Skip to main content

Racial Discrimination: A Cause of Police Brutality

Racial discrimination is an underlying factor in police brutality.

Racial discrimination is an underlying factor in police brutality.

Racism and Policy Brutality

Police brutality occurs for a number of reasons: the most common is racial discrimination. Eighty-nine percent of the people who died in NYPD custody between the years 1990 and 1994 were African American or Hispanic (Elisha, Joshua & Zenobia, 2010). Some examples of this brutality are the cases involving Rodney King, Oscar Grant III, Patrick Hall, and Abner Louima. Fifty-nine percent of all Americans in 1999 agreed that racial discrimination was a major problem. (The Struggle Against Racial Profiling, n.d.)

A study was conducted that proved that “minority citizens are stopped by the police more than [W]hite citizens but minority-driven vehicles are no more likely to have drug paraphernalia than [W]hites’ vehicles” (Lundman, 2008, p.242). Racial discrimination is the main cause of police brutality.

What Is Police Brutality?

The U.S. History Encyclopedia defines police brutality as the use of any force exceeding that reasonably necessary to accomplish a lawful police purpose (2006). Most brutality began during strikes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The strikes involved African Americans speaking out for their rights as citizens of the United States.

Police brutality is one of the seven forms of police misconduct, the others being: false arrest, intimidation, political repression, surveillance abuse, sexual abuse, and police corruption (The Voice, 2010). Reasonable force is any action that is fair, proper, just, moderate, or suitable under the circumstances (Brubaker, 2002). Some police officers will go beyond reasonable force when they are dealing with African American criminals and that is when it becomes a situation.

Deadly Force

Another term used when describing police brutality is deadly force. Deadly force is defined as “when an actor with the purpose of causing, or that the actor should reasonably know creates a substantial risk of causing, death or great bodily harm” (Minnesota Statutes, 2010, n.p.). Police have a rule they have to follow called the use of force continuum. It sets the level of force considered to be appropriate in direct response to a subject’s behavior. The level of force may still be seen as excessive to bystanders even though it is not.

The Case of Rodney King

An example of racial discrimination is the case concerning an African American male named Rodney King. On March 31, 1991 King was pulled over by LA Police for speeding. The police say that King resisted arrest and that he was either on drugs or drunk. A bystander videotaped the officer’s tasing, kicking, stomping, and beating King with batons. He suffered 56 blows from the batons and was kicked 6 times. King also had 11 skull fractures, brain damage, and kidney damage. The officers beat him for approximately two minutes.

Four of the officers were charged with excessive force and found guilty. Officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell received 30 months in prison while Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind were acquitted.

The riots following the trial lasted for six days and left 53 people dead (Spearman, 2010). As William F. Schulz states in his book Hate Crimes (2007, p.78-80), “Across the country [such people] endure the injustices of discrimination, entrapment and verbal abuse, as well as brutal beatings and sexual assault at the hands of those responsible for protecting them-the police” (p.78-80). King did not deserve the violent beating that he endured.

The Case of Oscar Grant III

Oscar Grant III is another African American male who suffered from police brutality. In the early morning of New Year’s Day in 2009, Grant was involved in a fight on a train in Oakland, California. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) responded to the incident. Officer Johannes Mehserle stated that Grant resisted arrest and so he shot him in the back. The event was caught on multiple digital videos and cell phone cameras and watched hundreds of thousands of times. The man was unarmed and had .02% alcohol and a type of pain reliever, Fentanyl, in his blood ("BART Police Shooting . . . ," 2010).

This was not Oscar Grant’s first run-in with the police. In 2007, he was stunned by a taser after a traffic stop and served 16 months in state prison. After that, he served two prison terms for drug dealing. Grant was 23 years old when the officer killed him.

On January 13, 2009, Officer Mehserle was charged with murder but he resigned and pleaded not guilty. On June 19, 2010, Mehserles’ attorney said that he intended to use his taser but accidentally fired his gun instead. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter on July 8, 2010, and on November 5, 2010, he was sentenced to two years in prison minus the time he had already served.

The Case of Patrick Hall

Police brutality does not always have to be physical. Patrick Hall, an African American male, served in the United States Army, and when he retired in 2006, he decided to attend Illinois University at Macomb. While Hall was attending school, he opened a tavern. He was the very first African American entrepreneur in Macomb, and he employed many of his African American friends.

Police and other authorities did not like this change and began harassing Hall (Ashutosh, 2007). The officers would humiliate him and conduct random searches to check for illegal activities. The police became engaged in other forms of police misconduct such as intimidation and surveillance abuse. The police department denied him his civil rights and spread rumors about his employees. Hall even tried to file a complaint and it was immediately refused. Hall stated, “I was treated like a convicted criminal” (Ashutosh, 2007, n.p.). Hall was forced to shut down his tavern business and leave Macomb City. In this case, police verbally and emotionally bullied Patrick Hall just because he was African American.

The Case of Abner Louima

Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was another victim of racial discrimination. On August 9, 1997, a fight broke out outside of Club Rendez-vous in Brooklyn, New York. The officers became extremely angry when 33-year-old Louima resisted arrest, so they stopped twice on the way back to the station to beat him.

When they arrived two officers took the man into the bathroom, removed his trousers, and beat him with the handle of a toilet plunger. They brutally shoved the handle into Louima’s rectum and then his mouth, breaking his teeth while he screamed, “Why are you doing this to me? Why? Why?” (Siegel & Senna, 2008, p.242). Witnesses said that Louima had no bruises or injuries when he was taken away, but three hours later he was bleeding excessively and rushed to the hospital. Louima had to undergo emergency surgery because of a puncture in his small intestine and injuries to his bladder.

