir Rice after the 9-1-1 call reflect ideas of negro-phobia? Do you believe they were justified in their use of force? How could they have handled the situation differently, if at all, to avoid fatally shooting Tamir Rice?
- Where did these stereotypes of Blacks come from? Where did they originate from in United States history?
Several theories are utilized to explain perceptions of race and police brutality. Social Dominance Theory posits that Whites are the dominant group and, therefore, do not consider police brutality as serious when it disproportionately affects subordinate groups such as Blacks and Hispanics. Whites, then, tend to justify excessive use of force against Blacks, stating that they deserve harsh treatment because they shouldn’t resist arrest, shouldn’t wear “thug” or “gangster” clothes, and shouldn’t partake in drugs. Studies have reflected this theory, as 38% of Whites and 89% of Blacks view the criminal justice system as biased against Blacks, whereas 8% of Blacks and 56% of Whites saw the criminal justice system as treating Blacks fairly. What results is rewards such as promotions, rather than punishments, being given to police officers who commit these acts. Police officers are also exceedingly found not guilty of their charges if taken to court and acquitted with little to no hesitance despite strong evidence such as camcorder footage, witness testimony, and expert analysis being present. Eric Garner’s case involves the acquittal of a police officer charged with the murder of Garner despite overwhelming evidence at odds with the acquittal.
Warning: May be graphic for some viewers (fast-forward to 4:32 to arrive at the onset of the altercation although commentary at the beginning is important).
- Should Pantaleo, the NYPD police officer who applied the rear naked chokehold, have been found guilty? If so, what charge would you have given to him and why? If not, why do you believe it was the right decision for Pantaleo to be acquitted?
Social Impact Theory, on the other hand, studies situational factors that can augment attitudes towards misuse of force. Specifically, the number of shots fired and the number of officers present are tested to see if they have a positive or negative effect on perceptions of excessive use of force. Results showed that as the number of officers decreased and the number of shots increased, perceptions of excessive use of force were augmented (3) The Amadou Diallo and Michael Brown shootings are cases in which a high number of shots were fired with relatively few officers present at the crime scene.
- Which theory do you believe affects society’s perceptions of police brutality the most? What other theories/factors play a role?
As mentioned previously, not all police officers are bad and a very small portion of police officers are making headlines for excessive use of force. Law enforcement should be commended for their duty to protect and serve their communities in an ethical and moral manner. Racism and discrimination embedded in the criminal justice system, however, should not be ignored and thought of as nonexistent.
(1) Chaney, C., & Robertson, R. V. (2013). “Racism and Police Brutality in America.” Journal of African American Studies. 17(3): 480-505. Online.
(2) Kindy, K. (2015). “Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide.” Washington Post. Online.
(3) Perkins, J. E., & Bourgeois, M. J. (2006). “Perceptions of Police Use of Deadly Force.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 36(1):161-177. Online.