Defining Police Brutality in the U.S

Contrary to popular opinion, police brutality is not a new issue nor is it limited to the United States. It has a long global history. However, the first step in understanding the different aspects of police brutality is defining it. In the American context, Britannica defines it as, ‘the unwarranted or excessive and often illegal use of force against civilians by U.S police officers.’

Actions that may be regarded as police brutality include physical assault and battery, torture, manhandling and murder. However, many consider verbal and physical harassment, threats and false arrests to constitute police brutality as well. On a broader scale, the term police brutality also applies to abuses of power by other elements of law enforcement as well. Some examples include corrections officers and military personnel.

Amnesty International considers police brutality to be a human rights issue. Unlawful use of force can result in people being deprived of their basic right to live. In addition, ‘it can violate the right to be free from discrimination, the right to liberty, and security and the right to equal protection under the law.’

While, historically, members of all races have been subjected to brutality at the hands of law enforcement, the figures tend to show disproportionately higher number of incidents of police brutality reported by minorities such as African Americans, Muslims etc. While such incidents have often been the acts of rogue officers, there have been incidents which have had the tacit approval of their superiors as well. More often than not, perpetrators have escaped adequate punishment.

A Brief History of Policing and Police Brutality

Slave Patrols and the Taxes Rangers

One of the earliest forms of policing were the slave patrols form in the 18th century in the Southern United States. These were organized groups of armed white men that were formed to monitor and enforce discipline on enslaved African Americans. The first known slave patrol was formed in 1704 in South Carolina. From there the idea spread out to all states where slavery was legal. These groups, eventually, became the first publically funded police force in the American South.

These groups went from vigilantes to becoming legally recognized entities and were mainly responsible for capturing and punishing fugitive slaves, dealing with slave rebellions, and punishing and disciplining slaves as well as indentured servants. These patrols came to have exert immense influence and were given extraordinary powers. They could enter homes by force based on mere suspicions, could subject slaves and indentured servants to severe beatings and other forms of punishment and could do all this with impunity.

These patrols remained active until the end of the American Civil War. Once slavery was abolished, members of slave patrols joined militias, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and some, eventually, joined the earliest police forces. Once the Black Codes – laws restricting the rights of the freed slaves – were put in place, the police forces took on the role of monitoring, policing and regulating the movement of African Americans.

Another important part of early policing history is the formation of the Texas Rangers. The Texas Rangers were formed in 1823 to protect the interests of white colonists. They used methods ranging from extreme harassment and intimidation to outright violence and murder. They were actively involved in investigating indigenous people accused of perpetrating crimes against white settlers. They participated in extrajudicial murders and lynch mobs. They were active in an area of Texas that was, then a part of Mexico, before it transitioned into the Republic of Texas before, eventually, joining the United States. They were, then, recognized as a formal law enforcement agency.

Early Police Departments

The police, as we know it today, was not a formally recognized and organized institution until the 1830s and 1840s in the northern cities in an attempt to manage the rapid population growth resulting from migration. The first organized police department was founded in Boston in 1838. While the initial intended targets of policing were European immigrants, African-Americans fleeing the South increasingly became the most frequent victims of harsh tactics. Other cities quickly followed suits; police departments were established in New York City (1845), Albany in (1851), Chicago (1851), New Orleans (1853), Cincinnati (1853), Philadelphia (1855), Newark (1857) and Baltimore (1857). By the 1880s, nearly all major US cities had established police departments.

Most historians agree that initial policing in the US had two common characteristics – corruption and open brutality. Police, initially, were under the control of local politicians who would, frequently, be tavern owners or gang leaders. The chief of police, appointed by local ward leaders, were expected to follow all their orders and whims, which often included voter intimidation, protecting their business interests, and harassing opponents. Often, these police officials had little or no training and were frequently involved in taking bribes and kickbacks. It became common practice to use threats and violence to resolve conflicts. Immigrants were often at the receiving end of flagrant brutality while criminal operations owned by politicians and other influential figures were ignored.

