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This article was originally published in The American Prospect on July 30, 2015, and has been updated in light of recent events.
A string of highly publicized police murders of black citizens in Louisiana, Minnesota, and around the country has prompted news reports of an “epidemic” of police violence against African Americans. But the harsh reality is that there has been no sudden upsurge of racial profiling, arrests, beatings, and killings of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers.
Rather than an abrupt recent rise in police mistreatment of black Americans, we are seeing a surge in awareness of the problem due in part to the use of hidden body cameras and citizen videos. Because more incidents of police abuse are now being captured on camera, white Americans are waking up to how different black lives can be. These videotaped incidents are now part of the political terrain, making it harder for police to hide abusive behavior and easier for community groups to verify longstanding complaints about police misconduct. What is emerging is a picture of white-on-black violence that carries echoes of the often-police-sanctioned lynchings of the Jim Crow era. Those lynchings were frequently caught on camera, too, and those photographs were used both by anti-lynching activists and by white supremacists celebrating their vigilante actions.
Last Tuesday morning, two police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, fatally shot Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African American, while trying to arrest him. Members of the group Stop the Killing arrived at the Triple S Food Mart after hearing reports on a police scanner about an arrest in front of the store. The activists captured the incident—which shows the two cops shooting Sterling after pinning him to the ground—on video, and then released it online.
The following day, a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota—a suburb of St. Paul—stopped Philando Castile for driving a car with a broken tail light. According to Castile’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, who was a passenger in the car, Castile reached for his wallet to retrieve his driver’s license, after telling the police officer that he had a legal gun. The officer then opened fire and killed Castile, a 32-year old African American. Reynolds did not capture the actual moment of the shooting but she broadcast the aftermath of the incident on her Facebook page.
“I wanted to put it on Facebook and go viral so that the people could see,” Reynolds told reporters on Thursday. By Friday, the video had been viewed 4.2 million times.
People march in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 6, 2016, the day after Alton Sterling was shot and killed by Baton Rouge police outside the store where he was selling CDs.
Castile and Sterling join a growing list of police violence victims, including Sean Bell, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Kelley Thomas—not to mention Trayvon Martin, killed by a self-appointed vigilante with a gun in 2012—whose names have been seared into the national consciousness.
This is thanks partly to the exploding use of cell phones, YouTube, and Twitter—as well as to the growing number of police cars and cops now outfitted with cameras.
The brutal mistreatment of Bland, for example, a 28-year-old African American woman stopped a year ago by Brian Encina, a Texas Highway Patrol trooper, for failing to signal before changing lanes, was captured only because Texas requires patrol cars to have video cameras and state troopers to carry body microphones. Video showed Encina ordering Bland out of the car and threatening her with a Taser, telling her, “I will light you up!”
Three days later, Bland was found dead in a county jail. It’s still unclear whether she was killed or committed suicide. But there is little dispute that she should not have been in jail in the first place. It’s only because the patrol car video documented his actions, and spread quickly via the news media and YouTube, that the world now knows that Encina violated a number of police protocols and brutally mistreated Bland while she sat in her car, and after he forced her out of the vehicle.
Similarly, the 2014 death of Garner, a 43-year-old black man arrested in New York City for selling loose cigarettes, came to light only because of footage filmed by a bystander. The video revealed the officer wrestling Garner to the ground in an illegal chokehold, and Garner gasping “I can’t breathe” before he turned limp. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital. Protests erupted in New York and around the country after a grand jury failed to indict the officer responsible for Garner’s death. On July 13, 2015, the city agreed to pay Garner’s family $5.9 million in an out-of-court settlement.
These and other incidents have increased public awareness of police misconduct toward black citizens. As a result, white attitudes are changing, and protests led by black activists are accelerating. The recent assassination of five police officers in Dallas by a black sniper upset over recent police violence has further roiled the nation. As citizens on both sides of the racial divide join in vigils and protests around the country, this may be a moment in our history when real reform is possible.
DATA FROM THE FEDERAL Centers for Disease Control reveal that between 1968 and 2011, black people were 4.2 times more likely than whites to die at the hands of law enforcement. The rate of African Americans killed by police declined significantly in the 1970s and 1980s, but it has remained relatively steady since then. No sudden epidemic. Just routine racism.
