Police Brutality & Racism: Cases & Statistics

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia has a BSChE. She's an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting.

Police brutality and racism are issues that have been in the media spotlight during recent years. This lesson is about cases that involve police brutality, the role of racism in police brutality, and related data.

Us and Them

Former President Barack Obama once said, ''Learning to stand in somebody else's shoes, to see through their eyes, that's how peace begins. And it's up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.''

The conflict between people of color and the police that work in their neighborhoods is not new. However, in recent years, it has been gaining media attention and has been a source of angst for those on both sides of the conflict. The tears cried by the wife or husband of a police officer killed in the line of duty sting as much as those cried by the spouse of a victim of racial profiling who was killed when he failed to put up his hands quickly enough after being told to exit his car. It is only through the collection of accurate data, through insightful leadership, and through understanding that this troubling problem can be effectively solved.

Police Brutality
Police brutality

Recent High-Profile Media Cases

Black's Law Dictionary defines police brutality as ''the use of excessive and/or unnecessary force by police when dealing with civilians.'' This kind of brutality can be entirely physical or can involve various types of intimidation. Many recent cases of police brutality have had extensive media coverage, taking the issue further into the public eye.

Eric Garner

Eric Garner, a 43-year old New York black man, died on July 17, 2014, after he was held in a chokehold by police. Garner, who had asthma, had cried out ''I can't breathe'' after police piled up on top of him during the confrontation. Garner had been stopped several times for possibly selling untaxed cigarettes, and was both a father and grandfather. There is a video that was taken by a bystander that has circulated around the Internet, which helped to ignite the subsequent ''I can't breathe'' protests. The video, which is tragic to watch, clearly shows Garner's great frustration and pain at being stopped by the police yet another time. Garner's death was finally ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, and the city of New York settled the lawsuit that followed for 5.9 million dollars, but the officers involved were not prosecuted.

Michael Brown

Less than a month after Eric Garner's death, Michael Brown, a black teenager, was killed on August 9, 2014, by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident began when Brown was seen on a surveillance video stealing some cigarillos from a convenience store. Brown was stopped by Wilson on the road, and the stories of what happened after that from different witnesses vary a lot. Officer Wilson claimed that Brown charged at him, so he fired, killing the boy. Officer Wilson was not indicted in the incident, which set off even more protests.

The Death in Custody Reporting Act

There are many earlier, similar cases of people of color being killed by white police officers, but these two incidents created a public outcry and a demand that something be done. Accurate data on the issue of racism in police brutality was discovered by many concerned groups to be scarce and unreliable. To address this issue, the Death in Custody Reporting Act was passed in December of 2014. This act, also called the ''Ferguson Bill,'' requires states to give an annual report to the Department of Justice (DOJ) indicating how many people die during an arrest or while in police custody.

However, there are groups of concerned citizens who have, in the meantime, compiled data on their own because they believe it will take years for this kind of data to be collected by the states under the new law and also because many police departments may not be fully compliant. An example of this is the research team at the website Mapping Police Violence.

Racism in Police Brutality

Perhaps one of the most important contributions to new research on the topic of police brutality and racism has been made by Phillip Atiba Goff, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA. Goff was appalled by the fact that there was no real standardized system in place for quantifying data on police brutality and on the number of total deaths, and deaths of people of color, that occur while in police custody. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the DOJ, Goff started the National Justice Database. This comprehensive database is an effort to collect data on a large scale and in a standardized way that will be useful to law enforcement and the people it serves all over the United States.

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