American Policing and Racism: Then and Now
So much of the dissension in our world, so much of the dissension in America is based around the interactions between a minority and a police officer. This sentiment has been beating like a drum in the background for many minorities for decades now, and due to recent events, it has gotten loud enough for everyone to hear. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police seemed to be the catalyst for the country as a whole to take notice. Growing up as Mexican American immigrant in the projects of South Phoenix I have seen and experienced police harassment firsthand, I always thought this was the norm. As I got older, I realized that there are two methods of policing one for minorities and one method for whites Americans. In this research paper we will be taking an in depth look into the history of policing in America, the relationship with the police, the laws that have been passed, the effects of said laws on minorities, and what corrective actions has been suggested.
Let us take a look at the early history of the police force and why it was established. The first police department was established in 1838 in Boston, Ma, by the 1880's all major U.S cities had police departments. There were two different police departments in the U.S. one in the northern states and the other for the southern states. The police to the north were primarily used for union busting and keeping workers from organizing. To the south was a quite a bit different, their police departments were formed from slave portals that were created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. (Reichel 1992) A slave patrols duties were to chase down and apprehend runaway slaves, to intimidate slaves from organizing a revolt, and to maintain a special form of justice that was outside of the law, to maintain order on the plantation. Post-civil war the slave patrols became police forces and were a means of controlling the now freed slaves.
The Jim Crow laws were the new tools of oppression post emancipation proclamation. They law began in 1877 when the supreme court ruled that no state could prohibit segregation on public transportation, it was in 1883 when the supreme court confirmed the "separate but equal" portion of the law. The Jim Crow Laws separated black and whites America and were punishable by fines or imprisonment. The Jim Crow Laws made it so that blacks were looked at as less than their counterpart whites, they could not use the same parks as them, or even drink from the same water fountain without repercussions. These racist laws were enforced by the police departments and created a culture of discrimination against blacks that is still seen today. The laws also made it difficult for people of color to vote and keep them from receiving proper representation in Washington ensuring that the oppression continued.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 killed the Jim Crow Laws and made policing more fair right? Well before we can answer that let us discuss the law that was passed. The law was passed in 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson that prohibited discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color, or national origin. The Act prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and federally funded programs. It also strengthened the enforcement of voting rights and the desegregation of schools. (Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964) The Act was supposed to eliminate the discrimination on all levels, but the years of systemic racism and police brutality did not end with the passing of the law. In fact, policing tactics towards African Americans or minorities following the passing of the Civil Rights Act did not change much. The Newark Riots of 1967 in Georgia were started in protest for the beating of cab driver John William Smith (a Blackman) at the hands of police. In Portland Oregon for example only 5 percent of the population were black, and they made up just 1.7 percent of the police force. However, 60 percent of the people killed by police in the 1970s were black, and why 45 percent of the arrestees in the 1960s were black. (Law Enforcement & The Civil Rights Movement)
In the 1980's Ronald Reagan makes his declaration for a war on drugs. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses. (History.com Editors War on Drugs) The law set the stage for zero tolerance policies, and aggressive policing at the same time crack cocaine was making its way through lower income, and minority communities. The law also made it so that a 5 grams of crack cocaine in one's possession would carry the same penalty as 500 grams of cocaine. Crack was predominantly a minority drug as it was far more affordable then cocaine, this led to a disproportionate arrest of minorities.
In 1984 Los Angeles was set to host the Olympics, but there seem to be a dark cloud hanging over the city there was a growing drug epidemic, and they need to do something before the Olympics came. The city was dealing with unemployment rates topping 40 percent that primarily affected African American and Latino youths, the crack epidemic was also hitting their communities hard. Local law enforcement was tasked with "cleaning up" the street, and what better way to do this then lock them up. Partnering with the Department of Defense, the LAPD hired additional officers, at a cost of more than $20 million, to "sanitize the area" and keep crime to a minimum during the Games. (Felker-Kantor Analysis | The 1984 Olympics fueled L.A.'s war on crime. Will the 2028 Games do the same?) With the money and new officers added to the force they were able to move out or arrest most people out of the area, with most being African American or Latino. Following the Olympics, the aggressive tactics that the LAPD used to clear the areas did not end when the games did. On February 6th, 1985 they used the funds and the added workforce to perform massive anti-gang sweeps. The sweeps led to the arrest of 24,684 mostly African American youths, often without cause, and involved detaining them for 24 hours in a specially constructed holding facility at the Coliseum. (Felker-Kantor Analysis | The 1984 Olympics fueled L.A.'s war on crime. Will the 2028 Games do the same?)
When Ronald Reagan began the war on drugs, and there was immense pressure put on democrats because there was a perception that they were weak on crime. In 1994 President Clinton passed Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which banned federal assault weapons, expanded on the federal death penalty, elimination of higher education for inmates. It was the largest crime bill in the history of the country and will provide for 100,000 new police
officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs which were designed with significant input from experienced police officers. (Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994) The bill gave states the incentive to build more jails and prisons, this also led to truth in sentencing laws in most states which increased the number and length of prison sentences. The number of state and federal adult correctional facilities rose 43 percent from 1990 to 2005. For a period in the 1990s, a new prison opened every 15 days on average. (Brooke Eisen, The 1994 Crime Bill and Beyond: How Federal Funding Shapes the Criminal Justice System) The passing of the Crime Bill and the laws passed during the Reagan war on drugs area led to increased incarceration of minorities at alarming rates as they saw fit to fill the prisons.
