A Brief History of Police Brutality in the U.S.

On March 7, 1991, Rodney King, a 25 year old black man, was forcibly pulled out of his car by police officers who beat him for a reported 15 minutes. Over 12 cops stood watch during the incident, chatting amongst themselves. When the four officers charged with using excessive force during arrest were acquitted, the historic Los Angeles Riots took place. Over the course of 6 days, fifty people died, 2,300 were injured, and $1 billion resulted in property damage.

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old Black teen, was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Though Zimmerman originally was not arrested, public pressure brought him to trial on a second-degree murder charge, resulting in a lack of conviction.  The Black Lives Matter Movement formed after this incident in unified protest of racial bias.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18 year old unarmed Black teen, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a White police officer. Protests erupted for days after his death and again when the grand jury in charge of Wilson’s trial decided not to press any federal criminal charges. Following this incident the Black Lives Matter social movement gained traction in the U.S. and began to transcend state borders.

This same movement, committed to spotlighting societal intransigence on the issues of police brutality and systemic racism while pushing  towards their eradication on all socioeconomic levels, was once again revitalized in the U.S. with the death of George Floyd. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46 year old unarmed Black man, died in police custody for buying cigarettes with an alleged counterfeit bill. Three officers held him down, Thomas Lane, J.A. Kueng, and Derek Chauvin, the latter by placing a knee on Floyd’s neck. After suffering for five minutes, repeating out loud “I can’t breathe!”, Floyd lost his pulse. It would be another three minutes before officer Tou Thao retired from his post as watchdog and Chauvin lifted his knee from Floyd’s neck. Chauvin has been charged with second degree murder while the other three officers face aiding and abetting second degree murder charges. Now, the Black Lives Matter movement marches worldwide as its members push for transformative change in an unjust policing system.

The Black Lives Matter Movement Marches Nationwide after Floyd’s Death | Photo Courtesy of Duke Chronicle

Rodney King. Travyon Martin. Michael Brown. George Floyd. Each one of their deaths is an isolated example of police brutality. Alone, these incidents grabbed attention and resulted in action. Together, the culmination of events such as the ones described above uncover a trend.

The following data has been compiled from Mapping Police Violence, a site which “meticulously sourced [information] from the three largest, most comprehensive and impartial crowdsourced databases on police killings in the country.”

In 2019, Black people made up 13% of the population despite being 24% of those killed by police. Moreover, Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police even though they are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed compared to White people.

Police Killings Vs. Crime Rates | Photo Courtesy of Society Pages

Further, a graph displaying the average annual police killings against violent crime rates in America’s fifty largest cities from 2013-2018 showed no correlation between crime rate and police killings. A unit example is Buffalo, New York versus Orlando, Florida. Buffalo has a reported 50% person of color  population with a violent crime rate of 12 per 1000.  0 people were killed by Buffalo police from 2013-2016. Orlando, Florida, a city with a 42% person of color population and 9 per 1000 crime rate reported 13 police killings during the same period.

Overall, 99% of police killings from 2013-2019 have resulted in officers being acquitted from their alleged crimes. Not only is it extremely difficult to convict officers of crimes, charging them has proven to be nearly impossible. In an interview with Time, Samuel Sinyangwe, Co-Founder of Mapping Police Violence, stated that among deaths reported by his site, an officer was charged with a crime in only 1.7% of cases.

Mapping Police Violence displays trends from the 21st century. However, fatal clashes between African Americans and police officers have taken place for hundreds of years. Though various ethnicities, genders, ages, etc have been subjected to police brutality since the instigation of an organized form of peace protection, African Americans have beared the brunt of unnecessary police violence throughout history.

According to Britannica, The Great Migration (1916-70) marked the primitive stages of interaction between African Americans and police. As African Americans migrated from the South to more forward-thinking Northern states, White communities were overwhelmed with the flood of dark-skinned individuals relocating. The instant reaction to migrating African Americans was one of hostility, mimicked by both White civilians and police. Many police officers assumed loyalty to the White community and this resulted in Machiavellian action to keep them safe.

The Great Migration resulted in Racial Inequality | Photo Courtesy of Baltimore Magazine

According to Britannica, forms of police brutality used during this era to “keep Whites safe from blacks” included “unlawful arrests, verbal abuse (e.g., racial slurs) and threats, sexual assaults against African American women, and police homicides .”

Although police brutality was on the rise during this time, little resistance took place, mostly due to communication barriers between White and Black groups. Presiding newspapers were run by Whites numb to African American concerns while news outlets such as The Chicago Defender often featured police brutality on the front cover. This racial divide prevented the formation of a unified front for change. In fact, it took over a decade for the statistics on police brutality against the African American community to become public.

Prompted by the criminal actions of Al Capone, the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice published the Illinois Crime Survey, a comprehensive overview of crime in Chicago in 1929. Though the survey focused heavily on crimes concerning Al Capone, it also contained statistics on general police activity. For example, the survey mentioned that African Americans constituted 30% of police killings despite making up only five percent of the population.

Though these figures came as a shock to many, it was not enough to propagate change. Organized protests took shape only after WWII, when the civil rights movement gained support nationwide.

Many African Americans served during the world war in hopes that a U.S. victory would result in better lives for non-White citizens. When they returned home, however, not much had changed. In rightful outrage, members of the Black community demanded their rights be recognized by all forms of power and government. Doing so, however, reinforced a predetermined mindset that they were a violent, unstable group, resulting in more police crackdowns and an invigorated racist attitude among the White community.

Qualified Immunity Protects Cops | Photo Courtesy of Medium

The historically ingrained perspective differences between White and black communities has made it hard to push past preconceived notions concerning racial barriers. Today, powerful unions protect police officers from due process while simultaneously discouraging attorneys from pressing charges. In addition, modern qualified immunity is governed by Harlow Vs. Fitzgerald, the outcome of which “sought to achieve a “balance” between allowing victims to hold officials accountable and minimizing “social costs” to “society as a whole,” according to lawfare. Qualified Immunity works in favor of cops because their duty, by definition, is to ‘protect the peace’ and putting them behind bars is conventionally seen as a ‘social cost’.

The standstill existing pre-world war between White and black worlds broke into a push for equality afterwards, the momentum of which resulted in the civil rights movement. Each day, month, week, year, and decade, America changes, for the better or worse. Today, BLM advocates for change within the policing system in addition to the elimination of systemic racism.  Its full impact is still unknown and impossible to foresee but the movement’s conclusion, whenever that may be, will inevitably go down in world history.

Written by Devina Tavathia

Devina Tavathia is a senior and Co-Editor in Chief for the MCSun. She is on the school's varsity track team and loves volunteering as a Science Olympiad coach at MBMS. In her free time she enjoys grooving to some Urban Choreography at StudioFx.

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