How the Black Lives Matter Movement Changed the Law Enforcement Landscape
Today, the United States faces multiple existential threats from a global Covid-19 pandemic and the concomitant economic downturn as well as rising racial tensions following the murder of an African American man, George Floyd, on May 25, 2020 by officers with the Minneapolis police department. This event, taking place amidst a once-in-a-century global pandemic with many Americans already nerve-wracked, served to further underscore the fragility of the American experiment when confronted with widespread unrest. To determine the antecedents to the current situation and help identify potential solutions, the purpose of this paper is to provide the background concerning police brutality and systemic racism in the United States, and why this issue has assumed new importance and relevance in recent years. Further, a discussion concerning potential solutions to these seemingly ubiquitous problems is following by some unconventional recommendations for action. Finally, the paper provides a summary and the key findings that emerged from the research in the conclusion.
Public Administration: Police Brutality and Systemic Racism
The death of George Floyd, on May 25, 2020 shocked most Americans, of course, but especially white people who believed that the battle for civil rights was long over and the black people had won (Tamkin, 2020). This complacency was rocked, however, following the massive, nationwide and then global response to Floydâ€™s death which underscored just how severe racial tensions in the United States remained. Indeed, despite decades of aggressive state and federal efforts to ensure that all Americans are afforded their 4th and 14th Amendment rights, scarcely a day goes by without the headlines trumpeting yet another high-profile instance of police brutality against a minority member in the United States. These issues have assumed even greater importance and relevance in view of the Black Lives Matter movement and the numerous issues that this and similarly situated groups have identified as being part of a larger systemic racism problem. The purpose of this paper is to review the relevant literature to provide the background on this issue and why it is important. In addition, the paper presents a discussion concerning possible solutions to this issue, following by recommendations for action by civic leaders and law enforcement organizations across the country. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings concerning solutions for addressing police brutality in the United States are presented in the conclusion.
Background on the issue
The country was already reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic and people were suffering from the unprecedented effects of a veritable nationwide shutdown when the gruesome images of a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 galvanized the nationâ€™s and then the entire worldâ€™s attention. Like the images of the terrorist-flown jets crashing into the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001, the news coverage of Floydâ€™s death assumed center stage in the nationâ€™s consciousness despite the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, according to the account provided by Harris (2020), â€œ[Floydâ€™s] murder was yet another recent murder of a Black person by a police officer in the United States, and historically, one of countless other murders of Black people committed by White people [and] his murder ignited protests and rioting in Minneapolisâ€ (p. 383).
As noted above, these protests were followed by dozens and then hundreds of additional protests by like-minded citizens that had been outraged by yet another black death at the hands of law enforcement authorities. Indeed, many observers questioned whether the outcome of this incident would have been dramatically different had Floyd been white. The initial responses to Floydâ€™s death reflected the extent to which many people felt violated by the actions of the Minneapolis police department. As Harris (2020) points out, â€œCalls for justice and peace were made against a backdrop of buildings on fire, a police station being stormed and overtaken, stores being looted and chaos spreading from our supposedly peaceful Midwestern city to other parts of the country and even the worldâ€ (p. 384).
It is important to note, however, that Floydâ€™s death was just the fuse being lit on an already smoldering powder keg of racial tension (Crawford, 2018). When the initial response had played out and the Floyd and similar incidents were investigated in more detail, the calls for justice and to address police brutality and systemic racism started coming from a growing number of mainstream organization, including the American Medical Association (AMA) which convened a special meeting of its house of delegates to raise public awareness and formulate potential alternatives for going forward.
The consensus that emerged from the special meeting of the AMAâ€™s house of delegates underscored the fact that systematic racism in the United States is the product of longstanding public and private sector institutional policies as well as a lack of training for law enforcement authorities in this regard. For instance, a recent press release from the AMA concerning the special meeting of delegates noted that, â€œ[The AMA] recognized the detrimental public health consequences of violent law enforcement interactions in adopted policy addressing the need for policing reform [which] recognizes police brutality as a manifestation of structural racismâ€ (AMA policy recognizes policy brutality as product of structural racism, 2020, para. 4).
While the AMA is only one organization, albeit a large and influential one, the calls for action that resulted from this special meeting of delegates (discussed further in the possible solutions section) provide a valuable framework for evaluating the efforts to date to determine whether they are achieving their intended outcomes. As the research that follows will clearly show, the numbers of police shootings of members of American minority groups have steadily escalated in recent years and these trends have exacted a serious toll on the nationâ€™s race relations and social stability as discussed below.