The FBI significantly undercounts the number of fatal shootings by police officers because it does not require police departments to keep it updated. But the The Washington Post, The Guardian, and a website called Killed by Police fill out the picture. Their numbers vary slightly, reflecting differences in how they collect the data, but all three sources show a similar pattern of police killings that disproportionately target African Americans.
Through July 8 of this year, police have killed 569 individuals, according to The Guardian. This puts the nation on track to end the year with 1,102 deaths at the hands of police. This is comparable to the 1,146 people killed by police last year.
Of last year’s 1,146 victims, 581 (51 percent) were white. The remaining victims include 306 African Americans (27 percent) and 195 Latinos (17 percent.). Asian Americans, Native Americans, other races, and people of unknown origin, who accounted for the remaining 5 percent.
Philadelphia Police officers demonstrate a body-worn cameras being used as part of a pilot project, Thursday, December 11, 2014.
These figures have led some people to argue that police cannot be fairly be accused of racism, since whites represent more than half of all fatalities at the hands of cops. But whites represent 62 percent of all Americans, according to the U.S. Census. African Americans, who account for 27 percent of the victims, comprise only 13 percent of the population.
That makes African Americans more than twice as likely as whites to die at the hands of police, according to The Guardian. Last year, 2.9 out of every one million white Americans were killed by police, compared with 3.5 Latinos and 7.3 African Americans.
Longstanding tensions between law enforcement and the black community are partly to blame for this disparity. Most police officers are almost certainly not virulent racists, but they are part of a police culture and criminal justice system with a long history of tensions between black Americans and law enforcement. Discrimination takes the form of both overt abuse and looking the other way when whites use violence against black citizens.
After the Civil War and into the 20th century, local police were often part of white lynch mobs or did nothing to stop them from abducting and killing blacks for violating Jim Crow customs. In May 1927, for example, an angry white mob hanged a black man named John Carter from a telephone pole in the countryside outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, and then dragged his body through the city’s main street, saturated his body with gasoline and set it ablaze in the heart of the black section of town. An estimated 5,000 white people participated in these activities. Sheriff’s deputies did nothing to restrain the lynch mob. City police simply directed the heavy flow of traffic around the scene. The following day, photos of Carter’s lynched body went on sale for 15 cents a copy. The coroner’s report said that Carter had been killed “by parties unknown in a mob.” No one was ever charged or prosecuted for Carter’s death.
There were 4,749 recorded lynchings between 1882 and 1968, although there were certainly many undocumented lynchings before and during that period. Lynchings peaked in the 1890s, but the practice persisted into the next century. Most of them took place in the South, and most of the victims were African Americans.
Many of these lynchings were caught on camera, but not by photographers seeking to expose white racism and bring the perpetrators to justice. Many of the photos reveal spectators in crowd smiling for the cameras rather than hiding from them. They were proud of their participation and certainly not fearful that they would be arrested. Indeed, some of these photos were turned into postcards. They were popular souvenirs.
Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—when lynchings declined as a form of vigilante justice—racist thugs in the South knew that they could still get away with the murder of African Americans without facing arrest or, if they were arrested, conviction in court by all-white juries. Local police were often complicit in the activities of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils.
One little-known example is the 1940 murder of Elbert Williams, believed to be the first NAACP official killed for civil-rights activism. Word spread that he was going to host a meeting of the local NAACP in his home in rural Brownsville, Tennessee, to discuss mobilizing black citizens to register to vote. But before the meeting took place, Williams, a 31-year-old laundromat attendant, was taken from his home by police, but not to the local jail. Two days later he was found in a nearby river, tied down by a log and with two bullet holes in his chest. On his death certificate the coroner wrote “cause of death unknown,” but the cause was clear: It was a warning to Brownsville’s black residents who might want to mobilize and vote. Williams’s death was hidden from history for 75 years, but last year a group of local residents began organizing to pressure the U.S. Justice Department to reopen the murder case.
