Police brutality in the United States has garnered international scrutiny. Cases of police violence regularly appear in the media and attract the attention of international human rights organizations. Research finds that the victims of police violence are disproportionately people of color, low-income, and transgendered. Attention to police brutality often peaks during periods of national crisis, such as urban uprisings, leading researchers to look for both the causes and solutions to police violence.
Cases Of Police Violence
In the late 1990s, Human Rights Watch studied the excessive use of force in 14 major cities, including New York, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles. Human Rights Watch found police brutality to be a systematic part of police departments across the country. Several cases of police brutality have attracted national attention in the media. In 1997, Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was arrested by New York City police and taken into custody. At the precinct, he was ushered by officers into a bathroom where he was sodomized with a wooden stick. He was left bleeding in a cell for 3 hours before he was taken to the hospital where he stayed for 2 months recovering from massive internal injuries. In the same year, Oliverio Martinez was riding his bike to work in the agricultural fields of Oxnard, California. Police suspected he was involved in drug activity and stopped him for questioning. After a brief scuffle, police found a knife. Martinez was shot 5 times. He survived, but he is now blind and paralyzed from the waist down. He was never charged with a crime. In 2003, according to Amnesty International, a Native American transgendered woman was allegedly stopped by two police officers and taken to an alleyway where she was raped.
The Victims Of Police Violence
As the above cases illustrate, the victims of police brutality most likely come from socially marginalized communities. African American, Native American, Latino, transgendered, and low-income individuals bear the brunt of police brutality in the United States. Experiences with the police are often shaped by race, economic status, and sexuality. Therefore, there are widely different perceptions of police conduct in the United States. Sociologists Ronald Weitzer and Steven Tuch studied how race affects perceptions of police activity. They found that communities that experience increased police brutality are more likely to view police brutality as a systematic problem within the United States rather than the result of a few “bad apple” police officers.
Police Violence And The History Of Urban Uprisings
Police violence has historically provided a major catalyst for urban uprisings. The history of urban uprisings in the United States is inextricably bound to the excessive use of force. The 1965 Watts uprising ignited after a routine stop of Marquette Frye led to police beatings of onlookers in the low-income community of Watts, California. In 1969, police raided a gay bar frequented by men of color in Greenwich Village, New York. The raid led to the Stonewall uprising that lasted for 2 days. In 1980, Liberty City, Florida, residents rioted after four White police officers were acquitted for the beating death of Arthur McDuffie, an African American. The 1992 Los Angeles revolt was sparked after four White police officers were acquitted for the videotaped beating of Rodney King. In 2001, Cincinnati residents took to the streets after Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old African American, was shot and killed by a White police officer. Thomas was unarmed.
Causes And Solutions To Police Violence
The prevalence of police brutality along with the history of urban rebellions have led to a great deal of research on the causes of police violence. Human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, find that a lack of police accountability leads to an increase in excessive use of force, as police who use excessive force often go unpunished. Many jurisdictions have responded to the lack of police accountability by forming civilian review boards. As of 2004, there are over 100 civilian review boards in the United States.
Although civilian review boards are an important step toward increasing police accountability, some criminologists argue that the problems of police violence are more complicated than the lack of police accountability. Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe explain that policing has undergone significant structural changes since the 1960s. The increasing paramilitarization of police departments, they argue, produces police violence. The use of war metaphors to describe police activities—the war on crime, war on drugs, and war on gangs—gives birth to an antagonistic relationship between the police and the communities they patrol. As a result, police, especially those who patrol communities of color, are more likely to rely on excessive force rather than on other strategies that involve building a working relationship between the police and the community.
As the history of urban uprisings illustrates, the excessive use of force is endemic to policing in the United States. Increasing police accountability, as well as restructuring police departments to be less antagonistic to the communities they patrol, may provide the first steps toward eliminating police violence.
- Amnesty International. (2005). Stonewalled: Police abuse and misconduct against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in the U.S. New York: Author.
- Human Rights Watch. (1997). Shielded from justice: Police brutality and accountability in the United States. New York: Author.
- Skolnick, J., & Fyfe, J. (1993). Above the law: Police and the excessive use of force. New York: Free Press.
- Weitzer, R., & Tuch, S. (2004). Race and perceptions of police misconduct. Social Problems, 51, 305–325.
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