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Police Brutality Against African Americans

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Police brutality is definitely a pressing problem in the United States today. The definition of police brutality is the use of excessive or unreasonable force by law enforcement when dealing with the public. In recent years, there have been numerous incidents of police brutality, usually involving the killing of unarmed young African Americans. It could be said, police officers often display hateful feelings or behavior towards a particular race, sex, or religion. Based on evidence, police brutality predominantly targets African Americans.

The United States has a long history of unequal treatment of the African American race. Race plays a major role in the issue of police brutality in today’s society. As stated by a journalist, “The history of African Americans in the United States is that of segregation and discrimination, which continues to shape the modern society” (Chama 203). Historically, police have been known to defend and enforce racism and segregation in both the North and the South of the United States. During the Civil Rights Movement, protesters were attacked by police with extreme violence such examples are being beaten with batons and guns, pepper sprayed, and bitten by police dogs. Despite the fact that segregation was banned after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans were still mistreated. The journalist, Brain Chama, also agrees with this fact, “Even though the Jim Crow laws that made segregation legal no longer exist, millions of African Americans continue to be arrested”(203).

On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was captured by the Los Angeles police after a high-speed chase. The police officers pulled King from his vehicle and beat him brutally, while George Holliday, a driver passing by, caught it all on videotape. All of the officers involved were indicted on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force by a police officer. Nonetheless, after a three-month trial, a primarily white jury acquitted the officers, provoking citizens and leading to the violent 1992 Los Angeles riots. It resulted in more than 50 people killed, 2,000 injured, 9,500 arrested, and $1 billion dollars in property damage. King made a public appearance to address the ongoing riots on the third day. His famous plea was, “People, I just want to say, can’t we all get along? Can’t we all get along?” The U.S. Department of Justice filed federal civil charges against the four officers involved. In August 1992, two of the officers were found guilty, while the other two were acquitted. Eventually, King was awarded $3.8 million dollars in a civil trial for the injuries he sustained. King describes his experience as “It was like being raped, stripped of everything, being beaten near to death there on the concrete, on the asphalt. I just knew how it felt to be a slave. I felt like I was in another world.”

Racial profiling forms the main backbone of the issue of police brutality. The stereotypes against African Americans generalize a whole identity for the entire race. As the police are in power, they have the ability to define the boundaries of race. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says, “Racial profiling has been a historic feature of policing in the U.S., from the establishment of slave patrols to the selective criminalization and enforcement of “vagrancy” laws and similar crimes” (49). African Americans are more likely to be suspected of committing a crime than any other race. This is simply based on the stereotype that African Americans are criminals, poor, and tend to have aggressive behavior. Police officers’ discriminatory actions hides behind criminal law policies like “stop and frisk”, which is a law that allows a police officer to stop any person without an arrest based on reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. The IACHR validates this, “In recent decades, racial profiling has been a feature of law enforcement policy within the framework of the “War on Drugs” and counter terrorism/ “homeland security” initiatives” (49).

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African American man from Staten Island, was choked to death after a New York police officer put him in chokehold and refused to let go. Garner was initially approached by Officer Justin Damico and Officer Daniel Pantaleo for allegedly selling “loosies”, single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps. After Garner expressed to the officers he was not doing so, they proceeded to arrest him. When Garner told the officers, he was tired of being harassed for no reason, Officer Daniel Pantaleo put his arms around Garner’s neck, applying full force, choking him in the process. The encounter was caught on caught on camera. Throughout the video, Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe”, Officer Pantaleo did not stop. An hour later, Garner was pronounced dead at the hospital. Even with the video of the encounter as evidence, a grand jury decided on December 3,2014 not to indict neither officer.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man, was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown and a friend were walking in the middle of the street, when the officer drove by and told them to use the sidewalk. Apparently, Brown and his friend left a liquor store where surveillance footage shows Brown allegedly stealing some cigarillos. Officer Wilson sees Brown matches the description of a suspect in the liquor store theft. Wilson use his S.U.V to block the two men along with traffic. The situation escalated with Wilson and Brown scuffling. Officer Wilson fired 12 rounds, where Brown, who was unarmed, sustained 6-gun shots wounds and was killed. In November, a St. Louis County grand jury, made up of nine whites and three blacks, decided not to indict Officer Wilson for the shooting of Brown. The decision set off outrage in the community, when night fell, buildings were set on fire and several businesses were looted.

The mass incarceration of African Americans goes hand in hand with police brutality. According to studies, African Americans are arrested at 10 times the rate of white people. An article by the University of Chicago Press says, “Historically, police and other law enforcement agencies have targeted African Americans and accused them of violating the law. This targeting led to the incarceration, imprisonment, chain gangs, prison farms and other correctional facilitates for tens of thousands of African American men, women, and children” (Taylor 201). Mass incarceration today stands as the provision of the enslavement of African Americans. It negatively impacts the African American community by limiting the opportunities available in society. The IACHR states, “Resulting in a situation where 1 in every 15 black men is currently in jail and 1 in every 13 African Americans has lost their right to vote owing to a felony conviction” (45). It is suggested that individuals are incarcerated not because of their crime but because of racially motivated policies, beliefs, and practices. The article, “Introduction: AfricanAmericans, Police Brutality, and the U.S. Criminal Justice System”, explains the struggle brought on by incarceration:

Many young black men and increasingly women without legitimate alternatives become involved in the drug trade and end up either jailed on probation, or under correctional control. After release they are labeled felons and pushed into a second-class citizenship where they are denied basic citizenship rights, such as the right to vote and sit on juries and rendered ineligible for many housing and employment opportunities. (Taylor 200)