Police after the Civil War

The US went through many socio-economic changes after the civil war. Industrialization and urbanization grew exponentially. This lead to a rise in organized labor movements and the formation of unions. Police was frequently used as a tool by the economic elite to break the strikes organized by the unions. Police used tactics such as extreme violence and mass arrests. Often, privatized police forces and private detective agencies such as Pinkerton were involved. These led to massacres and long drawn out battles with many casualties. One example is the Latimer Massacre of 1897 in which 19 miners, mostly European immigrants, were killed by a Lexeme County Sheriff’s posse. Many more were wounded. As a result of similar incidents resulting in mass scale violence, most state governments began the process of establishing police forces with State-wide jurisdictions.

The abolition of slavery was not the end of the persecution faced by the freed slaves. Many states resorted to passing what became known as the Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century. These laws aimed to restrict the new social, economic and political liberties for African Americans. They were subjected to discrimination, segregation and were frequent victims of extreme injustice, prejudice and violence. This era saw the formation of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and an increase in lynching’s, mob murders and other forms of race driven harassment and violence. A lot of this happened with the support and, even, participation of the local police. It is estimated that nearly half of all lynchings had some form of police participation. Black Americans escaping from this violence often found no respite even when fleeing to the North. Police departments treated local migrants such as African Americans or international immigrants such as the Irish, Italians and Chinese with extreme contempt.

Prohibition and the Hoover Administration

In 1919, the US Congress passed the National Prohibition Act which prohibited the production, sale, trade, transport, possession and consumption of any liquor having an alcoholic content of 0.5% or more. Criminal elements took over the production, importation and distribution of alcoholic beverages. This brought in a new wave of increase in criminal activities and made many criminals, such as the infamous Al Capone, extremely rich.

However, the enforcement of this law was difficult. The rich mafia bosses and gang leaders were able to bribe law enforcement officers to turn a blind eye to these activities. During the Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 to 1933, the police became rife with corruption. While in some cases they merely ignored the criminal activities, in many cases they were active participants and even acted as enforcers for mob bosses. Police officers frequently harassed, intimidated and even murdered rivals of the criminals that paid them.

The Illinois Crime Survey was published by the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice in 1929. The survey was conducted in 1927 and 1928 with the aim of trying to understand the causes for the high crime rates in Chicago and Cook County. The survey also provided an important reflection of racism in police activities – while African

Americans only constituted 5% of the local population, they made up 30% of the number of victims killed by the police.

The issue came to the forefront of national politics during the Hoover administration which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Under Attorney General George W. Wickersham, what came to be known as the Wickersham Commission was formed to investigate the reasons for the widespread violations of the Prohibition. The resulting report concluded that the use of police brutality was rampant and was often used as a tool to misguide or tamper with investigations by obtaining false confessions. This resulted in steps being taken by the federal government and the justice department to respect the due process clause of the 14th Amendment which addresses citizenship rights and equity of protection under the law to all Americans regardless of race or origin.

As a result of the various landmark legal judgments and other measures to curb the use of excessive force, the police department went to reforms and massive transformation. The police was professionalized and became more bureaucratic with a clear chain of command. The precincts were altered to ensure that they no longer overlapped with political wards. Police, as a result, was considerably depoliticized.

New procedures and practices were enforced to recruit, train and reward police. Police officers formed unions, and demanded benefits such as insurance, better wages and greater overall funding. While many aspects of policing improved, abuses of power continued. Racism remained rampant, and brutality and cruelty took new forms.

Police Brutality in the Civil Rights Era

While the Civil Rights Era is known for the social, civil and political reforms it is little known that police brutality was among the leading causes behind the movement. Whether via active participation or passive acceptance of the violent actions of others, police departments were actively engaged in acts of cruelty towards African Americans and other minorities. Some notable incidents include Rosa Parks’ arrest (1955), violence against the Freedom Riders (1961), the Birmingham Campaign (1963-64) and the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965). In addition to law enforcement agencies engaging in violence against activists and other members of the Black community, police officers condoned attacks on African Americans and helped cover up numerous crimes against them by white Americans.

