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Police brutality against African Americans has been an egregious issue in the United States since the days of the Civil Rights Movement, with the campaigns in Birmingham in 1963-1964 and the marches in Selma being primary examples. In today’s society, police brutality has become one of the leading causes of death for young African American men and boys, with the deaths of Philando Castile and Sandra Bland being recent, graphic examples. Carbado and Rock (2016, p. 167-168) begin by examining the disproportionate rate at which African Americans are exposed to the police, and as such are faced with police violence at a disproportionate rate compared to other races, thanks to broken windows policing and increased police presence within urban inner-city schools. While police presence does not necessitate the presence of police violence, it is explained that a groups consistent exposure to police makes them highly salient targets for police violence.
Furthermore, Carbado and Rock (2016, p. 168) cited empirical evidence of African Americans being more likely to be viewed as dangerous people by white Americans; this evidence was gathered by social psychologists looking to find examples of “shooter bias.” In this social experiment, individuals were gauged to determine how quickly they would respond to images of African American and white men holding both violent objects (guns or knives) vs. them holding nonviolent objects (such as a cell phone). Participants were asked to “shoot” or “not shoot” when the images were shown to them, an action done by pressing a key on a keypad. It was found that the participants were much faster to “shoot” African Americans with guns than whites with guns, and much faster to “not shoot” whites without guns than African Americans with guns. These findings could be interpreted as there being an inherent bias against African American men, and that it is easier to perceive them as being inherently more violent than their Caucasian counterparts; this same “shooter bias” may be more pronounced among police officers who are disproportionately dispatched to deal with African Americans, especially given that they are in positions to think of their own lives and safety.
In a research article by Price and Payton (2017, p. 678), it is hypothesized that, while many officers come from the general population and do have their own biases prior to being officers, they are taught (formally or informally) that African Americans are either more violent, or are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. These officers may serve in large urban areas and may come into contact with larger groups of African Americans who are economically disadvantaged. Based on population size, they may find that there is often a disproportionate number of African Americans engaging in criminal activity. Officers may also come to learn that African Americans represent roughly 37% of all male prisoners are African American (compared to 32% Caucasian and 22% Hispanic) (Carson, 2014), and they may also be taught that a disproportionate number of individuals who assault or kill police officers are African American. Officers with these biases and fears may then be more likely to be impulsive, prone to escalate stressful encounters, and even more likely to utilize excessive force against African Americans (Logan, 2016). Therefore, for many reasons (such as prejudice or fear), officers may be more likely to associate certain movements from African American suspects as indicative of violent action or “reaching for a weapon.”
Logan and Oakley (2017) examined the reasoning behind racial profiling of African Americans from the larger context of what they call “ghettoization,” and argue that the core of the issue of police brutality stems from the need to protect the American public from the “ghetto” environment. It is also argued, that because policing is designed to control the “ghetto,” then violence from officers would be more likely, considering the more “menacing” population they are policing. The word “ghetto” has a pejorative connotation, one associated with violence, ignorance, and negative stereotypes surrounding African Americans. Logan and Oakley (2017, p. 1035) describe the police in these neighborhoods as being reactive to high crime areas, and due to the ghetto being seen as “bad,” police are more likely to utilize excessive force to stem the flow of whom they perceive to be “menacing, violent criminals.”
Scott, Ma, Sadler, and Correll (2017) tackle the subject of innate police bias directly. Many detractors of racial police bias cite statistics that African Americans are more likely to commit crimes, and behave in a more violent and threatening manner, and therefore police are more likely to use excessive force, not because of racism, but necessity. Scott et al. (2017) debunked this claim using data from the Uniform Crime Reports and were able to control for a multitude of variables aside from race, including location, socioeconomic status, age, and gender, and concluded, “…police are more likely to shoot a Black suspect than a White suspect even in the absence of racial differences in criminal activity.” Kahn and Davies (2017) examined what has been dubbed the “hoodie effect.” This term refers to the idea that a hoodie has become a “trigger warning,” advice that something may activate an emotionally traumatic memory or response. In this context, the hoodie, typically worn by African American men, elicits the perception that the person wearing it is also dangerous.
African American civilians seem to be at greater risk of being victimized by police violence, but even African American police officers are unable to escape the racial profiling and police brutality epidemic in our country, especially when they are not wearing their uniform. Charbonneau, Spencer, and Glaser (2017) found that from 1982-2009, African American off duty officers in the state of New York were 52 times more likely to be fatally shot in encounters with other officers than their Caucasian counterparts. This appears to be the inverse of the hoodie effect examined by Kahn and Davies (2017); an African American civilian wearing a hoodie may make him more likely to be a target of police violence, while that same man not wearing his uniform may also leave him vulnerable to being a victim of police violence.
Dukes and Gaither (2017) explain that the media as a whole may also be implicit in the creation of a context in which violence and lethal force against African Americans can be justified, and therefore unpunished (read: “justifiable homicide”). Their study finds that victims of lethal shootings are perceived as being more at fault than the shooter if they are portrayed in a negative, stereotypically black fashion. It was also found that when the shooter was African American, a victim that was described in a positive light was less to blame, but when the victim was described negatively, race of the shooter did not seem to matter.
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