Detailed presentation of the importance of the issue
The calls for greater public education by the AMA have helped to focus greater attention on the severity of the problem of systematic racism in the United States and its deleterious effects on minority populations in general and black Americans in particular. For example, according to the AMA, â€œResearch shows that racially marginalized communities are disproportionally subjected to police force and racial profiling, and it underscores the correlation between violent policing and adverse health outcomesâ€ (AMA policy, 2020, para. 7). This is an especially important point since it means that virtually all black and brown Americans are adversely affected by police brutality whether they are the actual victims or not. For instance, Panwala (2009) cautioned that, â€œExcessive use of force by police officers undermines faith in the criminal justice system. Citizens expect those with badges and guns to follow the law as well as enforce it, but these two roles often come into conflictâ€ (p. 640). Likewise, the AMA cites the widespread adverse mental and physical health effects on entire minority communities when police use excessive force: â€œThe data make clear that police brutality â€“ one manifestation of systemic racism â€“ has significant public health consequences for impacted communities, particularly among the Black communityâ€ (AMA policy, 2020, para. 7).
Furthermore, besides eroding the fundamental trust in law enforcement that is essential to a nation of laws, police brutality and systemic racism also have a profoundly negative impact on minority communities in terms of their mental and physical health (Lawson, 2013). In this regard, the AMA adds that, â€œThe significant harms triggered by excessive police force include: unnecessary and costly injury; elevated stress and anxiety levels; increased rates of comorbidities like high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma; and premature morbidity and deathâ€ (AMA policy, 2020, para. 8).
This is not to say, of course, that black Americans are the only demographic group that is adversely affected by police shootings, but it is to say that they have been disproportionately impact by these incidents as shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Number of people killed in U.S. by police shootings: January 1, 2015 â€“ July 14, 2020
Source: McCarthy (2020)
As can be readily discerned from the breakdown depicted graphically in Figure1 above, while there were nearly twice as many white deaths compared to black deaths as a result of police shootings in the United States during the period from January 1, 2015 through July 14, 2020, the rate for deaths per one million people for blacks was nearly two-and-one-half time as great as for whites and Hispanics were likewise affected disproportionately compared to their white citizen counterparts.
In sum, black and brown Americans have historically been disproportionately affected by police brutality, including the use of deadly force, but there is far more involved in sustaining systemic racism on a national level for decades at a time. The mindset that fuels systemic racism is frequently overt and some people â€“ not just white people â€“ simply do not like some other people because they are different and they are not reluctant to express these sentiments. In far too many other cases, though, systemic racism is reinforced by unconscious or unintended biases on the part of whites that influence individual perceptions about members of minority groups, especially African Americans and Hispanics (Dutcher, 2020).
More troubling still, these same unconscious or unintended biases can also operate at the institutional level where they may be even more difficult to identify and more severe in their effects on minority groups. For example, according to Mathews (2020), â€œProponents of racial equality and anti-racism measures argue that public institutions lack a complete understanding of how social, racial, and economic disparities are experienced and the insidious impact of unbalanced power and resourcesâ€ (p. 1). In other words, one of the main causes of systemic racisms relates to the inability or unwillingness of white Americans to empathize with the challenges that are faced by minority members in securing their equitable rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Indeed, even purportedly gender- and race-neutral computer-based human resources algorithms that are used for public and private sector employee selection applications may be inadvertently affected by errant programming, but the common factor involved is the disproportionate manner in which these institutionalized practices adversely affect minority groups. As Mathews (2020) concludes, â€œThe presence and effects of systemic racism are often hidden in race-neutral approaches to service delivery that fail to account for the differential experience of racial and marginalized groupsâ€ (p. 1).
Since these types of systemic racism are exceedingly difficult to detect, they may operate for years without any notice being paid to their actual real-world effects. In addition, this problem has been further exacerbated by a paucity of research concerning the fashion in which these types of unseen but powerful forces affect diversity programming and other initiatives that are intended to promote employment opportunities for minorities. For example, Mathews (2020) notes that the current situation â€œis compounded with a lack of meaningful data on race and service delivery in public institutions that can mask or accurately capture their representation and utilization of programs and servicesâ€ (p. 1).
The net impact of these institutionalized practices has been to hamper attempts to address the root causes of systemic racism in American institutions, including its law enforcement organizations (Mathews, 2020). Part of the problem, it seems, stems from the code of silence that permeates many police departments combined with an organizational culture that minimizes the value of minority rights â€“ and lives â€“ in an overt fashion. In this regard, one investigate reporter noted that, â€œOne police officer justified his hitting a suspect in the stomach when the suspect tried to run away as being necessary to reestablish authority. Another police officer is quoted as saying, â€˜[i]f someone disses you, you take him in an alley and slap him. If it’s known in the street you can be stepped on, you’ve got a problemâ€™â€ (as cited in Panwala, 2009, p. 642).
For the vast majority of white Americans that have lived their entire lives without any undue altercations with law enforcement authorities and who have even relied on them first in times of distress, these types of actions by the police may seem incomprehensible but these are the harsh realities facing a large percentage of American citizens every day. This type of systematic racism is far more difficult to address of course since changing peopleâ€™s minds is extraordinarily difficult to begin with and it is virtually impossible when they are already convinced that they are right. Therefore, identifying possible solutions to police brutality and systemic racism represent a challenging but timely and valuable enterprise and these issues are discussed further below.
