The problem of police brutality is among the most urgent problems the American society faces nowadays. The United States promotes the principles of democracy all over the world. At the same time it turns into the state, where the chances to be killed by the police are higher than the chances to die at the hand of a terrorist. It is possible to assume that the police brutality in the United States has become a tacit norm, which does not shock the society in the way it should. The police can beat the detained to death, shot them, kill them with electric shock, even without being sure that the detained people are criminals and it is not a mistake. In the majority of cases the court takes the side of police officers, and they manage to avoid responsibility that predictably causes a rise of discontent among citizens. In the current research, an attempt to investigate into the problem of police brutality will be undertaken. It is crucial to understand the current situation concerning the issue, paying attention both to the general information and detailed investigation into the most unjust examples, in order to find the optimal solution from the social and Christian points of view.
General Information about Police Brutality in the United States
Police brutality is a complex notion, and without understanding of the term, its nature, and history, the reforms are impossible. It is necessary to define what is considered to be police brutality. To start with, it supposes the usage of excessive physical force and is often related to the psychological and verbal attacks from the police officer. Surveillance abuse, false arrests, racial profiling, intimidation, and even assassination are related to the notion of police brutality and often happen under the color of law (Nelson, 2001).
It is problematic to understand whether the police brutality really took place in each particular case or not. It can be measured only on the basis of information given by witnesses and the juries who are to make the decision. Police officers often explain their violent actions with the fact that the suspected person was trying to resist. Such assumptions are difficult to prove, because there are no objective evidences like video of events. Only 12 percent of people who accuse the police of violent misconduct say that they have been resisting the officers. In addition, there is a bias concerning the initial attitude to the police. According to the statistics, middle-aged and elderly Caucasian males tend to have a more positive attitude to the police than young men, females, Hispanics, and African-Americans (Nelson, 2001).
The mass protests against brutality of police and racism that took place in the United States in November and December of 2014 got serious media attention. That time the protests took place in 37 states of 50. The most active strikes could have been observed in Ferguson, New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Oakland. More than 50,000 people came to the headquarters of their local police in December 14, 2014 in New York. The protest in Ferguson soon turned into an armed riot (Nelson, 2001).
People were outraged by the fact that the police could kill ordinary people, but they were even more outraged that murderers in the police uniform can avoid responsibility. The court acquitted the officer Darren Wilson, the person who became the reason of protests in Ferguson, after he shot the 14-year-old boy of African-American origin. The same court acquitted Daniela Pantaleo, who strangled Michael Brown during the arrest. The man, the father of six children, suffered from asthma. It is not strange that the killed man was also African-American. The policeman, who has used the illegal hold, was forgiven by the court. Another well known example of police brutality in the United States is the case when the police officer has shot the driver in Iowa Rumeyna Brisbane, because he supposed the man was a drug dealer. After that a jar of marijuana and a gun magically appeared in the car, and no one found it strange that marijuana was in the jar, which is not a usual package for it (Holmes & Smith, 2008).
American authorities are doing everything to cover up sad facts of police brutality in the streets. Since 1994, local activists have been trying to make the authorities gather official statistics about killings of US residents by the police. Unfortunately, nothing has resulted from their efforts. One can find only unofficial statistics in the Internet gathered by human rights activists. It is based on the data about killings during detentions, which have appeared in the mass media (Oliver, 2008). As a result, according to unofficial statistics, from 2011 to 2014, more than 5,000 Americans underwent extreme police brutality and were killed by law enforcement officers (Spark, 2014). As it was written earlier, in the United States, there are more chances to die at the hands of police officers than from the probability to be killed by terrorists.
Ethnic Minorities and Police Brutality
The USA is considered to be a democratic country, where everyone is equal in rights regardless his/her nationality, religion, or social status, though practical implication of such liberal ideas is far from being ideal. Numerous researches in criminal justice show that racial minorities often face unfair reaction and are accused of the crimes they have not committed.