The 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago visiting his family in Mississippi, by two white racists, triggered widespread outrage, especially after his killers were caught and acquitted by an all-white jury. According to a PBS documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till, throughout the trial, local Sheriff Clarence Strider greeted black reporters and Congressman Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Michigan (who had come to observe the proceedings) with a cheery “Hi, niggers.” Rosa Parks recalled that she was thinking of Till’s murder when, in December of that year, she was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, an incident that catalyzed a year-long boycott and the escalation of the civil-rights movement.
During the height of the civil-rights movement, white supremacists and vigilantes routinely burned crosses, homes, and churches to thwart civil-rights activism and even killed activists—like Medgar Evers in 1963 and James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964—knowing that the perpetrators were virtually immune from law enforcement.
LYNCHINGS, KIDNAPPINGS, AND the murders of civil-rights leaders were really the tip of the iceberg.
Throughout the nation, not only in the South, police have routinely abused black citizens as they go about their daily routines. Black Americans are more likely than whites to be arbitrarily stopped by cops, frisked, beaten, arrested, sent to trial without adequate legal counsel, convicted, and given longer sentences.
When I was in high school in Plainfield, New Jersey, in the 1960s, African Americans knew which cops to avoid. “There were cops who everyone [in the West Side ghetto] knew were racist,” a black friend recalled. “If they caught you on the other side of Seventh Street [the ghetto boundary], they’d stop you.” In 1967, one third of Plainfield’s 46,000 residents, but only five of the city’s 81 cops, were black. Black leaders and their white liberal allies complained that cops and radio dispatchers often used the word “nigger” to describe suspects over the police radio. Not surprisingly, Plainfield was one of many cities that summer that exploded in riots, triggered by an incident of police abuse.
Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, blacks and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles have had good reason to fear the LAPD, which was notorious for its overt harassment and wanton violence against minorities. On Christmas Day in 1951, about 50 LAPD officers participated in the beating of seven Latino men at a police station, an incident depicted in James Ellroy’s novel—and later a Hollywood film—L.A. Confidential.
A protester yells in front of the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters after police arrived in riot gear to clear protesters from the streets, on July 9, 2016.
Almost 50 years later—on March 3, 1991—four LAPD officers arrested and brutally beat a black man, Rodney King, after they pulled him over following a high-speed chase. This incident would have been covered up except that a nearby resident, George Holliday, videotaped the beating from his apartment balcony and sent the footage to local news station KTLA, which later was broadcast around the world, transforming what would have otherwise been an invisible incident into a national, even international, scandal.
Thanks to Holliday’s camera, four cops were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. When the jury acquitted them in April 1992, L.A.’s black and Latino communities erupted in protest, triggering riots in which 53 people were killed and over 2,000 were injured. The use of Holliday’s video camera in exposing LAPD racism foreshadowed the more recent practice of ordinary citizens filming police activities on their cell phones.
For several years, the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), a nonprofit group that organizes homeless and low-income people around housing and civil-rights issues, has utilized video cameras and cell phones to film police officers’ interactions with Skid Row residents, who are disproportionately people of color. Although police officers have retaliated against LACAN members by harassing them, confiscating their cameras, and even arresting them, its organizers believe that its “cop watch” efforts to document police abuses have made it more difficult for the LAPD to violate residents’ basic rights.
A group called We Cop Watch has affiliates in cities around the country dedicated to monitoring police behavior and “teach[ing] people about their rights in the event they are stopped by the police.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has even created a smart-phone app—Mobile Justice—that makes it easier for people to record and report police misconduct.
Of course, African Americans and Latinos aren’t the only victims of police abuse. In July 2011, three police officers in Fullerton, California, responded to a call about a white homeless man, Kelly Thomas, who was looking into car windows and pulling on handles of cars near a bus depot. Surveillance camera footage revealed that the police beat, clubbed, and stunned Thomas with a Taser until he was unconscious. Thomas, who was mentally ill, died five days later. Because the incident was caught on camera, his death was ruled a homicide. But in January 2014, two of the cops were found not guilty of all charges and the local district attorney announced that he would not pursue the case against the third officer.
