In recent years, law enforcement has faced significant public criticism and calls for reform due to overwhelming evidence of highly outdated and unethical culture, practices, and intentional abuses. The social reckoning has come particularly in the face of police brutality against African Americans through high profile incidents where innocent people died due to use of excessive force. Police misconduct stems from create a toxic and dangerous culture rather than being the agency meant to serve and protect, leading to behaviors which include racial discrimination, excessive force, and wrongful use of police powers.
Law enforcement and racial minorities, particular African Americans, have a difficult history. That stems from history, as the origins of modern-day policing are traced to first formal departments that were created in the early 1700’s to prevent or chase down runaway slaves. In modern industrial society, police throughout the majority of the 20th century was an all-white male institution, often used to enforce unjust laws such as the Jim Crow laws and later segregation against racial minorities (Lepore). Police spent more time patrolling black communities, a trend continuing to this day, leading to more black arrests. In combination with already existing racism and discrimination, racial profiling of black Americans became commonplace, and it became synonymous in society that “black people were prone to criminality” (Lepore).
In modern-day, race continues to play a challenging role, with statistics to support it. Majorities of both blacks (84%) and whites (63%) indicate that minorities are treated less fairly by police and the criminal justice system (Desilver et al.). That is seen both in arrests and incarceration rates, as black adults, particularly males, are five times more likely to be stopped without just cause because of race, then arrested and incarcerated (Desilver et al.). One in three of black males can be expected to be sentenced to prison, while only one of 17 for white males will statistically end up jailed. Despite representing just 32% of the US population, African Americans make up more than 56% of the incarcerated population (“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”).
It is a combination of factors, such as currently police often are trained to use lethal force when feeling direct threats, but as reality has demonstrated, these threats are driven by underlying racial bias. One clear example of this is that white officers are five times more likely to fire their gun in a black neighborhood, in comparison to a black officer in the same community. Furthermore, even though police racial discrimination is common, it still represents a very small percentage of officers, the so called ‘bad apples.’ However, because these officers were either in leadership positions or socially influential, many of those connected to them demonstrated similar behaviors (Peeples). This led to a spread of culture, one of which where it was almost respected to be racially biased and there was a lack of consequence for pursuing such behaviors.
Use of Excessive Force
For decades, police have used very aggressive and masculine ‘warrior-like’ mentality, in light of its militarization and fights against gangs and drug cartels, but that has little place in peaceful residential communities. Excessive force is defined as the use of force in excess to what is reasonably believed to be necessary, with deadly force employed when there is the use of lethal weapons such as guns with the strong probability to severely injure or kill a suspect. Use of force is necessary in various police circumstances, such as an incompliant suspect, in self-defense, and to protect another individual or group. Historically, courts have backed police use of excessive and deadly force, supporting the police judgement in many cases. However, there have been incidents where police are clearly demonstrating unreasonable use of force, which is generally labeled as police brutality. One of the major issues is that under any incidents of police violence, the federal stature 18 U.S.C. § 242 applies. It is challenging for prosecutors to use since it does not clearly define what conduct constitutes a criminal act, just the circumstances under which a government officer can be responsible for violating constitutional rights (Merkl).
Due to both the power given to law enforcement and inherent protections they have politically, socially, and through unionization, police until recently have been at the top echelons of power and influence in society. Excessive force use by both individual officers and sometimes whole departments was overlooked, or quickly settled in courts. In recent years, there has been a greater public reckoning and demands for justice, with many officers facing trial for their actions and deep investigations conducted on widespread abuse throughout police departments. Without a doubt, police brutality is connected to race, as historically and in modern-day, the use of excessive and deadly force has been against minorities, at a disproportionate rate. In a long-term investigation by the Washington Post, it was uncovered that official statistics fail to register fatal police shootings by more than half, demonstrating a level of corruption or fraud. From 2015 to 2022, the number of shootings remained relatively similar of approximately 1000 with about a 5% variation. However, the rate of deadly force against black Americans was twice as high than against white Americans, 40 per million compared to just 16 per million (Tate et al.). This is an indicator that police brutality and excessive force are a physical tool abused by police in its enforcing practices and racial discrimination.
Wrongful Use of Police Powers
One of the final aspects to consider is police misuse of its powers. As mentioned earlier, the overwhelming number of arrests among African Americans along with disproportionate arrest rates or use of excessive force stem from the abuse of basic police powers. While the Fourth Amendment is meant to protect US citizens from unreasonable search and seizures, there are a range of exceptions as well ‘reasonable’ justifications. One of these is what is known as the Terry stop, deriving from the 1968 Supreme Court case, which allows police to stop and frisk suspects that they believe is, has, or plans to commit a crime (“Stop and Frisk”). Although that scope is narrow, it has been used to justify police abuse of this policy, targeted once again, at African Americans.
It was supported by policy, such as the infamous New York City’s Broken Windows policing, which believed that by criminalization of small crimes and over policing of black neighborhoods, the anti-social and criminal behavior could be stopped. As a result, officers racially targeted African Americans with the Terry stop, found them in possession of minor drugs or weapons, arresting and incarcerating them. These were later proven to be highly unethical and unconstitutional with prevalence wrongful arrests and imprisonments, as Blacks and Latinos made up 84% of all police stops and charged for very minor or unrelated charges (Vedantam et al.). Police abused their power, driven by policy but also self-interest as the city government at the time was rewarding high arrest rates, without realizing the social harm it was causing.
The evidence shown in this report suggests that law enforcement has tremendously failed the people living in US communities. Police misconduct used as a general term to describe these actions of racial misconduct, excessive force, and misuse of police powers only highlights a culture that is in great need of reform. However, law enforcement has notoriously been resistant to change, and even efforts both from outside policy and internal reforms are only making incremental progress. Change will occur only with the underlying shift to culture and role of the police institution in society, from being the ‘enforcer’ to one that supports and protects, inclusive of everyone regardless of background.
“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP, n.d.
Desilver, Drew, et al. ” 10 things we know about race and policing in the U.S..” Pew Research Center, 2020.
Lepore, Jill. “The Invention of the Police.” The New Yorker, 2020.
Merkl, Taryn A. “Protecting Against Police Brutality and Official Misconduct.” Brennan Center., 2021.
Peeples, Lynne. “What the data say about police brutality and racial bias — and which reforms might work.” Nature, 2020.
Tate, Julie, et al. “Fatal Force.” The Washington Post, 2022.
“Stop and Frisk.” Legal Information Institute, n.d.
Vedantam, Shankar, et al. ” How A Theory of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong.” NPR, 2016.