The NYPD investigators offered departmental immunity to approximately 100 officers to break the “blue code of silence,” which will be discussed later in this article. The Blue Code of Silence can be defined as when one does not report on another colleague’s errors, misconducts, or crimes. Many officers involved in this incident received long-term prison sentences for sexual abuse and first-degree assault (Siegel & Senna, 2008). Abner Louima was another person who suffered abuse from the police because of his race.

What Causes Police to Discriminate?

Police officers seem to have reasons for why they act hostile toward citizens of different races. A career in law enforcement threatens the physical, emotional, and psychological health of an individual. Officers sometimes have uncontrolled feelings of anxiety, stress, fear, and helplessness.

Most times, a criminal pushes an officer to act brutally toward him. An anonymous African American Brooklyn officer stated, “It’s definitely tough because we’re human beings. These people we’re arresting are criminals and then they have the nerve to be disrespectful as well. That adds fuel to the fire, but most officers don’t let it get to them” ("Black Police Officer Talks . . . ," 2010, n.p.).

When an officer finally loses control, he is then seen as the bad guy. Many times, an officer acts harshly out of self-defense. This anonymous officer also said, “It could change everything because you’re dealing with life and death. People tend to forget how difficult our jobs are. I’m not justifying any of the past injustices that occurred, but when it’s night-time and people are drunk and belligerent, you’re as scared for your life as that person is when he knows you’re on his tail. Unfortunately, decisions are made in split-seconds because that's how quick your life can be taken” ("Black Police Officer Talks . . . ," 2010, n.p.).

Studies show that “race plays some role in traffic stops but age and gender have a greater influence on the matter” (Schafer, Carter & Katz-Bannister, 2008, p.243). Officers also discriminate against Muslims after the attack on 9/11. Officers are constantly fearful and always careful while they are on the job. Also, the increase in illegal guns and the poor economic situation make an officer’s job even more stressful. One never knows if someone is armed and planning any sort of attack so an officer always has to be on guard and ready for anything.

What Are the Consequences for Police Brutality?

The consequences are fairly light when an officer does wrong. An officer in the United States has not been charged with homicide since March 3, 1992, when peace officer, Jonas Bright, fatally shot Douglas Orfaly in Manhattan (Holloway, 1995). Bright said that Orfaly resembled a burglary suspect and that his gun accidentally discharged. The officer was sentenced to four years in prison.

Some officers tend to abuse their powers and get away with brutality. For example, in the Oscar Grant III case, if an average citizen had committed the crime that Mehserle did, the consequences would have been much worse. Also, the officers who were harassing Patrick Hall did not suffer any consequences. The entire police department got away with the brutality. This proves that in many circumstances an officer who does wrong gets a slap on the wrist while an average person receives time in prison.

The Blue Code of Silence

United States Officers have an unwritten rule that they follow called the Blue Code of Silence in which one does not report another colleague’s errors, misconduct, or crimes. The Blue Code of Silence was in effect during Hurricane Katrina. Seven officers shot and injured or killed many innocent people (Goddard, 2010). Though it was a state of emergency, the officers had no reason for all the killings.

During a state of emergency, the law is temporarily put on hold. The officers acted as though there was no more sense of order and began their shooting spree. The seven involved were charged with either murder or attempted murder. This caused other police unions to become angry and began calling the officers heroes.

Mary Howell, a civil rights lawyer said, “Going into Hurricane Katrina, the police department was already in very serious trouble” (Goddard, 2010, n.p.). In 2008 a judge dismissed the charges which upset many citizens. Two of the officers have not been sentenced yet and another one is facing eight years in prison and a $500,000 fine. The officers all had other police departments to back them up so it made it more difficult for them to be very seriously charged. Counseling is offered for officers who suffer from stress but many do not like to be involved in it because they think they will be considered weak by other officers.

The Fight Against Police Brutality

There are some organizations that are fighting against police brutality. One of them is Amnesty International. This group, founded in 1961, tracks human rights violations worldwide. It now has over 2.8 million members and is active in more than 150 countries with offices in 80. The organization is fighting against police brutality along with many other situations like rape in Haiti, the deportation of Haitians out of the Dominican Republic, and slavery in Mauritania.

In the textbook Introduction to Criminal Justice, the author states that racial discrimination is declining because “minorities now possess sufficient political status to protect them from abuse in the justice system” (Siegel & Senna, 2008, p.243). Another organization is Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB). The group is based in the Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota area. The group works day to day and even has a hotline for people who have suffered ruthless beatings by the police.

Racial Discrimination Continues to Be the Biggest Issue

There are many causes of police brutality but the most common is racial discrimination. Police brutality is the intentional use of excessive force, usually physical but potentially also in the form of verbal attacks and psychological intimidation, by a police officer. Rodney King, Oscar Grant III, Patrick Hall, and Abner Louima are all prime examples of police brutality in the United States. According to a poll in 1999, 75% of African American males claimed to have been pulled over because of their race (The Struggle Against Racial Profiling, n.d.).

Studies have shown that police are less likely to engage in racial discrimination today, and the efforts to control discrimination are now showing signs of success (Lange, Johnson & Voas, 2008). Amnesty International and Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) are both extremely helpful organizations fighting against brutality.

If more people start to notice what the US police officers are getting away with, the numbers could decrease dramatically. Officers can be physically, verbally, and emotionally offensive towards citizens of other races, but it is decreasing and hopefully, it will continue.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.