Such incidents of extreme injustice and cruelty gained national media coverage and sparked national outrage and public sympathy for the movement. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently criticized such police actions in his speeches.

Police used violent dispersal methods such as setting police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors. This, in addition to the seemingly daily violence faced by the Black community, built a distrust of law enforcement authorities on a local and national level. As a result, the era was marked by numerous riots resulting as a

 response to police violence again various minorities. One of the deadliest riots happened in Newark in 1967 as a reaction to the beating of a Black cab driver by the police at a routine traffic stop. Other notable riots include the Harlem Riot (1964), the Philadelphia Race Riots (1964), Watts Riots (1965), Division Street Riots (1966) and the Detroit Riot (1967). A consequence of the violent behavior of the law enforcement against members of the African American community was the formation of the Black Panther Party (BPP).

The BPP was a revolutionary socialist political organization formed to fight against the injustice faced by Black Americans especially at the hands of the police. Members of the organization were armed and used citizen patrols to monitor police activities. Clashes between the BPP and various police departments resulted in at least 34 deaths of BPP members and 15 police officers.

Brutality was not exclusive to African Americans. In 1968, Native Americans founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) as a result of wide spread cruelty and discrimination they were subjected to by the law enforcement agencies. The Civil Rights Movement and the AIM was targeted by the FBI and other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in order to divide the groups and create chaos within the movements. Police infiltrated the organizations, participated in protests and sit-ins with malicious intent, and even assassinated leaders. Prominent leaders that were assassinated by the various agencies include Malcom X, Mark Clark, Fred Hampton, Anna Mae Aquash and many others. In addition, many other leaders and participants were arrested and tortured. However, while the Civil Rights Movement was successful in improving the social, economic and political aspects of life for African Americans and other minorities, it did not bring an end to police brutality.

Police Brutality during the Vietnam War and the War on Drugs

The Vietnam War was the first war that a lot of Americans experienced from their living rooms through their television sets. While the war faced some opposition from the on-set, the nightly news of the 60, 000 American casualties as well as the 2 million Vietnamese deaths lead to an increase in the anti-war sentiment. This led to large scale protests and demonstrations that the police tried to quell, often resorting to the use of Billy clubs and tear gas. One of the most notable incidents is when some rogue police officers took off their badges and attacked protesters and journalists at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Another major incident was when the police shot at protesters gathered at People’s Park in Berkeley, California in May 1969. The Kent State University shooting on 13 students by the National Guard in 1970 is another major incident where law enforcement used extreme violence. Most of these incidents of brutality, however, were not driven by race but instead by an abuse of authority encourage by the lack of consequences faced by officials in the past.

President Nixon, in 1971, declared a War on Drugs which resulted in greater police funding, stricter policing and laws, and expansion of powers. Some examples include no-knock warrants and mandatory sentencing.

This, however, resulted in greater police misconduct. The War allowed police to stop and frisk at will and resulted in the creation and empowerment of militarized police units such as the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units. Once again, police brutality was on the rise with minorities facing the brunt of the violence.

Post 9/11 Policing

Few events have tested American unity and perseverance more than the tragic attacking on September 11th, 2001. However, a report published by the UNHCR in 2006 found that the War on Terror resulting from the 9/11 attacks created a feeling of impunity among law enforcement officials and had a negative impact on civilian control of law enforcement agencies. As a resulted police brutality ran unabated and almost unchecked throughout the United States. The war on terror resulted in new laws and policies that further empowered these agencies. A drastic increase in racial and religious profiling and use of excessive force was reported against people from South Asian, Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds. This era saw an increase in the use of tasers which resulted in at least 150 deaths between 2001 and 2007 which can be attributed to this supposedly non-lethal weapon. Police and other agencies could engage in more surveillance activities such as wiretapping and hacking without going through the various legal procedures that were required in the past. There have been reports of manhandling during investigations and interrogations as well as the use of torture by the FBI and other agencies. There has also been an increase in the mistreatment of Muslim prisoners by corrections officers.