Discussion of possible solutions
Complex problems demand complex solutions and police brutality and systemic racism are certainly no exceptions. To date, however, many of the possible solutions to these problems have been couched in politically correct language in such nebulous terms that they do not mean anything in substance. For instance, despite finding that police brutality and systemic racism have a profoundly severe effect on minority populations, the best the AMA house of delegates could do was to â€œcall on stakeholders to make systemic changes to protect public health and combat the detrimental effects that racism and communal violence have on the health of the nationâ€ (as cited in AMA policy, 2020, para. 5).
To their credit, though, the AMA board of trustees did subsequently identify some specific strategies in June 2020 that represent a starting point for action, including the following commitment: â€œAcknowledging that system-wide bias and institutionalized racism contribute to inequities across the U.S. health care system, the AMA continues to fight for greater health equity by identifying and eliminating inequities through advocacy, community leadership, and educationâ€ (AMA policy, 2020, para. 6). Some of the educational initiatives proposed by the AMA board of trustees included:
Â· Working with interested parties on a public health effort to support the elimination of excessive use of force by law enforcement;
Â· Advocating against racial and discriminatory profiling by law enforcement through anti-bias training, individual monitoring, and other measures; and,
Â· Pushing for legislation and regulations that promote trauma-informed, community-based safety practices (AMA policy, 2020, para. 6).
Taken together, these initiatives provide a useful framework for pursuing a viable solution to police brutality and systemic racism, but far more is needed to address these problems on a national level. For example, according to one public administrator, â€œWe need to think about those who are already in the field who clearly need more preparation and development and how we can reach them to ensure that they are getting the development that they needâ€ (Wood, 2020, p. 7). Like the AMAâ€™s possible solutions, Wood (2020) also calls for enhanced training for law enforcement officials and recommends partnering with local colleges and universities for this purpose since many already provide this type of training for their campus police services. Although all of these possible solution have some merit, there are some optimal approaches that can be applied to address the problem of police brutality and systemic racism in the United States as described below.
Besides the foregoing possible solutions concerning additional training and partnering with local public health officials and raising public awareness about the problem of police brutality and systemic racism, there are some other measures that can be included in any initiative to increase its effectiveness. For example, where available, law enforcement organizations should partner with local colleges and universities to provide in-class or virtual coursework using seminal texts such as Griffin’s 1964 book Black Like Me that chronicles the events of a white man who darkened his skin chemically and then lived as a black man for several months or Ellison’s 1952 book, Invisible Man that likewise describes the U.S. through a black lens. These texts in particular provide first-hand accounts of what it is like to be black in an overwhelmingly white America. In sum, overt racism cannot be trained out of people, but it may be possible to help them understand their unconscious biases that affect their decision-making processes in ways that make their responses to encounters with minorities different than with whites.
Today, public administrators at all levels are confronted with a divisive social and political landscape that demands conciliatory and meaningful responses to the growing unrest over police brutality and systemic racism in the countryâ€™s public and private sector institutions. The research was consistent in showing that police brutality has adverse mental and physical health effects on entire minority populations whether individual members are outright victims or not. In addition, the research also showed that, as expected, the conventional response to this crisis has been for additional training for law enforcement authorities to help them identify what they are doing wrong so they will know what to do right. The problem of systemic racism, though, demands solutions that help police officers of all races empathize with the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve.
AMA policy recognizes policy brutality as product of structural racism. (2020). American Medical Association. Retrieved from https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-policy-recognizes-police-brutality-product-structural-racism.
Crawford, M. D. (2018, Fall). Black rage in New Orleans: Police brutality and African American activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 36(3), 249-255.
Dutcher, T. (2020, July). Killing with prejudice: Institutionalized racism in American capital punishment. Theory in Action, 13(3), 148-151.
Harris, S. M. (2020, July). Black Lives Matter to systemic family therapists. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 46(3), 383.
Lawson, T. (2013, Spring). Powerless against police brutality: A felon’s story. St. Thomas Law Review, 25(2), 218-222.
Matthews, A. (2020, January 1). Racialized youth in the public library: Systemic racism through a critical theory lens. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 15(1), 1.
McCarthy, N. (2020, July 15). U.S. police shootings: Blacks disproportionately affected. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/chart/21857/people-killed-in-police-shootings-in-the-us/.
Panwala, A. S. (2009, January). The failure of local and federal prosecutors to curb police brutality. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 30(2), 639-642.
Tamkin, E. (2020, June 5). The fires keep burning: How the killing by police of George Floyd convulsed the United States. New Statesman, 149(5523), 28-31.
Wood, S. (2020, July 9). Universities plan fall initiatives to address systemic racism and police brutality. Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 37(10), 7.
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