Updated July 12, 2016
This memo examines police brutality in the US, including historical context, the current controversy and proposals set forth to address the issue.
- Accurately assessing law enforcement’s use of lethal force and motivating factors is challenging because the US Justice Department does not keep a comprehensive database of shootings by officers.
- Only 750 of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies (4%) self-report officer-involved shootings as part of the FBI’s annual data on “justifiable homicides.”
- In 2013, the US reported 461 justifiable homicides versus two in Great Britain. Even after accounting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are 100 times less likely to be shot by police offers than Americans.
- On average, 96 of the 400 killings by officers each year reported to the FBI involved a white officer shooting a black male (between 2005 – 2012), indicating that they are killed at alarmingly high rates.
- Under the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) stop-and-frisk program, blacks and Hispanics are targeted approximately 85 percent of the time.
- Social-psychological research and anecdotal evidence indicate that militarized policing inflames situations that might otherwise have concluded peacefully.
- Whites, blacks and Hispanics have extremely disparate views about local police; whites are most likely to express confidence in police and their discretion in using excessive force, and blacks are least likely to do so.
- Research studies clearly indicate that postsecondary education significantly reduces the likelihood that officers will use force as their first option in subduing citizens.
- Reforms to address police brutality center on developing a national database of transparent information, implementing universal use of body cameras, fostering greater community engagement and reducing police militarization.
Investigative activity is a standard practice of sound police work. This includes street patrols, stops for traffic violations with the aim of discovering more serious criminality, and undercover operations. Each of these activities requires that officers exercise significant discretion – from determining which citizens are suspicious and which cars to tail, to assessing what behavior warrants additional investigation. Unfortunately, this discretion is too often implemented through the prism of race. The practice of racial profiling–the singling out of individuals as objects of suspicion solely on the basis of ethnicity–is ubiquitous. A growing body of evidence highlights that despite the constitutional promise of equal treatment under the law, America continues to grapple with systemic racial discrimination by the police.
Blacks and Hispanics are stopped and searched by officers at a disproportionately high rate, even though they are less likely to be found possessing contraband or committing a criminal act. For example, in Illinois, black and Hispanic drivers are twice as likely to be searched after a traffic stop compared to white drivers, but white drivers were twice as likely to have contraband. [i]
The most highly publicized example of this racial profiling is the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) stop and frisk program, which targeted Blacks and Hispanics approximately 85 percent of the time between 2002 and 2014 .[ii] During this period, young black and Hispanic men in particular made up more than 40 percent of all stops despite accounting for less than 5 percent of NYC’s population.[iii] Until the end of his term, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the city's program as disproportionately targeting the groups that commit disproportionate amounts of crime. However, an analysis of the NYPD’s own data from 2002 to 2014 shows that nearly 90 percent of stopped and frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent. [iv] The data also shows that there was no correlation between stop and frisks and crime rates, as illustrated by the chart below.
Source: Washington Post
Despite the higher number of minorities deemed suspicious by NYPD, the probability of finding a weapon when stopping an African American was half that of finding one on a white person; the NYPD uncovered a weapon in one out every 49 stops of white New Yorkers. Contrastingly, it took the Department 71 stops of Hispanics and 93 stops of blacks to find a weapon.[i]
The promise to end the NYPD's aggressive use of stop-and-frisk was a centerpiece of Bill de Blasio’s election campaign. Reviews about his progress with this promise are mixed; since his election in 2013, the NYPD has seen a reduction in a sheer amount of stops but not a change in the disproportionate targeting of blacks and Latinos. In 2014, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 46,235 times down from 191,558 in 2013. However, Blacks and Latinos still comprised 84 percent of all stops.[ii]
The NYPD is not a unique example. The Cleveland Police Department was most recently charged with violating profiling and excessive force regulations by The Justice Department. This follows a long list of law enforcement agencies that were also charged with violating these regulations by the Department, including Seattle, New Orleans, Portland, Newark and Albuquerque. Racial profiling can actually make police less accurate by wasting resources on false positives and focusing attention away from clues that do indicate criminal activity.[iii]
Only 30 states have laws prohibiting racial profiling by law enforcement, according to a 2014 report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Furthermore, implementation varies significantly among these states. Only 17 states require data collection on all police stops and searches, and only 15 require analysis and publication of other racial profiling data. Limited and inconsistent data collection makes it impossible to effectively correct racial profiling.[iv]
Profiling is the starting point of the disparate treatment of minorities. Once they enter the judicial system, they continue to confront racial biases at each stage of litigation. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be charged and convicted than their White counterparts for the same offenses. Prison sentences for black men are nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes.[v]
Additionally these disparities reveal that police are stopping many minorities who have committed no crime and that young black men in particular are at risk when police stops escalate into deadly encounters.