George Floyd’s Death and BLM

Despite the connectivity and awareness offered by new technologies such as the various social media platforms, police brutality seems to be an endless phenomenon. For instance, in 2020, there have been only 12 days so far where the police have not killed someone in the United States. Black people are 3 times more likely to be killed in comparison to white people, whereas they are only 1.3 times more likely to be armed than white people. Black people account for 28% of all Americans killed by the police despite only accounting for 13% of the population. According to the most recent figures provided by mappingpoliceviolence, 781 people have been killed by the police in 2020 so far.

While, there have been nearly countless deaths at the hands of police and other enforcement agencies, it is George Floyd’s death that has brought this issue to the forefront once again. George Floyd was a 46 year old African American man killed by members of the Minneapolis police force when a store clerk reported the use of counterfeit currency. While George Floyd had a criminal record, he had been living an honest life trying to make ends meet by working as a truck driver and a bouncer. However, his criminal past offers no justification to his death at the hands of the police. The whole incident was caught on tape and spread on social media like wild fire. In the video, Derek Chauvin, now a former police officer, can be seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes despite Floyd’s repeated cries of his inability to breathe. The death has been classified as a homicide caused by cardiopulmonary arrest resulting from excessive force during subdual and arrest.

The Black Lives Matter movement can trace its history back to the needless death of a Black teenager Treyvon Martin at the hands of a neighborhood watch coordinator in 2012. Police response to the shooting left much to be desired. This resulted in the movement that began with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Floyd’s death gave the movement national and international media coverage and brought it to the forefront of American politics and debate. It is estimated that 15 to 26 million people have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement in some capacity. However, despite this shift in popularity of the movement and the overwhelming support it has achieved locally, nationally and internationally, there have been incidents where even protesters and activists engaged in the BLM movement have been subjected to police brutality.

Comparison with other countries

While the United States has been in the headlines because of the BLM movement, police brutality is a global phenomenon. Here are some figures provided by Amnesty International that show the global nature of the problem:

  1. Police killed 1810 people in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2019.
  2. Police killed 122 people in Kenya in 2019.
  3. Police in Iraq killed around 600 protestors between October 2019 and January 2020.
  4. Jamaican police shot and killed more than 500 people between 2015 and 2018.
  5. Nearly 1000 people are killed by police annually in the United States.

How to eliminate police brutality

Over the decades and, perhaps, the centuries there have been numerous civilian movements that have been caused by and have been a direct response to police brutality. There have been numerous reforms to police departments in the United States. Social Media has put the institution under immense scrutiny. However, police brutality shows no signs of stopping completely.

There are various studies that have addressed the causes and many organizations, leaders and movements have offered proposals aimed at stopping this issue once and for all. Here is a list of measures that, in the long run, could make a difference:

  1. Remove clauses and language in police union contracts that limit accountability. Some examples are provisions for the dismissal of some types of complaints, limiting disciplinary actions and access to privileged information when an officer is under investigation. Instead, clauses that clearly outline consequences of unlawful actions should be included. There should be greater emphasis on accountability.
  1. Complaints against officers’ use of excessive force should be made public. They should be made a part of their permanent record. Also, the process of filing complaints should be made easier and the consequent investigation process should be made more transparent for the complainants.
  2. Police officers should be trained to handle emergencies involving people with mental health issues. Figures indicate that nearly 1 in 4 people killed by the police were facing some form of mental illness. Additionally, mental health workers can be empowered to attend to emergencies where mental health issues are evident.
  3. Limiting police autonomy may also work. Some form of federal oversight such as by the Department of Justice may work. Figures indicate that shootings in jurisdictions of police departments going through federal investigations have dropped by 27% to 35%.
  4. Police should be demilitarized. Reinstating limits on the gear and weapons that are sold to local law enforcement agencies may have a positive impact.
  5. Recruitment processes should include psychological evaluations and a background checks. This can help limit the induction of racist police officers or those with violent tendencies.
  6. There should be a greater emphasis on training. This includes a greater focus on non-lethal means of restraint and subdual. This can include greater emphasis on training for de-escalation techniques as well as diversity training to reduce systematic racism.

There should be more restrictive laws on the excessive use of force.


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