In 2015, law enforcement officers killed approximately 1139 persons in America. African Americans accounted for over 25% of these victims, a number that this disproportionately higher compared to the population of the Blacks (The Guardian, 2016). Statistically, African Americans are more likely to be killed at the police’s hands than any other ethnic group. They are also more likely to be unarmed during their killing. While the phenomenon of police brutality against Blacks is not new, recent high profile incidents have reinvigorated protests and thrust these racial injustices into scrutiny. Despite the growing needs for surgical changes in policies and law enforcement practices and widespread recognition of the seriousness of the problem, officers are rarely charged for their deeds. Prosecutions of use of deadly force and killings by officers are not treated as norm but as the exception. When criminal charges are placed on those police officers accused of killing, they are either acquitted or receive lighter penalty if convicted.
Excessive Use of Force and Racial Profiling
Excessive force is the force applied by officers that is intended or likely to cause dead (Gaines & Miller, 2017). Across demographically and geographically diverse areas of America, use of deadly force is disproportionately used against African Americans, even after considering variations for rates of violent crime. Excessive use of force and racial profiling by law enforcement erodes public confidence in the institutions. Rather than working with police officers, the community looks at them with suspicion. This results in tension and collision.
Racial profiling refers to the practice of targeting certain groups of people for police action based merely on their ethnicity or race rather than any reasonable suspicion (Gaines & Miller, 2017). Racial profiling has been the constant force guiding police functions in America.
There are many incidences of excessive use of police during which unarmed young African American men are killed. The killing of Michael Brown sparked days of protests condemning racial profiling and police misconduct. This African American teen was shot death by a white police officer called Darren Wilson (Sommers, 2016). The decision of the grand jury not to indict Wilson pointed to institutionalized and systematic racism.
Another high profile police killing involve the case of Eric Garner, a resident of Staten Island. Police offer Daniel Pantaleo killed Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes (Sommers, 2016). A video recording showed that the said police offer placed Garner onto a chokehold, a technique prohibited by the New York Police Department. Garner’s killing was followed by successive police killings which drew national attention. In November, 2014, Cleveland police officers killed Tamir Rice while playing with a toy gun. They mistook the toy to be a real firearm. In 2015, Officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scot eight times. Scot was shot while running away from the said officer (Sommers, 2016). The arrest and killing of Freddie gray in Baltimore is another case worth mentioning.
Police officers are hardly held responsible for excessive use of force to the dismay of criminal justice defenders and activists. There are several systemic obstacles that historically hamper police accountability. Police bill of rights and statues ingrained in police union contracts often shield officers for their actions. However, the main barrier to police accountability rests on two precedent cases set by the Supreme Court- Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor. In the former case, a police officer Elton Hymon shot dead an unarmed teen escaping after a house burglary (Gaines & Miller, 2017). The Tennessee statute allowed police officers to keep escaping suspect by shooting. By focusing on the statute rather than the actions of Hymon, the Court found it unconstitutional to use deadly force on a suspect who is not posing a threat ton officer and to other people in the vicinity. However, the decision of the court did not get rid of police discretion and power in such situations. Officers would still use deadly force based on the probable cause that the escaping suspect poses a threat of death or injury to others. In this regard, the Court recognized the ability of officers to make split-second decisions without fearing the legal implications. Four years later the Supreme Court attempted to clarify this concept in Graham v. Connor case. The court stated that the “use of any force should be judged by the reasonableness of the officer on the scene” (Gaines & Miller, 2017:109).
Prosecutors and judges often see such high profile murders as justified. This is evidenced in court cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in which the court deemed the excessive use of force by police officer reasonable under the circumstances. The court’s failure to indict officers responsible for these killing is manifest of deeply rooted racism inherent in the law enforcement system.
There is need for accountability and well-defined policies to eliminate unjustified behavior based on racial profiling. Detailed policies, mentoring and training are required to educate police officers on liabilities, physical, emotional, social and psychological damage of deadly force and police brutality. Police should receive training on implicit racial bias, communication skills, use of nonlethal force and real-life situations.
There is also need to create minimal national standard that law enforcement agencies should meet. The standard should provide tools for building bettor operations, improves resources and tools available to investigate and prevent police misconduct. In relation to recruitment, law enforcement agencies should be required to hire a diverse force which is a representative of the community they serve.
Body cameras can be effective in providing evidence of wrongdoing and police errors. The use of body cameras will enable managers to supervise or monitor actions of officers in the field, identify errors and hold officers accountable (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2015). The cameras can tell what happened in cases of excessive use of force and to exonerate or indict officers against claims of excessive use of force.
Cole, G. F., Smith, C. E.& DeJong, C. (2018). Criminal Justice in America (9th Ed). Boston: Cengage Learning.
Gaines, L. K. & Miller, R. L. (2017).CJ. Boston: Cengage Learning
Sommers, R. (2016).Will putting cameras on police reduce polarization. Yale Law Journal, 125(5) 1302-1362
The Guardian. (2016, Dec). The Counted: People Killed by Police in the US. Retrieved on Jan 16, 2018 from http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database
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