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In 2014 the police shooting of Michael Brown and the chokehold death of Michael Garner sparked nationwide protests, civil unrests and debates about police brutality, race and the use of excessive militarized force against criminal suspects. Although these incidents were high-profile and extensively covered in the media in the U.S. and abroad, police brutality has been a hotly controversial contested issue for decades (Newburn). From the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s, to the Rodney King beating and L.A. Riots in 1991 and the racially inspired police protest riots of 2014, controversy surrounding police brutality is nothing new (Bandes).
According to Blacks Law Dictionary, police brutality “is the use of excessive and/or unnecessary force by police when dealing with civiliansa force well beyond what would be necessary in order to handle a situation (288). The term police brutality usually involves physical harm. However, it “may also involve psychological harm through the use of intimidation tactics beyond the scope of officially sanctioned police procedure” (Bandes 14). Police brutality is not simply misconduct, such as violating a person constitutional rights or unlawful search or seizure; it is even more than using unnecessary force to subdue a suspect. Police brutality is not “bending the rules” or making a mistake. It is police behavior that involves the abuse of authority. According to legal historian Susan Bandes, it “involves active malice on the part of the police, taken in bad faith, with the intent to dehumanize and degrade its target” (16). There is also a disturbing racial element to most police brutality, mostly directed at African-Americans and Hispanics from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Alexander). It is "conscious, venal, usually concealed, directed toward those of marginal credibility and status” (Bandes 17).
The first known printed use of "police brutality" was in the New York Times in 1893, describing a police officer's horrific beating of an unarmed Irish immigrant (Newburn 11). Historically, police brutality was often systematic and institutionally sanctioned, at least at the local level. This was often the case in the South during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement, when local law enforcement had official methods of brutalizing protestors and minorities (Long Road to Justice). Today, police brutality is not officially acceptable after a series of governmental commissions, reforms and legislations created a system where victims can sue police and the government in civil court. Moreover, police departments, courts and city governments usually describe incidents of police brutality as anecdotal, fragmented, and isolated rather than as part of a systemic, institutional pattern. However, there is still a “blue wall” or “omerta” of solidarity between police that continues to create police forces that condone or at least turn a blind eye to police brutality (Alexander 66). There has been a great deal of research that indicates that police brutality is still an institutional problem, not just a few bad apples (Newburn 12). Institutionalized police brutality has been attributed to a corrupt police subculture, a war-like militarized “us vs. them” mentality, and a deviant type of psychology where police officers get a thrill off of abusing their authority and controlling others (Alexander 81).
Like the recent examples of Michael Brown and Michael Garner, the most significant examples of police brutality in American history have been against African Americans. After the Civil War, during the Jim Crow era which officially began in 1890, blacks were the victims of institutional racism (Alexander 18). Lynching was a common method used by police to persecute and terrorize blacks, and they had very little legal recourse and even fewer rights if they got into a courtroom well into the early 1900’s, lynching was “accepted as a method of imposing law and order in the South and maintaining a social caste system” (Long Road to Justice). At the time, groups like the Ku Klux Klan would attack and kill blacks with impunity, unofficially sanctioned by the local authorities. The police “were not interested in prosecuting white-on-black violence and could also avoid culpability for abusing the civil rights of Black residents” (Long Road to Justice). At this time in American history, police brutality was conducted “under the guise of law and order” (Long Road to Justice). During the Civil Rights Movement, blacks protested in the streets for equality, and were often arrested, sprayed with high pressure fire hoses, attacked and imprisoned by police. There were a number of police beatings and killings which were never prosecuted (Klarman 8). However, the era did lead to legislation that defined police brutality, created police oversight commissions and established legal recourse for victims. Although it was still very difficult to prosecute police in criminal court, a victim could sue in civil court, and be rewarded damages (Klarman 12).
Some researchers and writers believe there is still a form of Jim Crow style laws that prosecute black behavior and treat minorities unfairly in a rigged legal system that is set up to oppress them. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the entire legal system, from local policing through the court system to Congress are racially motivated to persecute minorities. The book particularly investigates that ways the Drug War and incarceration of young black men are institutional constructs. They are all a form of “brutality” implemented to reinforce a racial caste system and to ensure a socioeconomic underclass dependent on governmental control. Alexander concludes that not much has changed since the Jim Crow era, the police can act with impunity and violate the rights of minorities because the system is corrupt from bottom to top.