The ancient Greeks depicted the goddess of justice, Themis, with a bandage on her eyes. It symbolizes that the law is unbiased and objective. Though, in reality, it often symbolizes that justice is simply blind. The collocation driving while Hispanic and driving while Black, which is a word play on driving while intoxicated became quite popular, because it reflects the essence of the problem. According to Harris (1999), Hispanic American and African American teenagers are often stopped by police officers when they walk on the street or accused in advance during average traffic stops. In addition, the Constitutional Rights of minorities are more often infringed or entirely violated in comparison with representatives of White majority. Harris (1999) emphasizes that such bias is definitely unacceptable for those who swore to obey the laws and to be an example of justice for the rest of the society.
There is a stereotype that Black and Hispanic young men are always related to drug offenses. Dighton (2003) writes that the majority of drug offenders, who were sentenced to prison, are charged with a possession of a controlled substance. It is a Class 4 felony and a low-level offense. Though there are high risks that after prison those young men will continue living this way because they think they are already criminals and the society rejects them. From their school years, minorities experience the influence of stereotypes towards them. Teachers might think that these young people are less clever than their White peers; parents of their classmates might ask their white children not to make friendship with Black or Hispanic children because they are a bad company. When a person hears from the early years that he/she is a bad company for someone only because of the ethnicity, the opposition is inevitable. That is why it is not only a problem of criminal justice, but its influence on the formation of public opinion is great.
According to the statistical data about ethnic proportion in prisons, there are 199,700 Hispanic, 449,200 White, and 585,800 Black men who are from 25 to 29 years old (Dighton, 2003). The number of Black males kept in detention is the issue that provokes numerous questions. It is possible to suppose that the police and judges are subjective in their work and are influenced by social stereotypes. That is why they are more likely to free a White suspect instead of a Black or Hispanic one, though such over representation of minorities in the US prisons does not automatically lead to racial discrimination. Despite certain subjectivity and bias in the judicial system, it is unlikely that thousands of innocent people will be accused of crimes.
Dunnaville (2000) describes the survey conducted in 1999 about the attitude of American population towards criminal justice system. The question was whether minorities are treated unequally in the courts or it is a myth. The results of the survey were quite pessimistic. 68 percent of Black Americans stated that they were treated worse than White Americans. Nearly 45 percent of White people agreed with this opinion. Half of White population considers American criminal justice system to be unequal, unfair, and blind, while the majority of Black citizens does not believe in it at all. According to Dunnaville (2000), the situation is not going to change and the bias in the judicial system is constantly growing, just like the stereotypical thinking of average Americans. Dunnaville emphasizes the importance of not sentencing the minors to adult prisons, which is a widely used practice. Such actions lead to violent opposition of teenagers in future and support negative attitude of minority young men towards American criminal justice system and society. He writes (2000):
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The racial disparities that exist in the criminal justice system deeply affect juveniles and cause African American and other minority youth to be over-represented at every stage of the juvenile justice system. The report observes that the segregation of children from adult prisoners is an important aspect of the juvenile justice system and that placing more black and Hispanic teenagers in adult prisons where they will come into contact with career criminals serves to incubate another generation of black and Hispanic criminals.
Sveinsson (2012) writes that stereotypes about minorities are often based on cinematographic ideals from popular culture: Arab people are terrorists, Chinese people sell opiates, and all young Blacks are members of street gangs. This glamorized violence has already created an image of a criminal personality only depending on the color of skin.
It is impossible not to take into consideration the amount of stereotypes about minorities who live in the supposedly democratic state. Those people feel that they are different in the negative sense of the word from the others from the early childhood. Such atmosphere often makes them become rebellious towards the existing system, which leads to the outbursts of anti-social behavior. Nevertheless, the most pessimistic thing is that the judicial system often supports stereotypes about national peculiar traits of character, and thousands of Black and Hispanic Americans undergo humiliating procedures in everyday life and are often accused of the crimes they did not commit. There are still many issues to consider in the US criminal justice system, otherwise Themis will remain blind forever.
