Police Brutality and Misconduct in the United States
Social media makes it possible to share one’s dreams, successes, and to gain support from others on bad days. Recently, it seems, it has also become a platform to share scenes of violence, particularly when police in the United States beats or shoots a civilian.
The ubiquity of social media has brought to the public eye the shockingly common violence by armed police officers on citizens. National media has followed up, reporting on incidents and creating databases of police shootings. Their data show fatal police shootings increasing even as the crime rate has plummeted in the past 30 years.
As each police shooting case made its way through the court system, police officers were declared innocent in many cases that people believed they could judge with their own eyes. Those news outlets that pursued the stories found that police shootings take place at least 1,000 times a year in the United States, and Black men are three times more likely than whites to be shot by police.
Some critics point out that the F.B.I. wasn’t accurately tracking police shootings – the data collected represented just a fraction of police departments in the country. A new tracking system was instituted by the Department of Justice in 2016.
Police Brutality Cases
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was punctuated by violent police brutality such as the Selma, Alabama march in 1965 in which officers beat peaceful demonstrators with nightsticks and attack dogs. Those images have faded from memory for most but the tradition of police using often deadly force on civilians has awakened a new generation. The militarization of police is seen as a contributing factor in recent deaths as government surplus from wars is handed down to police departments, prompting more intense training for violent apocalyptic events rather than ways to calm crowds and deal with mentally ill individuals that are more routinely encountered.
The tipping point in recent public awareness is rooted in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The unarmed 18-year-old was shot six times at close range by police. The aftermath of it was widely broadcast on television news: riots and marches in the street by angry residents and civil rights agitators. One of the reasons for the outrage was that police left Brown’s body in the street for hours as they investigated. It became the birth of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, buttressed by a Justice Department report that found systemic prejudice against poor and nonwhite residents and unconstitutional police practices including exorbitant financial penalties for subjectively enforced laws like jaywalking.
Around the same time in 2014, an officer in Cleveland shot a 12-year-old, Tamir Rice, to death in a park within seconds of seeing the boy with a toy gun. The officer was not charged in the killing.
Sadly, the public outcry wasn’t enough to change behaviors overnight. In 2014 police in New York were videotaped tackling a man, Eric Garner, and holding him in a headlock as he screamed that he could not breathe. He was accused of illegally selling cigarettes and died as a result of this treatment. In 2015 social media exploded with a video of a police officer shooting a Black man, Walter Scott, in the back, and then dropping a taser instrument next to him in an attempt to legitimize the use of deadly force. The same year a suburban Texas officer was filmed pointing his gun at a group of Black teens and wrestling a 14-year-old girl in a bikini to the ground after police were called to a pool party.
In 2015 Baltimore police arrested 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in custody. Six officers were involved in Gray’s death, which the medical examiner ruled a homicide because his spine was nearly severed by rough treatment. All of the officers were found not guilty or charges dropped. Similar to Ferguson Missouri, the city erupted into riots, burning and looting. Baltimore police then declined to make arrests in retaliation. An investigation of corruption showed the city police regularly stole money, planted false evidence, and sold guns.
The media has been saturated by videos such as: a woman’s Facebook Live recording of a traffic stop in which a police officer shot her unarmed boyfriend (Philando Castile) to death when he reached for his wallet; a legally blind man allegedly holding a knife who was shot in a convenience store; and a young Black man, Stephon Clark, who was chased by police in Sacramento, California and shot a dozen times because he had something in his hand, a cell phone. Sometimes similar things happen to unarmed white men, like Daniel Shaver, who was on his knees begging a police officer not to shoot him when the officer opened fire.
In a typical scenario, the aftermath of a deadly police shooting involves an internal investigation of the department. Officers are placed on paid leave and often a task force examines opportunities for retraining and amending policies. The officer involved is sometimes charged with a crime but rarely convicted.
Ironically, a dark-skinned officer was charged with murder for shooting an unarmed white woman through the window of his Minneapolis police cruiser after she summoned police to report a possible assault. His partner was quoted in a news story saying “We got spooked” as the reason the officer shot the woman before they could identify her.
Filing a Complaint
It is possible to file a complaint about police misconduct and pursue it through the justice system. The government officially suggests filing the claim with the local police department and following up with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice if nothing is done.