Race and Policing: All Things Being Unequal

For centuries, racial minorities in the United States have felt the sting of oppression. While overt oppression has become less common, the problem of racism in America is far from eradicated. Specifically, within the realm of policing, issues still exist that walk a fine line between justifiable disparities and racial discrimination. A disconnect exists between minority communities – particularly black, urban communities – and the officers patrolling them. Officers are often seen using their discretion to harass and oppress people of color. These interactions succeed in making policing a community more difficult for officers and making residents feel less safe. As such, taking the time to police the police, ensuring their execution of their job is fair and legal and rebuilding their broken relationships with the communities in which they work will be vital to improve the current state of race and policing.

The United States is in the middle of a police legitimacy crisis. Videos circulating around the internet show officers abusing their power. Widespread distrust of authority is nothing new within the African American community. During the time of slavery, people acting as law enforcement captured escaped slaves and strictly enforced slave codes (Class Notes Mar. 21). This style of policing was adapted into Jim Crow Laws post-slavery and is still seen today in many officers’ use of occupational discretion (Class Notes Mar. 21). These historical issues have developed into similar, subtler discriminatory tactics, specifically racial profiling, an excessive use of force against people of color and a lack of accountability for officers.

The U.S. Department of Justice has reviewed multiple police departments in response to complaints and protests evidencing civil unrest. Recently, reviews of both the Ferguson (Missouri) and Baltimore police departments have found evidence of racial profiling and racial disparities in police actions. In Ferguson for example, from 2012 to 2014, “African Americans [accounted] for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population” (DOJ Mar. 2015). This kind of disparity in stops and arrests is clearly racially charged and has increased tensions between officers and Ferguson residents. An investigation of the Baltimore Police Department the following year found that “there is overwhelming statistical evidence of racial disparities in BPD’s stops, searches and arrests…[demonstrating] a discriminatory impact on African Americans” (DOJ Aug. 2016). According to a national survey, these are not isolated incidents within departments. A survey released in 2014 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that, in 2011, 13 percent of African American drivers were stopped at least once, compared with only 10 percent of whites or Hispanics (Soffen 2016). While the Hispanic community also feels the tension of racial profiling, instances of these injustices are more difficult to document due to inconsistency in the labeling of a person by their race – white or black – or by their ethnicity – Hispanic. As such, these numbers, appearing only slightly increased from whites, may be indirectly skewed.

Along with documented cases of racial profiling, there are cases of excessive use of force against people of color. Officer William Martin of Fort Worth, Texas, is one of the most well-known officers to have been filmed using excessive force (Class Notes Mar. 21). Martin’s aggressive behavior and caustic language eventually turns into physical violence against an African American woman and her daughters. His behavior is now dangerously common. In 2015, 965 people were fatally shot by police officers nationwide; black men, although accounting for only six percent of the population, made up 40 percent of fatal shootings that year (Kindy, Fisher, Tate & Jenkins 2015). This extreme use of deadly force leaves people wondering who answers for these murders.

Generally speaking, police officers are reprimanded within their departments by internal review boards comprised of members closely tied to the officers being investigated. Looking again at the Baltimore Police Department, it has been found that the BPD discourages people from filing complaints, closes complaints on an arbitrary and premature level and delays investigating received complaints (DOJ, 2016). Police often go unchecked or receive the minimal punishment needed to quell complaints. Baltimore is only one example of a clear breakdown in the reviewing of and disciplining of police officers who overstep their boundaries.

Knowing what problems exist between police and people of color, it is important to seek solutions that both decrease the instances of injustice and help to heal community-police relations. This can be addressed by allowing for external oversight of police officers by citizens, demanding more scrutiny in incidents where force is used and increasing diversity in police departments.

For years, citizens have complained that police reviewing their own misconduct leads to inaction. Many civil rights organizations say citizens should be the ones policing the police (Walker, Spohn & DeLone 1996). These requests have been met with heavy opposition by police departments but have still spread in some areas. People believe independent review of accusations of police misconduct creates more confidence among those who wish to lodge a complaint and allows them to do so without a fear of retaliation (Walker, Spohn & DeLone 1996). Adding mandated civilian review boards to all police departments could bring about increased accountability in police departments.

Limiting the use of force against citizens will also serve to better community relations and increase police legitimacy. It has been found that people were more likely to have favorable attitudes toward police when they felt they were treated fairly, understood the situation and experienced polite interactions (Walker, Spohn & DeLone 1996). This level of civility is necessary in any situation where police want respect. By mandating something as simple as a detailed report from any officer who uses force in an interaction, officers are discouraged from using excessive force when simply taking control of the situation will do. Acting to prevent abuse of force is one of many ways people will see police less as tyrants and more as respectable authority figures.

Along with increased scrutiny, the face of the police force needs to change. For years, police departments have been mainly comprised of white males. Despite Baltimore being 63 percent African American and Ferguson being 67 percent African American, their police forces remain mainly white (Ashkenas & Park 2014). There is a similar lack of Hispanic and female police officers nationwide. This kind of racial disparity results cultural differences and misunderstandings. While the number of African American officers nationwide has risen from 3.6 percent in 1961 to 11.7 percent in 2003, there is still a large gap in the number of African American officers versus the number of African American being policed (Walker, Spohn & DeLone 1996). Similar proportions have been seen in Hispanic communities. An increased proportion of minority officers will help decrease tensions between officers and their communities.

There is no denying that a racial disparity in policing exists in the United States. African Americans have been unequally and often unjustly exposed to excess police scrutiny, violence and oppression for years while white citizens at times receive preferential treatment. Problems with racial profiling, excessive use of force and a lack of officer accountability have led to a police legitimacy crisis across the nation. This problem can only be fixed through citizen oversight, discretion in use of force and an increase in the number of officers of color. By making these changes, police will reclaim their position as authority figures who work to protect and serve their communities.


Works Cited

Ashkenas, J., & Park, H. (2014, September 04). The Race Gap in America’s Police Departments.   Retrieved April 24, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/03/us/the-race-gap-in-americas-police-departments.html

Gaston, Shytierra (2017). Class Notes. Race, Class and Crime. March 21, 2017.

Kindy, K., Fisher, M., Tate, J., & Jenkins, J. (2015, December 26). A year of reckoning: Police fatally shoot nearly 1,000. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from                        http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/12/26/a-year-of-reckoning-police-fatally-shoot-nearly-1000/?utm_term=.4d3431bb0f43

Soffen, K. (2016, July 08). The big question about why police pull over so many black drivers. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from                                                                                                           https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/08/the-big-question-about-       why-police-pull-over-so-many-black-drivers/

United States, Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. (August 10, 2016). Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department (pp. 1-164).

United States. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, (March 4, 2015). Investigation of the   Ferguson Police Department (pp. 1-105).

Walker, S., Spohn, C., & DeLone, M. (1996). The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity and Crime in   America (5th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth Pub. Co.