Law enforcement tactics on increased militarization and the use of lethal force have always been a subject of criticism in the United States. However, after a series of events of American police using excessive force against peaceful demonstrations and several high-profile incidents of lethal force application against unarmed individuals, the large majority of whom were black, society has reached a breaking point. The United States faces a reckoning moment of redefining its identity and race relations, as a range of experts and human rights activists emphasize that the actions of the police are unacceptable and based in racial profiling that disproportionately targets African Americans and potentially other ethnic minorities. Law enforcement in the United States needs to undergo fundamental reform by decreasing the use of lethal force in disproportionate situations and slowing militarization while undergoing significant racial bias training and focusing on more community-driven initiatives to fulfill their duties to protect and serve.
Background and Statistics
It is important to define key terms on this topic. Legally, the police can practice what is known use of force which is defined as the amount of effort required to gain compliance from an unbidden subject. Non-deadly force implies the level of force that allows gaining compliance but is not intended to create serious bodily harm or death. Meanwhile, deadly or lethal force is the level of force that an officer uses with the intent and understanding that it will create a substantial risk of serious injury or death. This typically applies to the use of a firearm in a situation, and avoiding the technicalities, is taught to be applied in cases where the officer believes the suspect is armed and intends to attack or there is already a direct physical threat to the officer in any form. The last key term is excessive force, which is the “application of force beyond what is reasonably believed to be necessary to gain compliance from a subject in any given incident” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021).
The use of force has long been criticized by experts and rights experts, with the emphasis that, combined with the militarization of police, the training of officers encourages using force before any other resolutions. In a wide variety of scenarios where the person is unarmed but simply scared, anxious, or has a mental health condition, they may not comply or act aggressively, causing forceful interactions. It is evident that the use of force in such circumstances is inappropriate, but almost instinctual police training causes them to perceive more situations as threats and respond efficiently. The counter to the argument supporting the status quo of police training is that when the suspect is armed and intends to harm the officer or someone else, such rapid response with the use of force can save lives. This stems from a position of being strong on crime, explored in the next section, but can lead to innocent deaths as well, which law enforcement has consistently viewed as more of collateral damage rather than victims of their actions.
A range of data, unfortunately, supports the fact that police are acting increasingly more violently and that excessive is often racially biased. Men and women of all racial and ethnic groups have a chance to be killed by the police force, with the risk peaking between 20 and 35 years of age. A comprehensive study by Edwards et al. (2019) found that African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos, both men and women, have a higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than their white peers. Black men face the highest level of risk, of approximately 1 in 1000 chance of being killed by police, 2.5 times more likely than white men (Edwards et al., 2019).
Although calls upon the police to be transparent and release data, very few departments around the country have shared data with the FBI in 2019 launched a national data collection website, which is voluntary. It is known that police spending has tripled between 1968 and 2018 by 168%, with per capita spending on police also doubling. A significant part of the budget goes towards militarization. Over 8,000 agencies used the Department of Defense 1033 program to acquire military-grade equipment worth over $6 billion since the 1990s. At the same time, increased use of military tactics and aggressive use of force by police has increased, ranging from individual lethal force use to no-knock raids (such as the one infamously killing Breonna Taylor in 2020) (Charles Koch Institute, 2018).
Causes of Police Violence
Police violence or brutality is defined as human rights violations and repeated intentional use of excessive force by law enforcement, including but not limited to beatings, racial abuse, indiscriminate use of riot control agents, unjustified arrests, and in some cases, use of torture and unlawful killings. Police brutality is a human rights issue because, at best, it violates the freedom from discrimination, the right to security and freedom, and equal protection under the law, but at its worst, it leads to individuals being “deprived of the right to life” (Amnesty International, 2021).
There have been three primary causes or associations to police violence identified. The first is racial profiling. As shown by statistics, black individuals and minorities are more likely to face arrest or violence from police. The abuse of power by police typically occurs towards minorities, specifically African Americans and Hispanics. This can be attributed to several factors. Some indicate the history of the police force in the United States, which actually began in its official capacity as slave patrols in the South, and later as major urban cities formed their police departments, these were targeted at the high influx of immigration rates associated with crime (Lepore, 2020).
Throughout the centuries of history, the culture of police departments has not been race-friendly. The makeup of the police force is 67% white and only 12.4% black (DataUsa, 2021). For many police officers, even non-white, there is a certain level of antagonism towards black neighborhoods and criminals, as, over decades, many police lives were lost to gang warfare. The police often argue that they are so heavily armed and ready to respond with lethal force because the U.S. population is armed as well, with 1 in 3 people owning guns and many deaths occurring due to gun misuse. However, racial profiling is prevalent, driven both by culture, and policy, such as the infamous ‘broken windows theory’ in NYC, which essentially provided police with broad powers to ‘address crimes’ in neighborhoods but ended up being a racially targeted policy that allowed police to stop anyone without cause, the majority of suspects being black.
