Police brutality in the United States has been a monumental and widespread problem for many years. Recent events have seen the US police involved in violent behaviour against the American people stopped during the current protests, identifying them as “criminals.” The United States of America is a huge country and, for this reason, it often has to deal with different situations all over its territory. For police departments, there is no difference: several departments, several managements, several ways of thinking and behaving. But if one thing seems to be shared by many of them, that is the use of violence.
Last May, a new murder happened in Minneapolis, within the state of Minnesota: a black man, who was trying to buy cigarettes from a shop, was killed through suffocation by a policeman. The black man’s destiny has been particularly cruel that night: the man, named George Floyd, was well-known in the neighborhood. The tobacco shop owner was very familiar with him. But that night he was not present, as a young boy replaced him. It was this very boy who found out that Floyd was trying to pay cigarettes with a false bill. He had no idea who Floyd was, nor he knew that the black man, which had tried the same trick several other times due to his poor financial standing, was not a dangerous criminal.
The young boy’s reaction, which would not have been put into practice by the more tolerant and conscious shop owner, was to call the police. Soon a policeman came and arrested Floyd. Derek Chauvin, the arresting officer, kept his knee pushed on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes despite his supplications to let him stand up and breathe. He did not change his hold of Mr. Floyd despite being in front of several passers-by who were screaming to stop. He did not until Floyd stopped breathing altogether.
This is not a unique case as, unfortunately, this is not a sporadic phenomenon. Only a few days after this event, another man was killed during the protests risen in Louisville because of Mr. Floyd’s tragic demise. Police officers shot against a group of people trying to save themselves from the chaos by taking shelter in David McAtee’s popular West End eatery YaYa’s BBQ. The latter died as he was reached by one of the 18 gunshots.
Just as happened to George Floyd and David McAtee, many other people died by brutal behaviour of policemen in the USA. As the picture shows, during the last year in the USA there were only 27 days in which police did not kill someone.
Which are the likely causes of these events and the reasons of their frequency? In order to give some explanation to such a critical phenomenon, it is pivotal to identify and explore the shortcomings in the US police system.
As we attempt to understand the origin of police brutality, it is important to understand the very origins of policing in the United States. There are two main narratives around the origins of US law enforcement.
One narrative states that American policing has been influenced by the English system throughout the 19th century. Policing in England – and consequently in Colonial America – was based on a watch system of volunteering citizens, who provided social services. Nonetheless, this system was largely ineffective and disorganized especially because it was voluntary. Subsequently, the responsibility of enforcing laws shifted from individual volunteers to organized groups of men living within the community. England developed the so-called frankpledge system, a semi-structured organization formed by a small group of men (the tythings) charged with capturing criminals and bringing them to Court.
Nonetheless, this policing organization remained weak and ineffective. As a result, in 1829, the Home Secretary of England Sir Robert Peel introduced to the Parliament the Metropolitan Police Act. Such legislation had the goal of creating a police force to manage the social conflicts resulting from the rapid urbanization and industrialization taking place in London. In September of the same year, the London Metropolitan Police was created: it is considered the first modern police department of the English system. The same scheme was then also adopted by American police agencies and still remains in place in some contemporary police agencies across the United States.
Other scholars and historians assert that the first policing has much more distant roots. According to this scholarship, US policing would descend from slave patrols in the late 1700s. Slaves patrols lived in the southern slave-holding states and they were volunteering squadrons charged with maintaining control over slave populations.
They were in charge of returning slaves who tried to escape, who rebelled against their owners or who were found to violate plantation rules. South Carolina was the first state in America to adopt this law system. Slave patrols were therefore founded to manage the race-based conflicts occurring in the southern regions of Colonial America.
Slaves’ patrols were known for their high level of violence, brutality, and ruthlessness. Over time, these groups became the newly established police departments of the United States of America.
POLICING & INDUSTRIALIZATION
Notwithstanding, it is also necessary to identify the moment in which the police system developed into the industrialization era.
As it is well known, at the beginning of the 1800s the United States of America was characterized by a newly industrialized economy. Industrialization – firstly started in England – determined a strong process of urbanization, which led many people to move from the countryside to the major cities. Those people would compose new classes of workers. Soon, these events changed the whole system of social stratification adding a new set of threats, subsumed under the title of the “dangerous classes”.
On the one hand, the industrialization led the country towards rapid economic growth; on the other hand, it represented a new challenge for social control. The demand for order rapidly increased and, with it, a new approach to manage the new social system was developed: a “preventive orientation”. The new approach was built upon the idea that the policemen would have been able to prevent the rapidly increasing crime levels and criminal behaviours.
