“I don’t remember the last time police sirens didn’t feel like gasping for air,” Clint Smith wrote in his poem “For the Boys Who Never Learned How to Swim,” where Smith conveys the feeling of a young black boy targeted by police (Smith, 2016). His poem highlights the issue of police profiling black men as criminals, which has become increasingly evident in recent years through the police killings of unarmed black men. While police use too much force and have racial biases, they wrongfully kill unarmed black men, giving them a reputation of enemies and making them less effective.
On August 9th, 2014, a white police officer shot Michael Brown Jr., a young unarmed black man in Ferguson, MO (Eligon, 2016). Brown had pushed a convenience store clerk into a wall and stolen a box of cigars. Darren Wilson, the police officer involved, was responding to a report of that robbery. He stopped Michael Brown and his friend with his car while they were walking down the middle of a nearby road. Officer Wilson told the two to get on the sidewalk. According to police, Brown hit the officer and tried to grab his weapon. Brown then ran away, raising his arms in surrender. That moment was when Officer Wilson shot Brown at least six times, twice in the head (Eligon, 2016). Although he originally acted aggressively toward the officer, the bottom line of this incident was that Brown did not have a gun and was shot with his hands up. Michael Brown Jr.’s death sparked protests that ensued all over Ferguson. These events brought light to police brutality towards unarmed black men. His death is one of many examples of an unarmed black man killed by police.
Police fatally shoot unarmed black men more often than any other demographic of people (Lowery, 2016). Researchers using data collected by Washington Post found that race was the leading factor in police killings (Lowery, 2016). “The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black,” said Justin Nix, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville and one of the report’s authors. “Crime variables did not matter in terms of predicting whether the person killed was unarmed,” (Lowery, 2016). This fact shows that police view blacks as more of a threat than they should. Of those police killed in 2015, twenty-five percent were black people even though they represent only thirteen of the population (Mapping Police Violence). That means police kill them at almost twice the rate they kill anyone else. In 2015, thirty percent of black victims were unarmed, whereas only twenty-one percent of white victims were unarmed. Moreover, levels of crime in US cities do not make police any more or less likely to kill people. Lastly, ninety-nine percent of cases in 2015 have not resulted in any officers involved being convicted of a crime. Police need to be held accountable for their actions.
The first issue causing officers to kill unarmed black people is that there are not enough use of force regulations throughout police departments in the country. Police departments across the United States do not all have the same policies, and police receive different training. The disparities in police policies have led to some officers being more likely to kill a suspect than others across the country. For example, a person is seven times more likely to be killed by police in Georgia than in Oklahoma (Mapping Police Violence). In response to the Ferguson protests, a group called Campaign Zero came together to research and recommend solutions to end unnecessary police violence (Speri, 2016). The group looked into the policies of ninety-one of the country’s hundred biggest cities’ police departments to see which implemented eight policies restricting the use of force. These policies include: requiring officers to de-escalate situations before resorting to force, limit the kinds of force that can be used to respond to specific forms of resistance, restricting chokeholds, requiring officers to give verbal warning before using force, prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles, requiring officers to exhaust all alternatives to deadly force, requiring officers to stop colleagues from exercising excessive force, and requiring comprehensive reporting on use of force (Speri, 2016). None of the ninety one departments the group examined had all eight policies implemented (Speri, 2016). Campaign Zero’s “Police Use of Force Project” found that police departments that use stricter use of force regulations kill significantly fewer people than those that do not (Speri, 2016).
The next underlying issue is that police have a bias toward black people. As shown by the report in the Washington Post, police falsely perceive blacks to be a greater threat than they are. Officers unconsciously develop racial biases over time. According to the report, “the police — who are trained in the first place to be suspicious — become conditioned to view minorities with added suspicion,” (Lowery, 2016). The fundamental problem is that police view blacks as criminals. This issue becomes evident in examining the gap between whites and blacks in state and federal prisons. In 2010, black men were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men (Drake, 2013). Furthermore, the racial gap between blacks and whites in the prison system has increased since 1960 (Drake, 2013). The fact that this difference has grown since the civil rights era shows that while the country has seemingly progressed in terms of racial relations, law enforcement is still behind.
Another root cause of police violence towards blacks is the crime rate is higher among blacks. The US Department of Justice released statistics indicating that black Americans represent twenty-one percent of all arrests, despite being only thirteen percent of the US population. However, this number only measures arrests, and if police are truly biased toward blacks, it is difficult to know how much of this disparity is due to blacks committing more crime or just being arrested more often. Either way, the crime rate among blacks is extremely high, which is likely due to a number of socioeconomic and cultural factors. The cause of these factors dates back to segregation and eventually slavery, as blacks endured years of oppression that made it difficult for them to succeed financially and move out of unsafe neighborhoods. The cycle of incarceration of blacks perpetuates such issue. Moreover, the high crime among blacks rate leads to police racial discrimination, creating a destructive cycle of poverty and incarceration. The first way to stop this cycle is to make police to be more effective by allowing blacks to view them less skeptically. Surveys in recent years among blacks suggest that confidence in law enforcement is relatively low, and many minority groups believe that police use excessive force (Wihbey & Kille, 2017). If a group of people feels as though police is the enemy, it will be difficult for them to call police to help them improve their community.
The first step to making police more effective in black communities is to end the killings of unarmed black people. There are proven solutions to ending police killings. According to a report by the Use of Force Project, a project studying the use of police violence, there are three highly effective policies some police departments have adopted: requiring officers to use all other means before shooting, requiring all use of force to be reported, and banning chokeholds and strangleholds (Police Use of Force Project). Departments that have adopted at least one of those policies have all reduced police killings by over twenty percent. Other policies proven to reduce police killings include having use of force continuums, requiring de-escalation, duty to intervene if another officer uses excessive force, restricting shooting at moving vehicles, and requiring warning before shooting (Police Use of Force Project). In addition to these policies, researchers who used data collected by The Washington Post suggested that police departments better train officers to reduce bias and require officers to wear body cameras (Lowery, 2016). The cameras would increase transparency and reducing officer bias would make blacks feel like they are not targets. Reducing police killings, as well as reducing bias towards blacks will make the police force feel more of a positive presence in communities.
Unarmed black men die at the hands of police due to racial profiling and excessive use of force by officers. This is a preventable issue as there are many policies police departments can adopt to end it.
Drake, B. (2013, September 06). Incarceration gap widens between whites and blacks. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/06/incarceration-gap-between-whites-and-blacks-widens/
Eligon, J. (2016, August 24). Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise. New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
Lowery, W. (2016, April 7). Study finds police fatally shoot unarmed black men at disproportionate rates. The Washington Post.
Mapping Police Violence. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2018, from https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/
Police Use of Force Project. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2018, from http://useofforceproject.org/#project
Smith, C. (2016). Counting Descent. Write Bloody Publishing.
Speri, A. (2016, September 21). Here are Eight Policies that Can Prevent Police Killings. The Intercept.
Wihbey, J., & Kille, L. W. (2017, January 04). Excessive or reasonable force by police? Research on law enforcement and racial conflict. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from https://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/criminal-justice/police-reasonable-force-brutality-race-research-review-statistics