Ways to Reduce the Police Brutality Rate
It is evident that the criminal justice system in general and the police in particular need to be reformed in order to prevent or at least decrease the brutality rate. It is possible to assume that the police cannot be reformed separately from the culture in general. The example of Ferguson illustrates strange issues of American society, which are likely to influence the increased rates of police brutality in the country. Nearly two thirds of citizens who live in Ferguson are of African-American origin, while the biggest part of people in the local government is white (Earl & Soule, 2006). Ethnic minorities are not fully represented in the governmental institutions and as a result, there cannot be democracy in such state, because only the interests of white population are in the priority. Such tendency leads to the racial tension in the community and increases the level of disbelief in the government and judicial system. Public confidence is low and the number of barriers that appear between the government and citizens is high. Only hard work on the legislation, control of the police, and the government structure can reduce the level of police brutality in the United States and create more trusting relationship between citizens and the government.
The first step to improving the situation connected with police brutality is the introduction of special observers who participate as independent prosecutors in the investigations of police misconduct. The community doubts the ability of the jury and local prosecutors to be independent and objective in the cases connected with law enforcement. In fact, they are of the same domain and their connections are very close. Local prosecutors rely on the police officers in questions of arresting the suspects, interrogating them, investigating into the crimes, and testifying at the trials. In their turn, police officers depend upon prosecutors in assistance during investigations and turning the arrests they make into convictions. When the cases of police brutality are investigated in the court, it is difficult to avoid the subjective factor, when there is an obvious sympathy between the police officer and prosecutor (Earl & Soule, 2006).
There is an objective need in reforming the judicial system to make it more trustworthy. If the majority of people do not trust the police and the court, there is an obvious need in the unbiased prosecutor. This initiative has a long history. Office of special prosecutors exists in New York from 1972, and it works on controlling corruption in the New York police (Oliver, 2008). Nowadays there are many propositions to make this office the objective control center concerning police brutality. It is possible, however, to assume that if such independent organizations exist and theoretically there are all possible ways of social control over the police, then why the level of police brutality is not decreasing and even rises in the recent years. Perhaps, their work is not absolutely independent as it is supposed to be.
Another crucial issue in regulating work of the judicial system is creating official statistics concerning the cases of police brutality. As it was already mentioned earlier, there are no official evidences of the number of deaths at the hands of police officers. It is a necessary step because only the statistics will show whether killing of a civilian is a mere fatal incident, or it is part of the trend of force overuse and police brutality. The official data will also show whether the problem of discrimination of ethnic minorities is real or it is nothing but an artificial media activity over the issue. However, this goal is difficult to achieve. The majority of cases, where the police used excessive force, are not documented, there are no video evidences, and there are no people who saw it. The other data can be problematic to get because information about homicides is stored in archives of the FBI and officials do not want to make all details known to public (Earl & Soule, 2006).
The Congress of the United States had ratified the law about the Death in Custody in 2014, according to which the police have to write reports about the circumstances of the death. The question is whether it will really reduce the number of deaths due to extraordinary circumstances of the arrested people (Spark, 2014). It is important to understand the nature of police brutality in order to reform the legislative system. It is possible to assume that police officers are afraid of the potential violence of citizens towards them. The right to bear arms leads to the increased level of potential violence. It is said in Matthew 5:9, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. The abundance of arms in the country does not lead to peace, because the chances to be shot both by a police officer and drunk homeless man increase.
As a faithful Christian, I believe that the words of the Bible can show the right way of development in the judicial system in general and in the police in particular. Living according to the Christian norms might reduce the rate of violence and ruin the existing bias that the police and citizens are enemies. The police should be the guarantee of peace and order, and people should treat it as authority, not as a company of criminals, who will be justified by the court in all cases. It is written in the Romans 13:1-14:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger, who carries out Gods wrath on the wrongdoer.
The problem of police brutality is getting more and more public attention nowadays. The cases of violence and assassinations constantly increase, and what is peculiar, ethnic minorities suffer the most from the action of police. American government tries to introduce the laws that might improve the work of police, or at least guarantee the fair court, but the initiatives do not lead to serious positive results. The violence and hatred between people and police increase. Perhaps, only the return to the Christian moral norms might give all the participants of the conflict peace and understanding, but it is difficult to hope that it is practically possible.