But that meant that any situation in which someone was considered a potential criminal legitimized the police to intervene. This way, the United States became what Allan Silver called, in the late 1900s, “a policed society”:
“A policed society is unique in that central power exercises potentially violent supervision over the population by bureaucratic means widely diffused throughout civil society in small and discretionary operations that are capable of rapid concentration”.Allan Silver, “The Demand for Order in Civil Society,” The Police ed. David J. Bordua (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1976) p. 8.
POLICING & POLITICS
The increasing of threats caused by the birth of a new “dangerous class” of workers during the industrialization era transformed the police in a crucial institution. Over time, and particularly during the 1800s, this led to the development of a “sick” relationship between the police and local politicians.
This relationship had a reciprocal nature: on the one side, politicians helped the officers to acquire their jobs; on the other side, police officers helped politicians to maintain their political offices by persuading citizens to vote for them: many American police departments depended entirely both for their resources and authorization from local political leaders.
For these reasons, the actual police supervision was completely fictional. Unfair police officers felt safe to use violence to punish criminals who were acting in an unlawful manner due to the absence of supervision and thanks to the politician’s protection.
POLICING PRACTICES & THE LAW
Moreover, one additional reason legitimizing police officers in employing violence against criminals was that this behaviour was protected by the law.
Since the 19th century and up to the present day, the culture of police departments has been characterized by several ethically poor practices. Two of them particularly stand out from the others: the so-called Blue wall of silence and the highly diffused policing practice of “stop-and-frisk.” In addition, there is also a legal doctrine protecting many violent policemen: the “qualified immunity”.
The Blue wall of silence is a code that refers to the informal rules followed by police officers not to report on a colleagues’ misconduct, including police brutality used against criminals or likely criminals. This phenomenon implies that police violence and brutality go often unpunished while the victims are denied their constitutional rights as these actions are conducted in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights which declares:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
To follow, according to a 2020 Reuters report, many municipal police forces have been engaging in the so-called “stop-question-and-frisk program” (better known as just “stop and frisk”).
A New York City Police Department practice – quickly adopted in other American cities, the ‘stop-and-frisk’ refers to the police officers’ authority to stop, detain and question someone who is just suspected to be dangerous. When unregulated, this practice severely undermines citizens’ protections and rights in their daily lives. The “stop and frisk” practice rapidly increased after the 9/11 terroristic attacks, when the War on Terror reportedly began. Any kind of suspected crime legitimated these unconstitutional manners by the US police. A particular case in the increase of stop and frisk practices can be made with on the basis of racial profiling and bias.
Due to this fact, and to the “qualified immunity”, the number of cases in which the police ended up shooting civilians multiplied.
The U.S. Supreme Court introduced the qualified immunity doctrine in 1967, with the original aim of protecting law enforcement officials from frivolous lawsuits in those cases in which they acted in good faith in unclear legal situations. But many times, this doctrine has been applied to cases involving the use of excessive or deadly force by police, leading to considerable criticisms “[having] become a nearly fail-safe tool to let police brutality go unpunished and deny victims their constitutional rights” as summarized in the 2020 Reuters report.
The strong interrelation between these various factors- the industrialization and the developing of a new class of citizens, the fear of this dangerous classes, the increasing demand for order, the pre-existing models of policing and the corruptive bond between policing and politics – show us that no single item can be identified as the sole cause of the present emergence of police abuse in the USA.
POLICE BRUTALITY DURING THE PROTESTS
Tensions between protesters and the police have increased, since in several cities, such as but not limited to Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, St Louis and New York City, cases of looting have been reported. On one hand, some looters may attack emblematic structures that represent capitalism and the perpetuation of racism. Quarantelli and Dynes, in “Looting in Civil Disorders: an Index of Social Change” explain that such behavior may be a rebellion against our conception of property or, in other words, a “bid for the redistribution of property.”
On the other hand, it has been argued that criminal networks used peaceful protests as a cover to attack police officers and ravaged commercial activities, causing millions of dollars in losses.
However, there have been numerous cases of unjustified police brutality:
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, the 21 years old Balin Brake was hit by a tear gas canister and lost an eye.
In Philadelphia, a student arrested for having broken an officer’s hand was released without charge after footage showed two officers beating him and holding his face against the floor using his knee
In Indianapolis, a woman was beaten with batons and shot with pepper bullets.
In Buffalo, while enforcing a curfew, police officers pushed a 75 years old man on the floor, leaving him laying on the street with his head bleeding.
In Washington DC, pepper bullets and smoke bombs were fired against demonstrators in order to allow President Trump to walk to a nearby church and take a photo.
In Atlanta, six police officers were filmed using unnecessary and excessive force towards two college students that were driving home. The policemen broke the windows of the car, pulled the woman out of it, and used a taser on the man.