A recent example of this pattern – racially motivated stops escalating into a deadly encounter – is the August 9th shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident reignited divisive debates about law enforcement’s use of lethal force. While law enforcement officials emphatically maintain that officer shootings are rare and typically justified, civil rights groups have prescribed racial motivations, pointing to the disproportionate black and brown men killed.
Accurately measuring police use of force and the underlying causes is nearly impossible because the US Justice Department does not keep a comprehensive record of shootings by officers. There is no central infrastructure for collecting information and disseminating it to the public. Rather, the nation’s more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies self-report officer-involved shootings as part of the FBI’s annual data on “justifiable homicides.”[vi] The FBI measures justifiable homicides at around 400 per year, but this figure is a gross underestimate as only a fraction of the nation’s agencies – 750 of 17,000 –report to the FBI’s database.[vii]
In an effort to analyze the reliability of the FBI’s justifiable homicide data, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) requested internal records on killings by officers from the country’s 110 largest police departments, and received data from 105. A review of these internal figures determined that between 2007 and 2012, there were more than 1,800 killings by officers across the 105 departments and nearly all of these were deemed justifiable. During the same period, the FBI’s justifiable homicide count for those departments’ jurisdiction was 1,242, approximately 30% less.[viii] The WSJ subsequently surveyed the same agencies to determine causes of this discrepancy. Common explanations provided for why the FBI’s justifiable homicide totals did not match police agency internal totals included the decision of the agency to not report, coding problems and lack of state reporting to the FBI, as illustrated by the figure below.
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Even by the under-reported justifiable homicide count, American occurrences of killings by officers are alarmingly high compared to developed countries, such as the UK, Australia and Germany. For example, in 2013, British police officers fired their weapons three times and fatally shot zero citizens. Even after factoring in the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are 100 times less likely to be shot by police offers than Americans.[i] Similarly, the police force of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a relatively small US city, shot and killed 23 civilians between 2010 and 2014. This is seven times greater than the number of British citizens killed in the entirety of England and Wales’s 43 forces during the same period.[ii]
One explanation for the persistent gap in casualties between the US and its European counterparts is the militarization of US police forces. Only 5% of British police officers are authorized to carry firearms. Furthermore, British officers have no desire to do so – 82% of British police officers are against arming the police more heavily.[iii]Conversely, the federal government is one of the main forces behind the mass militarization of America's police officers. This is due to programs such as 1033, which routinely transfers surplus military equipment to local law enforcement, including mine-resistant tanks, sound cannons, tear gas, automatic rifles, and grenade launchers. 12,000 police organizations across the United States obtain nearly $500 million worth of military merchandise annually.[iv] These federal programs began and expanded in response to the September 11 attacks, when politicians proclaimed that local police departments were on the front lines of the global war on terrorism. However, local terrorism threats today are increasingly rare, so the equipment has far out-paced the threat. Moreover, these programs have minimal oversight. The Department of Homeland Security does not have a comprehensive list of police departments that have received federal grants for purchasing military equipment and how they have been used.
The increase in military-style equipment coincides with a significant rise in the number of police SWAT teams and the increased use of SWAT teams for minor activities such as conducting liquor inspections and serving warrants. Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has studied how police departments outfit themselves and described the so-called “weapons effect” stating, “Military equipment is used against an enemy. So if you give the same equipment to local police, by default you create an environment in which the public is perceived as an enemy.”[v] Social-psychological research and anecdotal evidence illustrate that militarized policing is problematic because it inflames situations that might otherwise conclude peacefully.
