Are the trends in police violence new?

Black Lives Matter Protest, Seattle WA. Photo by Kelly Kline via Flickr

By Isabela Rocha
Boston University News Service

Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by police in North Carolina on April 21. Since the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2014, similar cases such as the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and George Floyd have become more visible to the public eye. 

According to Garry Potter, an Eastern Kentucky University Justice Studies professor, police brutality has not increased in the past year; rather, it has become more visible through social media.

“Police, from the beginning, have been horrifyingly brutal,” Potter said. “The difference is now we know about it.”

As of April 21, police have killed 335 people this year, about 32% of whom were identified as non-white, according to 2021 data by Mapping Police Violence. Last year, police killed 1,126 people, about 41% of whom were people of color. 

Despite making up 13% of the population, Black people in the US are 3 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed when they are killed, according to Mapping Police Violence. 

Black and Hispanic communities in the U.S. tend to worry more about brutal encounters with police than the white community, affecting their mental health, according to a 2020 study in the Victims and Offenders Journal. 

That worry happens on a day-to-day basis.In the long term, this daily worry can lead to anxiety and depression, Amanda Graham, an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University and one of the co-authors of the study published in the Victims and Offenders Journal, said. 

“We’re talking about a constant rumination — a constant worry,” Graham said. 

Most killings by police happen during traffic stops, mental health and welfare checks and calls for non-violent offenses, according to Mapping Police Violence data. This has led many black individuals to be weary of law enforcement.

Black people in the U.S. would rather be victims of a crime than talk to law enforcement, according to an April 2021 study co-performed by Graham. This relationship of distrust comes from a history of violent encounters with the police. 

“We can think of several instances during the 60s and 70s in which law enforcement clashed violently with Civil Rights Activists,” Graham said. “This distrust definitely has some solid roots in the sense that some of these individuals who experienced that are still alive today.”

Yet distrust in police doesn’t lead communities of color to call 911 less after hearing about a recent instance of police brutality, according to a study on the 2020 American Sociological Review. Because disorder and crime tends to be high in those areas, people still rely on the police, Michael Zoorob, the study’s author, said. 

“That creates a lot of ambiguity and tension where people both distrust and are afraid of the police, but occasionally rely on the police to try to deal with problems of crime and disorder,” Zoorob said. 

Around the 1830s, Northern centralized police forces were created to keep poor individuals, immigrants and freed slaves within the working class, according to Potter’s article

Police are rarely held accountable for the violence they commit, according to Mapping Police Violence. Between 2013 and 2020, about 98% of officers who killed civilians were not charged with a crime. 

On April 20th, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder for the death of George Floyd. President Biden talked about the trial in a same-day statement, mentioning Floyd’s family and acknowledging the importance of addressing systemic racism in the U.S.

 “Nothing can ever bring their brother — their father back — but this can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America,” Biden said.

Only a few cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, measure police violence. However, the U.S. has no national database on police violence. This makes it difficult to measure police violence in the U.S. through time, Zoorob said.

“We’re sort of relying on press reports,” Zoorob said. “Taking a very long view, the police are shooting fewer people now than they were in the 1970s, but all kinds of violence in the U.S. are much less common now than they were in the past.”

Bystander footage circulating on social media gave police brutality more visibility and press coverage, leading more people to care about the issue, Zoorob said. The Black Lives Matter Movement also brought national attention to the issue; it presented police brutality as a systemic problem — not an isolated one. 

Protestors were met with violence when demonstrating against police brutality last year, according to a Forensic Architecture analysis. Between May 26 and Nov. 24, police were violent towards journalists, protesters and medics on more than 1,000 occasions. 

As a result of this violence, Jeremy Shulkin helped form Defund Worcester Police (DWP). Tracking local records, DWP found that on top of the police budget — which is the second biggest city expense — the local government spends extra money settling lawsuits against the police department. 

“We started thinking, ‘how can we prove the police department costs more money than it actually does in the budget?’” Shulkin said. “A good chunk of that money is going to the police making things less safe.”

Following the murder of George Floyd, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to combat police brutality, systemic racism, racially based human rights violations and violence against peaceful protesters. 

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a March 2021 session that she will present a report this June with measures to combat this issue.

“My report to the Council in June will recommend an agenda for transformative change to dismantle systemic racism and police brutality against Africans and people of African descent, and to advance accountability and redress for victims,” Bachelet said. 

Bachelet also said the report will analyze governments’ responses to peaceful anti-racism protests. 

House Representative Karen Bass introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 last August. The bill includes measures to hold law enforcement accountable for discriminatory policing practices and the creation of a national database of police misconduct. It is pending Senate approval. 

President Biden recognized the bill in his first address to Congress on Wednesday.

“Congress should act,” Biden said. “We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”

Before being elected, Biden promised to take measures towards racial equity, including an Extend the Voting Rights Act and a SAFE Justice Act, within his first 100 days in office. As of April 26, none of the proposals have come into effect, according to an assessment by NPR.  

The origins of police vary depending on the American region, but all contributed to the racial and class divide existent today, Potter said. 

 As cities developed during the American industrialization, mercantile elites pushed the government to create a centralized police force for the “collective good,” according to Potter’s article. They wanted an institution that was lawfully allowed to use physical force to contain workers’ strikes. 

Private policing already existed, but business owners wanted to save money, so they pushed for the state to take charge of things, according to Potter’s article; there is evidence of crime happening at the time, but not enough to be considered a crime wave, suggesting police served the elite’s interests. 

In the South, police started around the 1700s with the “Slave Patrol,” according to the summary. Those groups were meant to chase and return runaways, maintain work discipline and instill terror to prevent revolts among slaves. 

After the Civil War, the Patrols became the centralized police. They continued to enforce segregation laws, denying freed slaves equal rights, according to the article. 

“There is a very strong strand of white supremacy in US politics and in the US economy,” Potter said. “The use of police power is designed to protect that. Policing exists to make sure there is a race and class divide. They’re there to preserve order. The question is, ‘whose order?’” 

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