Racial profiling is the discriminatory practice of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on a group of characteristics associated with crime, such as race, ethnicity, religion, or origin. Use of race can be used to stop ‘suspicious’ individuals on the street or driving, with the aim to search for some violation of the law (carrying narcotics or weapons without a permit, driving without a license) (ACLU, 2020). This type of approach to policing leads to a greater potential for conflict because 1) the officer already has a perception that they are facing a criminal, thus being in a position to respond with force, and 2) the individual, especially if a minority, is agitated and feeling threatened due to the often-unjustified stop, may act in a manner that is perceived threatening. Therefore, police interaction can quickly turn into arrest or use of deadly force.
This leads to the second and third reasons to police violence, which are police individual and organizational corruption, and lack of training (or training and policy that are inappropriate for the 21st century). It can be argued that the large majority of law enforcement officers are competent and not intently violent or abusive. However, there are a number of officers who are abusive, have faced official reprimands for excessive force, and use their profession as a psychological ‘power trip’ to fulfill personal prejudices. This has been called the ‘bad apples’ argument suggesting that a few police officers in these high-profile incidents are ruining the reputation of the whole force.
However, there are two issues with this argument. First, structural racism is highly prevalent in law enforcement agencies, so the culture within ultimately reinforces the officers’ actions. Second, organizational corruption and misconduct are ripe. This ranges from the police ‘above the law’ mentality that is highly prevalent among officers and their peers to the so-called ‘Blue Wall of Silence’, which closes ranks around even the most incompetent and abusive officers. It is an unspoken code that police do not turn on one of their own, even in cases where the officer obviously violated the law and every ethical rule possible. It is notoriously difficult to get officers to testify directly against their peers or acknowledge that an office is inherently unfit (Ray, 2020).
Finally, there is the issue of training. There is an evident shortage of law enforcement in most urban areas. Officers are typically rushed out quickly to police the streets with proper preparation for the experiences they will face. In many aspects of their jobs, the police not just make arrests or citations but have to deal directly with communities, help people, or recognize and act upon critical situations that are often outside the ‘book’ that had prepared them. Once in the force, police rarely undergo repeated training, which may leave many senior officers with outdated knowledge and practices. There is an inherent need to ensure better preparation and consistent training for officers, with a strong focus on the community and people-focused interactions with bias training, in order to prevent incidents where innocent civilians die.
Police brutality targeted against African Americans is not new. The Civil Rights Movement saw many such incidents, especially the famous March on Selma ‘Bloody Sunday’ where police openly and aggressively attacked a peaceful march led by John Lewis. and other civil rights leaders, resulting in several deaths and many severe injuries. In modern history, the concept of police brutality came to the public spotlight with the Rodney King incident. King, who was on parole, was supposedly driving under the influence and led the police on a high-speed chase through downtown Los Angeles. Upon finally stopping, King was dragged out of the car and severely beaten for over 15 minutes by over a dozen officers while others stood by watching, resulting in severe injuries, including skull fractures. The scene was filmed by 4 bystanders and shocked the nation. During a trial, 4 officers were charged with using excessive force but were eventually acquitted, beginning massive five-day civil unrest in the city and throughout the United States. Eventually, 2 officers served a little time for violating civil rights, the other 2 fined, and the chief of police had to resign, but ironically little changed in the next 30 years leading up to current times (Poon & Patino, 2020).
As the Internet and smartphones became widespread in the digital culture post-2010, more incidents of police violence became known due to the ability to easily record and share encounters, with several high-profile cases leading up to events of today. One of the first prominent cases was Anthony Lamar Smith, who was shot dead in 2011 because the officer supposedly saw a weapon, but later it was discovered he intended to kill Smith. In 2013, black focused organization and political movement project named Black Lived Matter after an innocent killing of a black teenager Trayvon Martin by a homeowner. The movement erupted nationally after national cases of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, for the first time seeing organized protests and unrest at a level not seen since Rodney King. Black Lives Matter (BLM) has spread globally and is used as a hashtag to call for grassroots activism in order to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes” (Howard University School of Law, n.d., par. 2).
