If you’ve regularly watched the nightly news over the past few years, you might think that the recent arrest and jail-cell death of Sandra Bland in Texas is part of a growing wave of police abuse of black citizens. Some news reports have even called it an epidemic of police violence against African Americans. But the harsh reality is that there has been no sudden upsurge of racial profiling, arrests, beating, and killing of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers.
Rather than an abrupt recent rise in police mistreatment of black Americans, we’ve become more aware of the problem, in part because more incidents of police abuse are being captured on camera.
The series of deaths of black Americans has made more white Americans aware of how different their lives can be. A turning point occurred in 1991, when the brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King by four Los Angeles Police Department officers was videotaped by a nearby resident from his balcony, transforming what would have otherwise been an invisible incident into a national, even international, scandal. Since then, the names of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Kelley Thomas, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, other victims of police abuse—as well as Trayvon Martin, killed by a self-appointed vigilante with a gun—have been seared into the national consciousness.
The rapid explosion of cell phones, YouTube and Twitter—as well as the growing number of police cars and cops now equipped with cameras—has increased public awareness of police misconduct toward black citizens. As a result, white attitudes are changing and protests led by black activists are accelerating. This may be a moment in our history when real reform is possible.
The Tragic Death of Sandra Bland
The Texas Highway Patrol requires patrol cars to have video cameras and state troopers to carry body microphones. That is why millions of Americans have seen the police videotape of Texas trooper Brian T. Encinia threatening Bland, an African American woman, with a Taser (“I will light you up!” he said) when he ordered her out of her car during a routine traffic stop for the offense of failing to signal before making a lane change on July 10. Three days later she was found dead in a county jail.
There is still some dispute about whether she was killed or committed suicide. But among those who have seen the video, there is little dispute that she should not have been in jail in the first place. It is obvious that Encinia violated a number of police protocols in his brutal mistreatment of Bland while she sat in her car and after he forced her out of the vehicle.
It was only because a video camera on Encinia’s patrol car documented his actions, and because the tape was made public and then spread quickly via the news media and YouTube, that the world now knows that Bland was the innocent victim of Encinia’s outrageous behavior.
It would be nice to believe that Encinia was a racist rogue cop whose abusive conduct just happened to be caught on tape. Unfortunately, this was hardly an isolated incident.
The FBI significantly undercounts the number of fatal shootings by police officers because it does not require police departments to keep it updated. But among those included in the FBI database for 2012, black people accounted for 31 percent of those killed by police, even though they made up just 13 percent of the U.S. population. Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control reveals 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.
Although most police officers may not be virulent racists, they are part of a police culture and criminal justice system with a long history of tensions between black Americans and law enforcement—both overt abuse and looking the other way when whites use violence against black citizens.
Longstanding Tensions Between Law Enforcement and the Black Community
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 camera rather than hiding from it. 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’ death has been hidden from history for 75 years, but now a group of local residents are trying to get 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 came 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 that 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 immune from law enforcement.
Lynchings, kidnappings, and the murders of civil rights leaders were really the tip of the iceberg.
Throughout the nation, not just 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 were black, 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.
Since Rodney King: Cameras and Cops
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. 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 (LA CAN), 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 LA CAN 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.
In July 2014, a New York City cop arrested Eric Garner, a 43-year old black man, for selling loose cigarettes. Footage filmed by a bystander showed the wrestling Eric Garner to the ground in an illegal chokehold before he turned limp. The video revealed Garner gasping “I can't breathe.” 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.
Of course, African Americans, Latinos and Asians 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 ACLU in Los Angeles 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 LADP 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 police 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 film Crash, which includes a memorable scene of a white LAPD officer stopping an upper middle-class black couple in their upscale car and then sexually molesting the woman under the pretense of administering a pat-down)—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.
There are many parallels between the protest movements over police racism and 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 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 phrase “racial profiling” and know that it is a reality that African Americans face 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 42 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 twice as likely as blacks to express a “great deal” of confidence in the police’s fair treatment of whites and 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. Earlier this 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 has begun equipping all its patrol officers with body cameras. President Obama, who has spoken publicly about his own experiences with being racially profiled, announced a new policy restricting federal law enforcement officers from racial profiling. He also committed $75 million in federal funds to equip local police officers with body cameras, although he stopped short of suggesting that such equipment should be mandatory.
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 color-blind, 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 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.