A growing number of studies have documented the reality of racial disparities in police conduct. A 2008 study by the Los Angeles ACLU found that “African Americans and Hispanics are over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, and over-arrested.” For example, black pedestrian and car drivers were 3,400 times more likely than whites to be stopped by LAPD officers. Latinos were 360 times more likely than whites to be stopped. After being stopped by police, blacks were 29 percent more likely and Hispanics were 32 percent more likely to be arrested.
In 2010, Oakland issued a report on 45 officer-involved shootings in the city from 2004 to 2008, one-third of which were fatal. Of the people shot, 37 were black and none was white.
The increasing exposure and documentation of police abuses and racism—by ordinary citizens, community groups’ “cop watch” patrols, studies conducted by academics and civil-liberties groups, the mainstream media, and even Hollywood films such as the 2004 Academy Award–winning movie Crash, has heightened public awareness of abuses by law enforcement officers. As ordinary citizens became more aware of the issue, they are more likely to report incidents of police engaging in racial profiling, and to engage in protest when someone is abused or even killed at the hands of the police.
Law enforcement form a line across I-94 on July 9, 2016, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in response to protesters who blocked the highway in response to the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a suburban St. Paul police officer on July 6.
There are many parallels between the protest movements over police racism, and over sexual harassment and violence. Over the past three decades, official records show an increase in incidents of rape. But it is unlikely that the actual number of rapes has increased. What’s more likely at work here is the growing willingness of women to report rapes, thanks to the efforts of the feminist movement to increase awareness of the problem, to challenge the stigma of being a rape victim or survivor, and to encourage women to report rapes to law enforcement authorities.
Similarly, the incidence of police abuse of black citizens has not significantly increased in the past few years. But Americans are more aware of the problem. Most have at least heard the phrases “racial profiling” and “driving while black” and know that African Americans face this reality every day. The fact that many Americans know the names of some recent victims of police abuse and killing indicates that the problem is getting more media attention.
A Pew Research Center poll found that between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of white Americans who expressed a “great deal” of confidence in local police treating blacks and whites equally declined from 43 percent to 35 percent. But, not surprisingly, whites don’t view the problem the same way that black Americans do. Pew found that whites are still more likely than blacks to express confidence in the police’s treatment of whites and blacks. About seven in ten whites (71 percent) expressed a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in local police to treat blacks and whites equally, compared with just 36 percent of blacks.
The growing awareness of racial profiling has triggered calls for reform of police practices by grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter and many local elected officials. Soon after taking office in January 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ended NYPD’s notorious stop-and-frisk practice, which studies showed had targeted black and Latino residents.
About one-third of the nation’s 12,000 police departments—and half of big-city police agencies—now provide at least some of their police officers with body cameras, a significant increase from just a few years ago.
In 2012, Rialto, California, began equipping its officers with these devices. Over the next year, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent and the use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent, according to The New York Times.
Last year, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that the city would launch a body camera pilot program after a black man, Freddie Gray, died from a spinal injury while in police custody. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to equip all LAPD patrol officers with body cameras by the end of this year. But the initiative has stalled because some City Council members balked at the price tag—$57.6 million over five years.
In December 2014, President Obama, who has spoken publicly about his own experiences with being racially profiled, committed $75 million in federal matching funds to equip local police officers with 50,000 body cameras, although he stopped short of suggesting that such equipment should be mandatory. The Department of Justice began allocating the funding last year. Obama also announced a new policy restricting federal law enforcement officers from racial profiling.
The growing criticism of police has split the law enforcement community. Many rank-and-file police officers and local police chiefs, feeling under siege, have retreated into a bunker mentality, rejecting calls for reform. But a growing number of them don’t like the stigma of being called racists and acknowledge that racial profiling is a serious problem. They know that while cameras may be colorblind, law enforcement is not. They may be open to changing the culture, training, and daily practices of police departments. Moreover, growing public awareness of police abuse may push prosecutors and grand juries to bring more police officers to trial and juries to convict them for the misuse of deadly force against black citizens.
Police abuse of our black citizens won’t end until Americans demand that we end our criminal justice system’s racial double standard.