It’s the summer of 2020, and as you scroll through social media, you see that your feed is filled with posts showing millions of people across the country marching to protest police brutality. In May of that year, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had murdered a 46 year old Black man named George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly 10 minutes while arresting him. Floyd’s killing had sparked countless demonstrations worldwide, but you begin to think about whether similar events had happened in the past. How many people had been harmed or killed by police force? Why did it happen? Were these officers ever brought to justice?
Throughout U.S. history, there have been many cases in which police officers used more force than what was necessary when arresting people. Discussions around police violence highlight that officers tend to disproportionately harm communities of color, especially Black communities. Most of the time, officers who unlawfully use force are not held accountable through the legal system.
Police brutality is the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. This includes incidents in which officers beat, torture, verbally and psychologically abuse people, use riot gear with unreasonable force at demonstrations, and in many cases, kill civilians.
The connection between policing and racism can be traced back to the formation of slave patrols in the 1700s, when groups of men would capture enslaved people who attempted to escape plantations. Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when African Americans left the South to escape Jim Crow laws, they once again faced aggressive policing in northern states. Images of police violence became popularized during the Civil Rights Era, when officers used batons, tear gas, police dogs, fire hoses, and other tools to disrupt and disperse protestors.
As technology improved, more cases of police brutality were documented, including the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Los Angeles police officers stopped King’s car for speeding, then tased him and struck him more than 50 times with their batons. This footage was one of the first times that police violence had been recorded on camera by a bystander. It soon spread throughout the rest of the country and the world, causing public outrage. As new social media platforms became available, other cases received wide coverage, including the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice in 2014, Sandra Bland in 2015, Phillando Castille in 2016, and Breonna Taylor in 2020. Many cases of police violence, including some high-profile ones, started off as stops due to minor, non-violent issues such as traffic violations, trespassing, loitering, and drug possession. It is important, however, to point out that justice and accountability go beyond addressing these individual cases.
Many victims of police brutality have been people from low-income communities, who sometimes do not have resources to file complaints. At the same time, some cities have increased funding to police departments, and equipped them with military-style weapons. This is understood as the militarization of the police, an issue that failed to reduce crime rates, and also worsened relations between police and communities. On the other hand, it led to conversations about potentially decreasing spending on militarized police equipment, and instead, using that money for community services, such as conflict resolution, health and education.
We often hear that law enforcement’s job is to protect people, yet these countless horrifying stories, images, and videos of officers abusing or killing people make us question this statement. Many officers, and even government officials and some media outlets, are used to thinking in ways that stereotype Black people as criminals and dehumanize them. When police departments think in this way, they do their jobs aggressively, and target people they see as criminals. Activists united through the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 in order to fight against the violence that many Black communities face. Their work combats white supremacy, which is a system that supports political, economic, and social privileges for white people, and maintains discriminatory laws against non-white people. This struggle continued past the group’s initial formation, as police brutality remains an important human rights issue, particularly in the U.S., as it is related to the role of racism in the country’s history.