While the epidemic of police violence cuts across racial lines, data indicates that communities of color are disproportionately affected. Between 2005 and 2012, a white police officer killed a black civilian twice a week. On average, there were 96 such incidents among at least 400 killings by officers each year that were reported to the FBI by local police.[vi]
While the epidemic of police violence cuts across racial lines, data indicates that communities of color are disproportionately affected. Between 2005 and 2012, a white police officer killed a black civilian twice a week. On average, there were 96 such incidents among at least 400 killings by officers each year that were reported to the FBI by local police. Recent incidents in 2016 are below.
In Baton Rouge Louisiana, Alton Sterling was shot and killed during an altercation with two police officers responding to a disturbance call. Witness videos show the officers telling Sterling to get on the ground, and then tackling and pinning him to the ground. Sterling was shot several times and killed.
Philando Castille was killed during a traffic stop near Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was in the car with his fiancée and four-year-old daughter. Castile told the officer that he had a gun that he was licensed to carry. Castille then told the officer he was reaching for his wallet and ID before he was shot. Castille’s girlfriend streamed video live on Facebook of the shooting aftermath, reignited debates and protests about police treatment of black citizens.
Instances of police brutality highlight the deep divide that exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Research from the Pew Research Center below underscores that minorities and whites have polar perspectives about race— from confidence in the police to progress on racial equality:
Overall, there are significant gaps in views of local police between whites, blacks and Hispanics. Whites are most likely to express confidence in police, their discretion in using excessive force and their treatment of minorities, and blacks are least likely to do so.[i] Eliminating police brutality requires tackling the long-standing misunderstanding and unrest between communities of color and law enforcement.
The Current State – Assessment Of Existing Efforts To Reduce Police Brutality
Various localities, as detailed below, have implemented measures to curb police brutality in response to significant missteps by their police departments.
Successful departmental change is made feasible by championing at the leadership level. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has been commended by The Obama Administration as a leader in this regard. In an interview with National Public Radio, Chief Beck advised other cities to proactively tackle their challenges of racial bias stating, "I don't want people to have to have their city go up in flames like Los Angeles did in 1992 to learn these lessons."[i] Under his tenure, the LAPD has instituted some if its most progressive reform programs, including diverse hiring practices and a Community Safety Partnership, where officers engage communities in public housing projects to build trust where it is needed most. The program boasts 45 officers who will serve for five years at housing projects in Watts. There they will hear community needs and collaborate on making requested changes.[ii]
The Way Forward – Opportunities For Universal Reform
There are local, state and national reforms that can vastly improve accountability, minimize the prevalence of shootings, and restore faith in police forces. Specific recommendations are outlined below:
1. Develop a Reliable Database to Improve Tracking
The US currently lacks the ability to comprehensively track use of force incidents by the police as well as directed at the police. A national database that captures all interactions between officers and citizens, including excessive force, misconduct complaints, and arrests broken down by race and other demographics should be developed. This information should also be accessible to the public. Such a database would foster police accountability, allow lawmakers and other authorities to make more informed policy decisions, and enable tracking of progress against reforms.
2. Limit Use of Force
Tighten standards for police use of deadly force, including:
• Authorizing deadly force only when there is an imminent threat to an officer's life and all other possible means have been exhausted
• Requiring officers give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force and give subjects a reasonable amount of time to comply with the warning
3. Reduce Police Militarization and Improve Firearm Regulations
Following a massive show of police militarization in Ferguson in August, President Obama took steps to mitigate federal programs that equip local police with surplus military technology, namely the 1033 program referenced earlier in the memo. Through an executive order, the president created the Interagency Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group to examine current programs and recommend reforms to guarantee officers receiving the equipment also undergo thorough training about proper use and "the protection of civil rights and civil liberties" of local citizens. The working group is expected to release their recommendations in late 2015.
Ending federal incentives for purchasing military equipment is the first step towards reduced militarization. Militarized SWAT teams are expensive to maintain and without federal funding they would eventually reduce in scope.
