Police brutality toward the African-American population of the United States is an issue that has received nationwide publicity in recent years. Some studies claim that it is caused by the American culture of white supremacy (Hayes, p. 2). Others, on the contrary, argue that the disproportional targeting of the African-American population is a myth, since “evidence suggests that the police are only responding to the rate of deadly force assaults they are experiencing” (Johnson, p. 9). This paper aims to examine both viewpoints and their coverage of the issue and to introduce possible solutions that would respond to both perspectives.
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Mapping Police Violence (MPV) is a website dedicated to spreading awareness of police brutality toward the black population in the United States by providing essential statistics, data, and trends analysis. According to MPV, black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Out of 346 killings of African-American men in 2015, “thirty percent of black victims were unarmed,” MPV claims. The website also contains a list of “17 of the 100 largest U.S. cities in which police killed black men at higher rates than the U.S. murder rate in 2014” (MPV). MPV adds that there is hardly any correlation between the rate of violent crimes in the city and the rate of police killings: “For example, Buffalo and Newark police departments had low rates of police violence despite high crime rates while Spokane and Bakersfield had relatively low crime rates and high rates of police violence.” Moreover, one of the most important facts regarding the issue is that “97% of cases in 2015 did not result in any officer(s) involved being charged with a crime” (MPV). Overall, this data seems horrifying and justifies the backlash it has created among the general public.
Community Terrorism: Hayes’ Response
Floyd W. Hayes III is one of many scholars who has answered the growing concerns regarding police brutality toward the African-American community. In his article War Against the People: Killer Cops and Community Terrorism, he presents his uncompromising opinion on the topic, which, according to Hayes, is far from new: “At least since the 1960s, black and brown communities in big cities across America have complained constantly and publicly about police brutality and repression” (p. 2). Hayes goes so far as to compare the current actions of the police to those of slave masters in the past: “The order of police violence, terrorism, and cold-blooded murder directed at black Americans today takes place with a systematic viciousness and savagery comparable to the dehumanizing sadism of white slave-owners” (p. 2). He states that the main reason for such an attitude is racism, which promotes a “criminalized image of black people as violent and threatening […] black women, men, and children always already are guilty of something” (Hayes, p. 2). He also points out some justifications for police killings used by the officials, for instance, the tendency to deny “any racist motivation and cynically characterize each event as an ‘isolated incident’” (Hayes, p. 3), and criticizes them thus: “the increasing incidents of wanton police brutality and murder of blacks are by no stretch of the imagination ‘isolated incidents’” (Hayes, p. 4).
In general, Hayes’ article seems comparatively vehement and personal in tone and, therefore, lacks important facts and analysis. For instance, he does not provide any statistical data and only addresses two isolated cases of police violence in his exploration, whereas his description of the public response to the issue is limited.
Battling the Myths: Johnson’s Argument
Richard Johnson, on the other hand, provides a much more factual and in-depth analysis of the problem. His research is based on the portrayal of police violence in the media, and he aims to evaluate the big claims made by newspapers concerning the issue. Right at the start, he states that most media sources use unofficial data because the government’s resources are very limited and include only the FBI, which is “criticized because between 20% and 30% of law enforcement agencies do not report data in a given year” (Johnson, p. 3), and CDC data, which “comes from a federal supplemental form that is completed by coroners and physicians when they complete a death certificate” (Johnson, p. 3). Both sources, however, release data two years after the collection year due to long processing times. Therefore, the information used in mass media is not only unofficial but also possibly untrue, since there is no way to compare it to the official data that has not yet been released. Having said that, Johnson based the rest of his paper on data from the media, providing a point-by-point response to the claims. His main argument is that the number of black killings by the police is proportional to the number of violent attacks on police officers by African-American men: “African-American men may make up 6.6% of the U.S. population, but they account for 33% of those who have murdered police officers in the last three years. In other words, African-American men are five times more likely to kill a police officer, but only 3.7 times more likely to be killed by the police” (Johnson, p. 8). Johnson also criticizes the media’s definition of “unarmed” victims: “11% of all law enforcement officers murdered in the line of duty from 2013 through 2015 were killed by someone the Washington Post would label as ‘unarmed’” (p. 7). Finally, he compares the statistics of deaths caused by the police with mortalities brought on by public health workers: “The risk of death from a doctor or nurse is 254 times greater than the risk of death from police use of force” (Johnson, p. 4).
Johnson provides a clear factual analysis to contradict the portrayal of police brutality in the media. However, he only uses general statistics and data and does not evaluate specific cases on their own, which is necessary to determine whether or not there is a tendency toward unjust killings of black men by the police.
Overall, it is clear that both viewpoints have their limitations. However, the combination of the two provides a well-rounded view of the issue. Whereas the portrayal of police brutality in the media could indeed be exaggerated, the number of police mistakes leading to tragic results is still high and must be addressed. Campaign Zero is a movement that intends to target racialized police brutality; however, most of their solutions would have an impact on police violence not just against the African-American population, but against all citizens of the United States: they promote the introduction of police body cameras to prove the necessity of defensive actions and extensive training that aims to limit health consequences for both parties in case of an active fight, as well as community oversight and fair police union contracts (Campaign Zero). These solutions could potentially help build a trusting relationship between the police and the citizens, regardless of their race, thus ensuring higher efficiency on the part of the U.S. justice system.
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- Campaign Zero 2016, “Solutions.” Campaign Zero.
- Hayes, Floyd W. III. “War Against the People: Killer Cops and Community Terrorism”. Critical Sociology (2005): 1-5.
- Johnson, Richard R. Dispelling the Myths Surrounding Police Use of Lethal Force. Web.
- Mapping Police Violence 2016, “Police Violence Map.” Mapping Police Violence.