In many countries around the world, society’s disadvantaged social groups are much more susceptible to police brutality because they lack the voice necessary to defend their legal rights. According to statistics, the primary victims of police brutality in America are young men of African and Latin descent.
On July 5 and 6, there were two consecutive incidents where young men of African descent were shot and killed by American police officers. This triggered a new round of protests in America. On the night of July 7, while trying to maintain order during a demonstration, the Dallas Police Department was the target of a shooting incident, resulting in five dead and seven injured police officers. This is the department’s highest-fatality incident since 9/11, and is an important example of the relationship between American police and citizens.
In the past few years, American police brutality has raised a tremendous clamor. In the context of Chinese media outlets, the problems between the police and American citizens have become ever more critical. What is the truth when all is said and done? How does this current period of police brutality reflect on American society?
The Origin of Police Brutality
"Police brutality" refers to the excessive use of force necessary for police to enforce the law. It is the most crucial display of abuse of police power. Police brutality is not an isolated case. From a global perspective, the problem is quite common in most countries.
As everyone knows, the modern police system originated in 18th century France. Soon after, the system was established in most countries around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. It can be said that the establishment of the police system and police brutality go hand in hand. In the English speaking world, the etymology of "police brutality" dates back to 1833 in a London newspaper. In the United States, the words first appeared in a local news report by the Chicago Tribune (1872), when police officers beat up a suspect and the phrase "police brutality" was used.
American Police Brutality
American police brutality on a large scale began when the labor movements of the century reached their peak. During a series of strikes in America, police left a looming historical silhouette, including: the 1877 American railroad workers strike,* 1894 Pullman strike, 1912 Lawrence textile workers strike, 1914 Ludlow Massacre, 1919 steel workers strike, and 1924 Hanapepe Massacre.
The Ludlow Massacre took place on April 20, 1914, when the Colorado National Guard attacked workers striking in a nearby camp. Both sides were tangled in warfare, and the incident caused 19-26 deaths (the data of many reports vary), among them two women and 11 children. In the 10 days after, enraged miners armed themselves and attacked factories and mines. During this course of events, the Colorado National Guard had many small-scale "battles." Historians believe that this incident is the peak of U.S. labor conflicts.
The Hanapepe Massacre (also known as the Battle of Hanapepe because both sides were armed) took place on Sept. 9, 1924, and the cause was also a workers’ strike. Local police trying to maintain order opened fire, killing nine workers and seriously injuring seven people. The workers on strike killed three police officers and seriously injured one. The aforementioned event is just a microcosm of American police brutality and police conflict where both police and citizens collectively exhibited atrocities. Posterity judges the rights and wrongs of both parties.
Following increasing reports by the American media, public outrage with police began growing, with increasing amounts of newspapers and television coverage.
In March of 1991, the Los Angeles Police Department violently attacked a suspect, Rodney King. The event was filmed by a white man, who then exposed it to American media outlets. The Los Angeles County court acquitted four police officers involved in the case. Immediately after, the famous 1992 LA riots broke out. This riot directly caused 53 deaths and injured 2,883 people; thousands of shops were burned and the economic losses reached nearly $10 billion. Since then, federal courts heard the cases of four police officers involved and convicted two of them to a 32-month prison sentence. The effect of this case on the American police system was far-reaching, and for a time police brutality somewhat lessened.
Nevertheless, many human rights examiners show a sharp rise in police brutality since 9/11. In 2006, the U.N. Human Rights Council issued a special report that pointed out that the U.S. war on terror has "created a general atmosphere of impunity for American law enforcement officials and the erosion of the few mechanisms for accountability. As a result, uncontrolled police brutality and abuse of law enforcement powers have continued to erode across the U.S." The conclusion of the U.N. report held data that confirmed this. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, from 2003-2009 the United States had a total of 4,813 deaths caused by law enforcement officials.
Don't you think those numbers are alarming? Looking at the latest statistics, from 2013-2016 there have been a total of 4,101 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials. Of those deaths, 1,152 were in 2015 alone. Although a considerable amount of these deaths have occurred because the suspect had a weapon, many were unarmed civilians. Recently, media coverage on victims of police brutality has focused on unarmed young African-American men.
Concerning American police brutality, the English newspaper The Guardian jokingly said that in one day the U.S. had more incidents of police brutality than England and Wales had in one year.
Causes of Police Brutality
Faced with the continued and intensifying case of police brutality, the U.S. develops this reflection for people of all walks of life:
As everyone knows, law enforcement has one of the highest risk factors of all occupations. In a considerable amount of poor countries, law enforcement constantly faces life-threatening situations. During high intensity situations, it becomes impossible to decrease the possibility of excessive use of force. Some analysts say that the foundation of excessive use of police force lies in the "fear" they face in their work environment.
Therefore, internal police systems are developing a progressively lenient culture on police brutality. A similar investigation from the DOJ showed that 84 percent of American police officers said they had witnessed their colleagues using an excessive amount of force on people. Also, some 64 percent of American police officers clearly stated that even if they did see another police officer using an excessive amount of force, they wouldn't report it.
In addition, there are three major causes that cannot be ignored:
First, internal responsibility is ineffective. The lack of effective responsibility worldwide is an important cause of the spread of police brutality. In the U.S., the main investigative body regarding police brutality is Internal Affairs, and for a long time they have been questioned on their accountability. For example, in New Jersey, 99 percent of police brutality cases have not been investigated. In Chicago, the data is even more surprising. From 2002-2004, the Chicago PD received more than 10,000 complaints, and ultimately only 19 police officers were disciplined (.19 percent).
Second, external control has lost its efficiency. In addition to Internal Affairs, U.S. prosecutors have a responsibility to supervise law enforcement. However, this is usually subject to police investigation, which creates many obstacles. This also puts the situation out of reach for many prosecutors. U.S. data shows that 95 percent of cases relating to police brutality are ultimately dropped.
Third, disadvantaged social groups lack a voice. In a considerable amount of countries around the world, disadvantaged social groups are more vulnerable to police brutality, but they lack the voice necessary to defend their legal rights.
According to statistics, the primary victims of police brutality in America are young men of African and Latin descent. Some media outlets have exposed that a Florida police department’s "interrogation" policies specify that African-Americans are considered to be suspicious targets. In the past four years, African-Americans have been interrogated 258 times. Disadvantaged social groups’ lack of voice makes them "safe" targets for police brutality.
The author is an associate professor at the Southeast University School of Law.
*Editor’s Note: Commonly known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.