In Wisconsin, Jacob Blake, 29 years old, was paralyzed after being shot multiple times by police officers whose names have not been released. Blake was allegedly trying to de-escalate a domestic dispute when he was grabbed by his t-shirt and shot in front of his children. The Police department of Wisconsin declared the the officers involved in the shooting immediately provided the victim with aid.
The behaviour of police officers has been heavily criticised for the use of tear gas on protesters. This substance, despite being banned in war, can be legally used in this context. There are two protocols that are supposed to limit the use of riot-control agents with chemical irritants.
Firstly, the 1925 Geneva Protocol banned tear gas in war after World War I, categorizing it as a “chemical warfare agent”. It was signed by the US in 1925, however limiting the applicability of the protocol in case of ‘controlling rioting prisoners of war’.
Subsequently, the Convention On The Prohibition Of The Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and On Their Destruction was signed in 1993 and ratified in 1997 by the US. Article II defines ‘toxic chemical’ as “Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere”, which might suggest that the use of teargas in protests is strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, “ Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes” is included in the “Purposes Not Prohibited Under this Convention”.
This sub-clause weakens the effectiveness of the protocol, as there is not a specific definition for “law enforcement” or for “domestic riot”. Governments can easily interpret the article at their convenience. This resolution, theoretically aimed at preventing the use of tear gas, actually allows and legitimises it. For instance, a peaceful protest can be defined as a domestic riot in order to legitimise the use of tear gas. International law does not prevent such practices. There have been cases in which tear gas has been used during peaceful protests: In Louisville, Ky and Portland tear gas was used during peaceful protests; this caused a temporary restriction of the use of riot-control agents with chemical irritants by the Portland police department.
In Charlotte N.C. and Philadelphia, tear gas was used inappropriately: it was not aimed at dispersing a dangerous riot, as it was used in such way that protesters had nowhere to go and was trapped in the cloud. Such situations may be considered legally ambiguous. It is not clear what law the policemen were enforcing since the first amendment guarantees the freedom to protest.
The Trump administration deployed federal police officers from the Department of Homeland Security in Portland, allegedly to protect federal properties. The officers teargassed peaceful protesters and detained them in unmarked vehicles. Demonstrators declared that the federal officers are acting like occupying forces. Portland Mayor Wheeler claimed that the city was under federal occupation and urged the security forces to leave the city, as their presence resulted in a further escalation of the protests. On the 29th of July local and federal authorities agreed on the withdrawal of federal forces. However, the Department of Homeland Security said it will keep its presence in the city until federal properties are considered to be at risk.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Such complex a phenomenon requires diversified strategies.
Many activists advise first of all for a police reform focusing on the use of small but useful “expedients”, such as wearing body cameras by the policemen. This would be useful both for civilians who have to deal with them and for police officers: the former would feel safer from the brutality used by officers–this way threatened by the risk to be unveiled and reported; the latter would be safe in case of false reports by criminals accusing them of being unlawful behaviours.
It is easy to understand that this solution would work only if it was to be accepted by all departments and if policemen would be forced to keep cameras turned on during their service. It would have to be a binding and mandatory practice.
Moreover, another effective and essential solution could be the development of an improved police training: a training not built anymore on offence but, rather on, defence by banning first of all the use of dangerous and totally illegal practices such as the neck restraint – used precisely in Floyd’s case- or by banning the use of weapons such as tear gas.
Contrary to what President Trump stated (‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’), Maguire shows in his research that the engagement in violence by the police only results in increasing the protesters’ violence.
What can be done is to focus on educating police about the diverse social identities of protesters, including “their values and standards, aims and goals, their sense of what is right and proper, their stereotypes and expectations of other groups, their history of interaction with these groups.”
Communication between police and communities is also crucial. Allowing peaceful protests without exerting too much control can limit the sense of injustice spread around the crowds that may lead to violent escalations.
Furthermore, “police should rely on a differentiated response by continuing to facilitate peaceful and lawful behavior even when taking enforcement action against lawbreakers” (Maguire, 2015). Dealing with peaceful protesters in the same way it is to deal with criminals may lead them to engage with more violent individuals against the police.
Finally, it has to build on legislation that aims at reducing brutality (such as the Justice in Policing Act of 2020) rather than keep on appealing to the “qualified immunity.” Police officers and criminals have to be the same before the Law because armed officers who engage in criminal conduct ought not to be treated differently from armed criminals.
Gelman, Andrew; Fagan, Jeffrey; Kiss, Alex (September 1, 2007). “An Analysis of the New York City Police Department’s “Stop-and-Frisk” Policy in the Context of Claims of Racial Bias”. Journal of the American Statistical Association. 102 (479): 813–823. doi:10.1198/016214506000001040.
Monkkonen, Eric H. (1981). “Police in Urban America, 1860-1920.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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