Critical reflection on the disproportionate usage of police force against black citizens in America


In the United States of America, the disproportionate usage of police force against black citizens has proved to be a contentious topic and not a new phenomenon (Fleetwood, 1982). Historically, the issue of excessive force being disproportionally utilised against black Americans has affected many regions within the United States of America; however, honourable mentions go to Miami, due to the three race riots during the 1980s (Dempsey and Forst, 2015), and Los Angeles, for the 1992 Rodney King riots, which resulted in 52 deaths (Waddington, 2013). Despite law enforcement reform brought about by the 1992 Los Angeles riots (Stone, Foglesong and Cole, 2009); race still continues to play a key role in the application of excessive force by the police within contemporary society (Tonry, 2011). In recent years there is sufficient evidence to state that “African American men are “grossly over-represented” in police shootings and other situations involving police use of force” (Chan and Chunn, 2014: 82). For instance, in Ferguson 90% of all cases involving the documented use of police force were committed against African Americans and in every incident involving a canine bite, the person bitten was African American, despite this demographic making up only 67% of the population (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015). The United States Department of Justice has found that a plethora of evidence exists within the Ferguson police department alone which depicts how police officers are racially biased and stereotype against African Americans (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015). Even though the days of black slavery are over and the drive for racial equality in society is at its highest; the reports and protests in contemporary America to be discussed in this essay act as relics of these troubled, racist times; where one of the repercussions has been the devaluation of black lives (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015). This review aims to research and reflect on the disproportionate use of police force on black citizens in America, placing it into its historical, political and social context.

Social Divisions

In the United States of America, right realism emerged during the 1970s and these neo-conservative political ideals soon began to emerge within government policy (Newburn, 2013). One of the strategies which materialised as a result of right realist ideals is the zero-tolerance approach to policing (Ugwudike, 2015). Some of the key elements of this type of policing include the enhanced police and law enforcement responses to minor crime and disorder and the utilisation of COMPSTAT as a means of collecting and mapping crime records and then using these to determine police organisational structure and resource allocation (Newburn, 2013). As a result of these zero tolerance policing strategies, residential areas containing more minority groups which displayed lower economic prosperity and more criminogenic concern became targeted by law enforcement, resulting in a disproportionate amount of contact between the police and minority citizens (Greene and Gabbidon, 2009). This disproportionate contact is also reflected in statistics, while black juveniles were 15% of the general population, they accounted for a total of 51% of violent arrests (Greene and Gabbidon, 2009). These statistics reflect concerns that the law does not affect us all equally in society, as decisions regarding resource allocation and organisational structure in this case disproportionately target ethnic minorities, particularly black citizens (Greene and Gabbidon, 2009).

Many of the actions of law enforcement officers can produce disproportionality through their discretionary decision-making. Since the 1992 Los Angeles riots, biased-based policing has emerged as an issue in many communities (Dempsey and Forst, 2015). Despite techniques such as racial profiling being declared as unconstitutional, many African Americans still accuse the police of using these tactics (Ciment, 2007); this type of policing stereotypically utilises a person’s race in determining whether someone may or may not have committed a crime (Dempsey and Forest, 2015). During the analysation of Ferguson’s police department, a substantial amount of evidence was uncovered which supports how the police utilised racial profiling techniques, purposefully discriminating against the African American population (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015).

There are many situational factors which influence an officer’s front-line discretionary decision making which also need to be considered, for instance the situational factors and risks (Thurman and Giacomazzi, 2007). What this refers to is the scenario in which a law enforcement officer needs to decide to shoot a suspect or not; research has found links between the “disproportionate shooting of black suspects by police officers in several cities to disproportionate situational risks – black suspects were more likely to be armed and shoot at the police” (Thurman and Giacomazzi, 2014: 79). If the police utilise this frame of mind, as a form of racial profiling, it discriminates against the African American community resulting them being disproportionately targeted by the police (Thurman and Giacomazzi, 2014). Evidence suggests that black Americans killed by the police are twice as likely to be unarmed as white people (Swaine, Laughland and Lartey, 2015); if the police utilise these racial profiling techniques it can help account for these statistics due to their stereotyping of African Americans. These range of factors raise fears that “officers are quicker to use lethal force against minority group members” (Cole, Smith and DeJong, 2014).

Following the vast array of evidence, it can be determined that disproportionality has been produced; however, it remains difficult to determine whether these outcomes were intended.  Systematically, it has been argued that COMPSTAT produces discrimination against minorities (Reid, 2011); however this doesn’t mean the outcome was intended. In contrast, a variety of email evidence has circulated between court staff and the law enforcement officers at the Ferguson Police Department which consisted of crude jokes aimed at President Obama due to his race and racist depictions of African Americans as criminals (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015). This suggests that, to some extent, that some of the individual attitudes of officers may intentionally produce this disproportionality.

When assessing whose interests are being protected by the actions of the police we can turn to look at culture; the United States of America is, in this sense, two culturally different countries (Skolnick and Fyfe, 2010). The first country refers to the urban regions which incorporate multiculturalism and suffers disproportionately from crime, gang violence and poverty (Skolnick and Fyfe, 2010); while in contrast the second America is primarily suburban consisting of primarily white, middle class individuals, where the area is relatively safe and unicultural (Skolnick and Fyfe, 2010). The beating of Rodney King in 1992 by four white police officers took place in the first America, but was however trialled in the second America (Skolnick and Fyfe, 2010). This second America incorporates racial biases, and this was seen through the jury who acquitted the four police officers of any charges (Skolnick and Fyfe, 2010); this trial brought awareness and public attention to the issue of white racism threatening legal impartiality (Jacobs, 2000). As such, it can be argued that white supremacist interests are protected through the actions displayed by the police force as the police aren’t held accountable for the majority of cases where complaints have been made of racist police brutality (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015).