Additionally, legislators should pass laws that return SWAT teams to their original purpose. The use of SWAT teams and no-knock raids should be restricted to emergencies that pose a threat to public safety and for issuing warrants to citizens suspected of violent crimes, rather than the use in addressing minor offenses that occurs today. Legislators should also mandate transparency around the use of SWAT teams. In 2008, the state of Maryland passed a bill requiring its police agencies to issue biannual reports about how often they use their SWAT teams, for what purpose, what the searches found, and whether any shots were fired – other localities should follow suit. It is apparent that there has been a significant increase in the number of SWAT teams and the frequency of use. However, a meaningful discussion about police militarization is not possible without better information about its pervasiveness.
Reducing the threat citizens pose to police officers would correspondingly alleviate the police’s siege mindset. Increasingly sophisticated weaponry being sold to US civilians is forcing police to keep up. The arms race means police officers have legitimate fears about the nature of the firepower they are routinely confronting. Strengthening gun regulations to minimize availability and improper purchasing is an equal part of the solution.
4. Improve Police Oversight
Independent and impartial oversight boards are an additional way to reduce conditions fostering police misconduct. Citizen review boards, for instance, can function as a safety valve for the community by hearing complaints, independently auditing arrest and use of force data and identifying problem areas. Too often citizen review boards are advisory in nature due to strong opposition from police unions and chiefs. For instance, after threats of a work stoppage from St. Louis police officers, city officials passed legislation creating an oversight board that lacks subpoena power and can only report its findings to police officials. To operate successfully oversight boards should be empowered with investigative capacity, including the ability to subpoena records and review internal investigations and personnel records. By contrast, the Los Angeles civilian oversight board is one of the strongest in the nation with independent authority to investigate and subpoena power.
5. Engage Community Members and Third Party Groups
Varying racial demographics offer highly divergent responses to the question, “Is my neighborhood protected?” This provides a critical insight into understanding how communities see the police. Tackling the long-standing misunderstanding between minorities and law enforcement is integral to successful policing. Community based policing, which emphasizes collaborative partnerships and problem solving between police and the individuals they serve, is an approach to cultivating this trust.
In May 2015, The Justice Department concluded its investigation into law enforcement practices in Ferguson, Missouri and community policing was among the primary recommendations for reform. In response, Ferguson’s new police chief, Alan Eickhoff, has started programs to better integrate his officers into the community by putting them on more bike patrols and encouraging them to walk the beat and speak with residents. Promoting regular meetings and dialogues with community members in this manner improves public trust.
Engaging with nonprofits and police associations is equally important in preventing future abuses as they can reach community members and law enforcement with important information, influence perceptions, and stir action. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides timely information about police brutality cases and publishes manuals for citizens on accurately reporting abuses and positively engaging with police officers. Similarly, the International Chiefs of Police Association (IACP) reaches the law enforcement community with extensive research on public perceptions of police, including their honest and ethical treatment of civilians and behavior towards minority demographics.
6. Strengthen Recruiting Practices
The principle of matching the racial composition of a police department to that of the city, within reason, is now widely accepted in law enforcement circles. The US Department of Justice holds that “a diverse law enforcement agency can better develop relationships with the community it serves, promote trust in the fairness of law enforcement, and facilitate effective policing by encouraging citizen support and cooperation.” Recruitment of a diverse workforce is another step in improving community relations.
Many police departments currently go beyond basic prerequisites and expect recruits to have completed college coursework and undergone a psychological evaluation. Data confirms the connection between police education and behavior – officers with a college degree are less likely to use force to gain compliance and display more creative problem solving skills. Police departments should consider instituting higher education requirements and facilitating continual education opportunities for their officers.
7. Implement Body Camera and Methods of Police Surveillance
Another heavily-promoted solution is providing police officers with body cameras. Departments throughout the country have committed to requiring their police to wear them while on duty. President Obama recently announced a $75 million plan aimed at buying body cameras for law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Enthusiasm for outfitting police officers with cameras is often attributed to a study in Rialto, California that saw notable results. In 2012, the Rialto police department partnered with the University of Cambridge-Institute of Criminology to examine the impact of body cameras on the number of complaints against officers and their use of force. After several dozen of its officers began wearing cameras, complaints against the police dropped 88 percent from the previous year.
