Although the public previously ignored African-American complaints of police brutality, our society can no longer look past the extreme violence against black citizens. African-American communities have suffered from generations of biased policing. Recently, Governor Chris Christie (NJ) erroneously argued a causal relationship between President Obama’s recognition of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and a state of “lawlessness.” Consequently, as public officials soft-pedal police misconduct and redirect their condemnation to activists, it is crucial that we challenge the secrecy of police brutality because neither our society nor law enforcement is post-racial.
Discussing police brutality is uncomfortable. We are all socialized to think that individuals in uniform will protect us from harm, and do work tirelessly to protect and uphold the laws of the country. However, in some towns across America, it is a fact that Blacks are far more likely to die in police encounters than Whites. In fact, in a 2015 New York Times investigation, reporters found that the police disproportionately pulled over African-American drivers and searched their cars twice as often as they did Whites. Despite the fact that Whites were significantly more likely to be caught with drugs and weapons, police officers in Greensboro, N.C. were simply racially-motivated in their ‘investigations.’ Law enforcement reflects insidious racism within the American community.
Consider the war on drugs. Across the U.S., heroin addiction is ruining communities. Yet, as more white families in the middle-class and suburbia lose children to the plague of heroin, public officials are changing their stance from condemnation to forgiveness. Previously, the war on drugs was defined by a crack epidemic in impoverished, predominantly Black urban areas. However, 90% of first-time heroin users are now white. Now, almost all states have passed laws to make it easier to obtain naloxone, an anti-overdose medication, and many have “good Samaritan” laws that protect people from prosecution if 911 is called to report an overdose. While the case of heroin addiction does not exhibit a case of police brutality, it does show one tangible truth; our society values black lives less and therefore allows them to be abused.
Moreover, police brutality has continued to exist because of the fear of scrutiny of law enforcement. Most recently, several right-wing outlets have associated the recent increase of violence across America with backlash against the police. Indeed, cellphone footage has become a vigilante method of punishing police officers for unconstitutional behavior. While many argue that scrutiny of the police is problematic, the assumptions behind this association are more so. It assumes that police only operate effectively when they cannot be held accountable by video and assumes that empowering the layman with the ability to self-validate his complaints with undeniable footage is dangerous.
For decades, blacks have vainly called for action against police brutality. However, now their claims can be respected and corroborated with civilian photography. It took screenshots of text messages and haphazard cell-phone videos to indict 15 San Francisco officer, 4 in Fort Lauderdale, 4 in Montgomery, 17 in Miami Beach, and so many more police officers for overt racism. Of the more than 930 people killed by police in this year alone, close to 300 were unarmed. As David Brooks reported in the New York Times, 1 in 20 White officers believed that minorities receive unequal treatment from the police; 57 percent of black officers know this to be true. The power dynamic exists in all realms of violence; the Associated Press uncovered that 1,000 officers were fired for sexual misconduct between 2009 and 2014. Even so, as FBI Director James Comey argues that #BlackLivesMatter is responsible for the “Ferguson Effect” — the current spike in violent crime — the social science evidence is unsubstantiated. Comey assumes the spike is due to police pulling back their crime-fighting resources from violence-ridden communities due to fear of scrutiny. This is a logical fallacy; it assumes aggressive policing sustains society.
Policing is incredibly dangerous; we can understand it can be an emotional rollercoaster of stress, vulnerability and choice. However, just as the lay citizen, they are not above the law and must be held accountable. So, how can we combat police brutality and demand accountability? Some studies — including a 2002 study by the National Center for Women & Policing — show that incorporating women into police departments reduces the use of excessive force. Others argue that recruiting more racially and ethnically diverse officers or including cultural competency programs or emphasizing community policing could help. Undoubtedly, law enforcement must make ways to extinguish the racial discrimination permeating departments and offices. Yet, the aforementioned remedies require time to combat police brutality; that time is no longer available for Rekia Boyd or Eric Garner. For now, it is our responsibility to demand that our representatives don’t soft-pedal issues of police brutality and encourage and share self-reporting videos and footage. While police officers may express power in the badge, the public bear its own in the hashtag.