On July 13, 2015, Sandra Bland, a young black activist, was found hanged in a Texas police cell after she was arrested during a traffic stop. On July 10, she was pulled over after a state trooper said she failed to signal a lane change. Bland recorded the encounter on her cellphone. Encinia approached her vehicle, took her information, and returned to his vehicle to write a citation. In the video, Encinia asked Bland if she was “okay” and told her she seemed “irritated.” Bland said she was irritated because she was being given a ticket for moving out of the trooper’s way. When Encinia then asked Bland to put out the cigarette she was holding and she refused, the encounter quickly escalated. The trooper ordered Bland out of the car, but she refused. Encinia shouted he would yank her out and attempted to but Bland resisted. He pulled out a stun gun and yelled “I will light you up.” At that point, Bland got out of the car and the video ends. Bland was booked and put in a housing area for women of the Waller County Jail. That’s when 3 days later, on July 13, a guard doing his rounds found Bland hanging in her cell. The authorities ruled her death a suicide. The state trooper, Encinia, was indicted on the charge of perjury, the only criminal charge from the case. The jurors accused Encinia of making a false statement when he claimed his purpose for ordering Bland out of her vehicle was to safely conduct a traffic investigation. But, the charge was dismissed at the request of prosecutors in exchange for Encinia’s promise he would never again work in law enforcement.

One of the main problems with police brutality is that it often goes unpunished. For example, it is not rare to find the situation boils down to the word of the police officer against the word of the victim. A study reports, “The New York Civil Liberties Union, which authored the report found that since 1996, the police department disciplined police officers in only 24 percent, or 371 of the 1,543 cases of brutality and other misconduct substantiated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board” (“NY” 6). It can be easily assumed how a judge or jury might be biased into believing a police officer’s claim of self defense in a questionable killing situation, especially when there’s no evidence involved except for statements. “In other cases, either the department did not find the officer guilty, did not punish the officer or has yet to act on the complaint” (“NY” 6). If racial prejudice is considered, it can be suspected that many African Americans face potential wrongful conviction and imprisonments, due to the brutality and discrimination of the police.

On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African American man, was shot to death when two white officers pinned him to the pavement outside a convenience store where he had been selling CDs, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The officers were Officer Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II. Officer Salamoni and Lake were responding to the report of a man with a gun. Officer Salamoni shot and killed Sterling during the struggle. However, Officer Lake helped wrestle Sterling to the ground, but he didn’t fire his gun. The whole event was captured on a cellphone and it sparked protests all over Baton Rouge. The encounter was also recorded by the officers’ body cameras and the store surveillance camera. In March 2018, it was determined no charges will be filed against the officers after an investigation that the shooting was justified.

On September 6, 2018, Botham Jean, a church singer and accountant, was shot and killed by an off-duty Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, in his own apartment. Officer Guyger entered the apartment believing it was her own and thought Jean was a burglar when he was unarmed. Even though it was clear it was not her apartment because it was the wrong floor. On October 1, 2019, Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But her sentence had sparked protest outside the courtroom, Jean family supporters saw it as “a slap in the face”, when prosecutors asked for a sentence no less than 28 years, the age Jean would have been if he was still alive.

There are those who disagree with the idea that police brutality targets African Americans. It is argued that the killing of African American suspects is not a race issue but a police issue. A research team at Rutgers University concludes, “White officers do not kill black suspects at a higher rate compared with nonwhite officers” (Jacobs). However, when the ratio of white officers is compared to nonwhite officers, it’s obvious police departments are mostly made up of white officers. The researchers go on to state, “We find that nonwhite officers kill both black and Latino suspects at significantly higher rates than white officers. This is likely due to the fact that minority police officers tend to be assigned to minority neighborhoods and therefore have more contact with minority suspects” (Jacobs). Yes, this may be the case, but it explains why when white officers come in contact with African Americans it usually ends in a horrible tragedy. Since the officer doesn’t deals with minority suspects often, there’s already racial prejudice present in the encounter. Studies says, “We believe that the disproportionate killing of black suspects is a downstream effect of institutionalized racism within many police departments” (Jacobs). The percentage of encounters between the police and the public shows that African American citizens have a greater risk of being killed by police.

In conclusion, it is a well known fact that police brutality predominantly targets African Americans across the United States. Police brutality has resulted in the illegal and immoral discrimination, harassment, and mistreatment of millions of African Americans. The many cases of unarmed African Americans being killed by white police officers leave others in fear with the knowledge of the prejudice within the police department. The fact that police officers perceive African Americans as bigger threats than any other race of people is due to America’s history of racial oppression. The ongoing violence of police brutality against African Americans is a definite sign that racism still exists in this country.

Works Cited

  1. Chama, Brian. “The Black Lives Matter Movement, Crime and Police Brutality: Comparative Study of New York Post and New York Daily News.” European Journal of American Culture, vol.38, no.3, Sept. 2019, pp. 201-216.EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/ejac_00002_1.
  2. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “African Americans, Police Use of Force, and Human Rights in the United States.” Organization of American States, 26 Nov. 2018 pp. 1-166,
  3. Jacobs, Tom. “Black Cops Are Just as Likely as White Cops to Kill Black Suspects.” Pacific Standard, 9 Aug. 2018, to-kill-black-suspects
  4. “NY Civil Liberties Report Finds Police Brutality Goes Unpunished.”Jet, vol. 97, no. 6, Jan 17, 2000, pp. 6. ProQuest,
  5. Taylor Clarence. “INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN AMERICANS, POLICE BRUTALITY, AND THE U.S. CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 98, no. 2, 2013, pp. 200–204.

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