With body cameras, officers control the record button, so they determine when to turn the cameras on and off. In many use of force incidents, camera footage does not exist or is only partially available. Body cameras are not the magic bullet that will solve police brutality, but rather an element of comprehensive reform.
8. Improve Police Training
Current training does not effectively teach officers how to interact with communities in a way that protects and preserves life. For instance, police recruits spend 58 hours learning how to shoot firearms and only eight hours learning how to de-escalate situations.
Seven months after the shooting in Ferguson, the Justice Department issued a scathing report about policing and court practices in the Missouri city. Investigators determined that in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system, “African Americans are impacted a severely disproportionate amount.” The report also included racist e-mails sent by police and municipal court supervisors that showed repeated example of racial bias in law enforcement.
More broadly, FBI Director James Comey recently addressed mental shortcuts that can become common when officers “work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color.” Training for local police on implicit racial bias and maintaining impartial policing is therefore necessary to increase police responsiveness to, sensitivity to, and understanding of citizens and their communities.
Organizations such as The National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability are leading these efforts. This coalition is comprised of current and former law enforcement officers from around the nation and its mission to fight institutional racism in the criminal justice system and police culture, and to push for accountability for police officers that abuse their power.
9. Eliminate Quota Requirements
Police performance reviews often include goals and metrics for stops, arrests, and summonses. A negative consequence of the extreme organizational pressure on officers to meet these quotas is the increased targeting of minority communities and areas. Robert Gangi, Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, describes this cycle stating, "Though police brass will deny it, here's how the quota system works and does harm: Precinct Captains or Lieutenants, under pressure from police headquarters, direct officers to meet specific goals regarding arrests and summonses and deploy the officers in particular neighborhoods.” Rather than a quota-driven approach, good policing should be measured by the quality of police actions, actual impact in crime reduction, and community satisfaction.
Citizens can support these reforms by engaging their local officials. In light of increased public pressure, elected officials are implementing the recommended solutions to address police excessive force – 60 laws have been enacted in the past two years that address police violence. Track the progress of legislation in your local area and contact your representative here.
Case Study of Successful Reform: Las Vegas Metro Police Department
Las Vegas Metro Police Department’s history of deadly force drew the criticism from civil rights leaders and its local community. In 2010, The Las Vegas Journal Review released a six-part investigative series, “Deadly Force: When Las Vegas Police Shoot, and Kill.” In the report, independent experts who analyzed 20 years’ worth of Vegas police shooting data concluded that most of the deadly force incidents could have been avoided. The article prompted the Department of Justice to investigate the force’s culture, training, and oversight— and outline reforms including:
- Impartial policing class: a four-hour training seminar where Las Vegas cops are educated about studies by social psychologists showing that all humans are prone to racial bias and techniques for ignoring bias during policing
- Reality-based field training: that emphasizes conflict de-escalation in reality-based” exercises. The drills take place in alleys, parking lots, and apartment units, and may involve potential carjackings or burglaries with suspects who run away or fight back – making them more ambiguous than prior training drills. Officers decide if, or how much, force is necessary in each scenario. Once they finish, an instructor provides feedback about that decision
- Body cameras: in 2013, Las Vegas became the first big city to conduct a pilot program for body-worn cameras on police
- Accountability: before 2010, 97% of deadly force incidents were validated by the department’s Use of Force Review Board. Las Vegas revised its Use of Force Review Board to allow civilian representatives to participate and to out-vote members of the department
The new approach appears to be working in Las Vegas – involved shootings have dropped from 25 in 2010 to just six in 2015.
The escalation of police use of force and resultant racial unrest creates pressures to rectify the problem. With additional Ferguson-type protests a realistic prospect for the US, it is urgently necessary that citizens, lawmakers and police departments everywhere undertake timely efforts to preempt future crises. Reforms that protect civil rights while also maintaining sensitivity to the realities of day-to-day police work, such as a national database of transparent information, implementing universal use of body cameras and fostering greater community engagement and reducing police militarization, are a step in the right direction.
[ii] Id line 2
[iv] Id line 2