Governance and Accountability

In the United States police officers are entitled to use reasonable force which is equal to a suspect’s resistance in order to get the suspect to comply with a lawful order (Dempsey and Forst, 2015). Historically, there have been very few limitations on this power in terms of governance and accountability and up “until the 1980s the police still had the broad authority to use deadly force in pursuing suspected felons” (Cole, Smith and DeJong, 2014: 299). It was only in 1985 where the policy was changed so that they could only shoot if the suspect is believed to be a significant threat to the public which may result in death or serious injury (Cole, Smith and DeJong, 2014). More recently, the Los Angeles Police department has attempted to critically evaluate the use of force in every incident of its use with the implementation of the Consent Degree in a greater attempt to limit the abuse of police powers (Stone, Foglesong and Cole, 2009).

Police accountability has been a large issue in American policing. In one of the most well-known cases, the police officers involved in the assault against Rodney King in 1991 were not held accountable for the crimes which they committed as they were acquitted despite such condemning evidence (Skolnick and Fyfe, 2010). Due to the change of venue, the jury utilised for this crime were not “representative of, and conscience of, the community – the vicinage – where the crime occurred” (Fyfe, 2010: xii). Had the officers been trialled in an urban region with a multiracial jury, such as Los Angeles or San Francisco, it is a lot more likely they would have been convicted and held accountable (Skolnick and Fyfe, 2010). In this case, we therefore see how the jury didn’t hold the police accountable for their actions. Despite reforms brought about since this case, there are still many contemporary issues surrounding police accountability. The Ferguson Report found that in the majority of cases where excessive force has been argued to have been used, state and local authorities clear officers of all charges (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015). When, rarely, an indictment occurs, the officer is cleared of any wrong doing the majority of the time, and as such for the community where the event took place there is rarely any justice due to lack of accountability (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015).

Since the 1992 Rodney King case, there has been greater regulation and heightened monitoring of police activities. In 2007, the LAPD implemented a new set of protocols in order to better handle and investigate complaints of racial profiling; this involved the Professional Standards Bureau conducting reviews of complaints where the IAG would then centrally investigate the case (Stone, Foglesong and Cole, 2009). Citizens have also gotten involved with governing police officers, for example, CopWatch was setup in order to try and hold police officers accountable  for their actions; members sometimes used video cameras for example to record police activity in case of police misconduct (Chermak and Bailey, 2007). As such a range of governing bodies have materialised in order to better hold police officers accountable for their actions.

A wide range of institutions influence local policing and the development of police policy and practise. The Christopher Commission was setup in 1991 by the mayor of Los Angeles to influence the development of police policy and practise, this organisation discovered that a number of police officers in Los Angeles regularly misused force, ignoring guidelines and policy (Chermak and Bailey, 2007). Resultantly, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was introduced which enabled the Justice Department Civil Rights Division to govern and investigate local law enforcement agencies where police misconduct may have occurred, and in the case of a pattern of excessive force being utilised, bring forth civil action (Chermak and Bailey, 2007). Despite various reforms, police accountability still remains an issue today; this is highlighted by the introduction of a new task force on police accountability by the Mayor of Chicago (City of Chicago, 2015).

This issue has remained very contentious due to the violation of many different human rights, as discovered by the Ferguson Report (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015). In Ferguson for example, it has been unveiled that the 1st, 4th and 14th amendments, as well as federal statutory law, has been regularly violated (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015). This includes for example how the Ferguson Police Department regularly engaged in a trend of utilising excessive force which was in violation of the fourth amendment (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015).

Personal Reflection

Drawing upon a close to this critical reflection, it has become clear through the research undertaken that there are many issues in contemporary policing, namely the institutionalised racism which has resulted in black citizens in America being over-represented in figures regarding the usage of police force (Lawrence, 2000). Despite the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparking various reforms to combat this, the issue is still apparent over 20 years later. However, I believe the issue of racism extends beyond the police departments in the United States of America. The symptoms displayed in the over-representations of black people in police statistics are emblematic of a much larger issue in American culture. While racial equality is higher than it used to be, as seen by the progress in the Obama era, white supremacist attitudes remained engrained within the culture of America and the United States remains to be a racial state (Parks, Hughey and Ogletree, 2011).  While various reforms have been introduced to limit the harm done by these attitudes, such as the new task force announced to hold police officers accountable (City of Chicago, 2015), these don’t combat the racial attitudes directly, but merely combat the manifestations of racial discrimination. I believe in this sense that the skin colour someone has when they are born should not be relevant in how that person is treated by society, and concerns over police officers being quicker to use force against black citizens should not exist (Cole, Smith and DeJong, 2014). Furthering this, what body someone is born into should not determine who that individual is thought to be, for example how police officers have crudely depicted African Americans to be criminals (US Department of Justice and Shaw, 2015).  This research has raised my awareness of the causes of disproportionality and has enlightened my understanding of the various factors causing disproportionality, whether intentional or un-intentional. While previously I felt racial discrimination by the police force was one of the key factors, the influence of right realist policies such as zero tolerance has aided my understanding in how disproportionality is produced (Greene and Gabbidon, 2009). I would like to conclude by saying that the disproportionality discussed in this essay merely highlights one of the issues within contemporary policing. Despite living in an age where the notion of equality is promoted, inequality exists all around us, and the manifestation of racial inequalities is a symptom of a much larger cultural divide in America which needs to be accounted for (Skolnick and Fyfe, 2010).

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