After the gross abuses of the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement had created a political and social landscape where police brutality was no longer acceptable. In 1991 a new era emerged in the history of police brutality. Video cameras had become widely accessible and a recording emerged showing a black man named Rodney King being beaten “mercilessly with batons” (The L.A. Riots). The city was already racially divided. The tape “sent shockwaves around the world and enraged the already frustrated Los Angeles African American community, which felt that racial profiling and abuse by the police had long gone unchecked” (The L.A. Riots). A year later all five police officers were acquitted at the hands of an all white jury. Almost instantly, the L.A. Riots erupted, leading to over fifty deaths. It was also a groundbreaking moment in media coverage of police brutality and a “video introduction to police brutality for those in America who may have doubted its severity” (Bandes 14). For many Americans who did not live in the inner-city, the Rodney King tape offered damning evidence that some police were abusing their authorities. This increased consciousness of the reality of police brutality set the stage for a number of further reforms, such as the Christopher and Kolts Commissions' reports, whose recommendations have become laws that are in place today to curb police brutality.
However, the problem persists, and is recorded and disseminated much more virally than in 1991. In 2014, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot an unarmed black named Michael Brown. The circumstances involving the shooting were unclear and contested, however, like the Rodney King incident, there were a number of factors that contributed to the subsequent civil unrest (Newburn). The community of Ferguson was mostly black, the police force almost completely white (Zubiaga, Arkaitz, et al 41). Along with this ever present racial element to discourse, there were also media issues involved. The video tape changed the narrative of the Rodney King incident, and likewise social media changed the landscape of the Ferguson unrest. Recent research showed that social media like Facebook and Twitter were used to spread both useful information and rumors which fueled the civil unrest and rioting (Zubiaga, Arkaitz, et al.). Moreover, there was a growing consensus that American civilian police departments had become overly militarized, utilizing tanks, protective armor and assault rifles procured from the U.S. Government after a decade of wars abroad (Kraska). The culture of police, which was long believed to contribute to brutality against minorities, was also becoming militarized. Instead of to “serve and protect” and practicing interactive community policing, police are retreating into a battlefield mentality (Kraska). Like the Rodney King incident, the lack of prosecution against the police officer who killed Michael Brown led to riots, but also to positive commitments to investigate problems and implement long term changes that may alleviate the problem. The police act of “racial profiling”, which is based on suspicion and probable cause based on skin color is increasingly under attack (Smith & Holmes). Another response to the Michael Brown shooting is the increased use of body cameras to monitor police activity. Finally, Congress is investigating the process of giving local police military equipment and may pass laws curtailing this process (Pilkington).
Policing the police is a good idea, however the subculture of police and the institutions and ideology that supports police brutality are the root causes of the problem and need further investigation (Newburn). A recurring theme in police brutality investigations is that the criminals get what they deserve, even if it is not done “by the book” (Bandes 22). Criminals are seen as wild animals and police are societies last line of defense. This has been called the “Dirty Harry Syndrome”, named after a series of police movies that portrays a police detective who basically murders criminals to the delight of the audience (Bandes 15). These societal beliefs support police brutality. It would be positive to believe that police brutality is a thing of the past, or the act of a few bad cops. However “anecdotal” stories like Rodney King, Michael Brown and others may seem isolated, but they all share a common racial theme that is disturbing. The narrative is repetitive. A white police officer kills an unarmed black man, usually with some sort of criminal background. There is moral outrage, protests, media coverage, a legal process and then acquittal and an eventual riot. Some commissions are formed, recommendations made and some positive changes enacted. However, this pattern has emerged and continues with consistent regularity. The institutional subculture of policing and the societal fear of criminality seem to encourage an environment that promotes extreme aggression against suspects. The militarization of police and the ability of rumors and misinformation spread by social media add fuel to the fire of the inevitable riots inspired by police brutality.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of
Colorblindness. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Bandes, Susan. "Patterns of injustice: Police brutality in the courts." Buff. L. Rev. 47 (1999): 1275.
Garner, Bryan A., and Henry Campbell Black. Black's Law Dictionary. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 1999. Print.
Klarman, Michael J. "Brown, racial change, and the civil rights movement."Virginia Law Review (1994): 7-150.
Kraska, Peter B. "Militarization and policing—Its relevance to 21st century police." Policing (2007)
"The L.A. Riots: 15 Years After Rodney King." Time. Time Inc., 27 Apr. 2007. Web. 05
"Long Road to Justice - Policing the Police and Prosecuting the Klan." The Leadership
Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Civilrights.org, n.d. Web. 06 Jan. 2015.
Newburn, Tim. "Civil unrest in Ferguson was fuelled by the Black community’s already poor relationship with a highly militarized police force." LSE American Politics and Policy (2014).
Pilkington, Ed. "Urban Shield: After Ferguson, Police and Suppliers Consider Fate of
Military-grade Tactical Gear." The Guardian. N.p., n.d. Web.
Smith, Brad W., and Malcolm D. Holmes. "Community accountability, minority threat, and police brutality"Criminology 41.4 (2003): 1035-1064.
Zubiaga, Arkaitz, et al. "Towards Detecting Rumours in Social Media." (2015).
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