Racial profiling is a term that makes law enforcement cringe at the mere mention of, but it is in fact a key contributor to incarceration rates in America. The laws passed in the 80's and 90's made it so that racial profiling became the norm when policing without it there was no way of filling up the jails. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be stopped by police officers, denied bail, issued longer sentences and convicted of crime, when compared to whites. A key tool used by law enforcement was "stop and frisk" the base for this method required officers to use racial profiling. Under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), officers are allowed to stop you if the officer has reasonable suspicion that you have been, are, or are about to be engaged in criminal activity. (Elkins The Origins of Stop-and-Frisk) Stop and frisk lead to a disproportionate number of African Americans being stopped in Chicago, 72% of all citizens stopped were black and yet they only make up 32% of the population.
Another alarming statistic that should be looked at is the prison population by race in comparison to the percentage that they make up. In 2018, Black inmates made up roughly 33% of the country's prison population - yet just 12% of the US's total population. White inmates, meanwhile, made up 30% of the prison population and 60% of the country's total population. (Shayanne Gal, 26 simple charts to show friends and family who aren't convinced racism is still a problem in America) The majority of suspects in violent crimes are Black Americans according to FBI data, the crimes tend to carry larger sentences as well. Now this data is not saying that they are all not guilty and should not be charged, but that even when these crimes are factored in, they are being sentenced harsher than their white counter parts. Black men of all ages are also 5 times more to be sentenced to jail than white men, and the numbers are even higher when they fall between the ages of 18-19. It must be stated that Pew Research Center analysis showed that African Americans imprisonment rate have dropped by 34% since 2006 yet they are still more likely to be imprisoned. For every 100,000 white men there are 392 inmates, and for every 100,000 black men there were 2,272 inmates. Another contributing factor to the large incarceration rates is that African Americans are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana despite the usage amongst white and blacks being similar. The arrest rates are 567.5 arrest per 100,000 African Americans and for white Americans it was 156.1 arrest per 100,000. The death rate for African Americans at the hands police is disproportionate, it is estimated that 120 African American males out of 100,000 people will die at the hands of police, whereas 39 white American males out of 100,000 people are killed at the hands of police.
Police officers in the United States kill more people than in any other first world country and an alarming amount of the one being killed are people of color. Officers have the right to use force, or even deadly force when deemed necessary but it seems to be a fluid definition as its constantly changing depending on the situation. In recent news we have the death of George Floyd who was killed at the hands of police, when George suffocated after police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on neck for 8 minutes. Had this not been caught on video this case would never have gardener the attention that it did, and in a rare instance the officer was charged with murder. Risk of being killed by police peaks between the ages of 20 and 35 for men and women and for all racial and ethnic groups. (Edwards et al.) According to MappingPoliceViolence.Org officers are charged with a crime 1.7 percent of the time. In 2005 104 state and local law enforcement were arrested for their involvement in deadly shoots and 36 were convicted.
Between 2013 and 2018, a six-year period, 6,178 people were shot to death by police officers. Of the victims whose race was identified, 28% were Black, which is twice the proportion of people who are Black in the overall U.S. population. (Siegel et al.) The data states that 6.6 deaths per million are African Americans when interacting with police officers and, white Americans are killed at a rate of 2.5 deaths per million people, it also states that unarmed African Americans are 17% more likely to be killed by police officers. Black women are killed at 1.4 times the rate of white women, Latino men are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police officers than white men, but the data does show something interesting that Latina women are 12% less likely to be killed then white women.
Now that we have seen the history of the police force, and the death rate at which minorities die at the hands of police, let us look at what changes have been suggested, and done.
The turn of the century began a slow role back of drug the laws that disproportionately affected minorities. The sentiment regarding the war on crime has shifted in the United States from the anger in the 1980's to the Violent Crime bill of the 1990's, to the legalization and decriminalization of Marijuana. Beginning in 2009 states began shortening and lowering mandatory sentencing for drug possession and other minor infractions. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100:1 to 18:1. (History.com Editors) Most police forces have added body cameras that are required to be on while they are out in the field to hold them accountable and create more trust with the community, but the lack of access to the cameras had the effect they would like. Implicit Bias Training is a training that is used to help police officers eliminate any biases that they may have developed against minorities, although it is understood that you can not eliminate unconscious biases the purpose of the training is to make them more understanding of who they are interacting with.
As a country we have an issue with racism in policing, it goes back as far as the beginning of the department itself, in the south they have their roots Slave Patrol, to the Jim Crow Laws that made racial discrimination a norm, and the heavy handed drug laws that primarily effected minorities. The rate at which minorities are arrested and killed in the U.S is alarming, but they are attempting to change from body worn cameras to implicit bias training, there is no solution that solve this overnight but it is definitely a problem. I guess the question to ask is how do we solve this issue, and have we done enough?