However, after almost annual protests, not much was being done in terms of correcting the situation or promoting police reform. The legal cases of all the victims of police brutality mentioned above resulted in cops being found not guilty, and at best, the families received financial settlements from the city. The militarization of police continued, and at most, it became law in some jurisdictions for police to use body-worn cameras during all stops and interactions. The year 2020 has become a reckoning in the conflict between police and protesters, as several high-profile incidents pushed the black community and BLM supporters to the brink. The most notable of which was the death of George Floyd, where an unarmed man in non-felony was suffocated to death by police stranglehold and knee on the back of the neck. The death, which was witnessed and recorded by many witnesses, served as the breaking point, initiating massive protests, and memorials, and stirring the political discussion at the highest levels on the issue. The protests reached a level of significant anger and violence, with major civil unrest starting around the country (Taddonio, 2021).
For the most part, the widespread protests seen in 2020 were about fairness and justice. The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to be outside of partisan politics but strives for justice that black communities feel like they deserve and eliminate the injustices they have faced for decades in the form of segregation, discrimination, ‘enhanced’ policing, ‘Broken window policing’, racial profiling, and other forms of ultimately racism-based behavior in law enforcement. The protesters were seeking justice for the involved police officers and decision-makers for the incidents of Breanna Taylor and George Floyd, as history has shown that the abusive officers would often escape punishment. Furthermore, they simply wanted fairness in that when police interact with a black person; the individual is treated with respect and human dignity, not perceived as a constant threat because of the color of their skin (Strickland, 2020). Although there were some extremists in the BLM protests, calling for violence against white businesses and harassment of white individuals, seeing this as some sort of justice and revenge, they are a strong minority and did not represent the mission of the protests or the movement.
The need for change is supported publicly by everyone, ranging from politicians to corporations to everyday people of all races. However, since the massive unrest a year ago, little has been done other than small attempts to reform police departments across the nation (not all of them successful) and the introduction of more diversity training. However, as described by Politico reporter Wiltz (2021), “something has shifted, something tangible — and intangible. Maybe it’s just a shift in perception, a deeper understanding.” The process of change at such a fundamental level is difficult and requires comprehensive cooperation from all stakeholders, which is difficult, if not impossible at this time of division about practically every important topic.
Political Discourse and Solutions
Like many other contentious social issues, police violence and racial justice have become an issue of partisan politics. The Democratic party is largely in support of reform and stricter accountability for police. Notably, African Americans in the majority vote Democrat. Meanwhile, the Republican party, while acknowledging that there are ‘bad apples’ in the force and these incidents are inappropriate, for the most part, supports a hands-off approach and lets police departments make their own changes as necessary. Notably, a significant majority of officers nationwide and virtually all police unions support the Republicans. It is important to note that police unions in themselves have become highly influential political players, having enormous lobbying interests in Congress.
Therefore, when politicians discuss high-profile incidents and attempt to introduce policies for reform, unions see it as an attack on the police in general and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead, they endorse those who blindly support them, such as President Trump, who even publicly sought to justify racial profiling and excessive force used by police. Such politicizing of police is dangerous, as the police hold influence and have historically, but even in modern elections, can be used for voter intimidation in covert ways. It leads to an erosion of democracy in a slow but consistent manner, as the police become a tool in the hands of one respective political party (Oriola, 2020). Given the current political status quo, extreme partisanship, and more prioritizing issues at hand, it is unlikely that any major police reforms will come soon/
Police violence is undoubtedly a major social issue; even if the cases are rare, they significantly undermine the trust of the public. There is already a highly distrusting and tense relationship between black communities and law enforcement. At the end of the day, it is on policymakers and top law enforcement command to implement police reforms. Various solutions, from demilitarization, comprehensive bias training, and community-oriented policing to more radical ones, such as the full disbandment of police departments in favor of a simple task force, have been proposed. However, one thing is clear; it is that inaction and minor changes are no longer adequate, and after the breaking point of 2020, society’s perspectives have shifted to the expectation of change. Otherwise, the problem and subsequent civil unrest will continue and become exponentially worse until changes are made.
ACLU. (2020). Racial profiling: Definition.
Amnesty International. (2021). Police violence.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2021). Use of force.
Charles Koch Institute. (2018). Militarization of police.
DataUSA. (2021). Police officers.
Edwards, F., Lee, H., & Esposito, M. (2019). Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(34), 16793–16798.
Howard University School of Law. (n.d.). Black Lives Matter movement.
Lepore, J. (2020). The invention of the police. The New Yorker.
Oriola, T. (2020). Police and politics have been dangerously intertwined during the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The Conversation.
Poon, L., & Patino, M. (2020). CityLab University: A timeline of U.S. police protests. Bloomberg.
Ray, R. (2020). Bad apples come from rotten trees in policing.
Strickland, J. (2020). Black Lives Matter is about justice and fairness. HeraldNet.
Taddonio, P. (2021). George Floyd’s murder and police accountability, one year later: Our coverage, at a glance. Frontline.
Wiltz, T. (2021). George Floyd, one year later.