This is Anna Williams, a student in my AP English class this past year. This year she wrote a research paper on police brutality, finishing it up during at-home learning. With her permission, I am sharing her work with you now in light of the murder of George Floyd and killing of Breonna Taylor and the national protests that have followed. Her voice on this issue is more important than mine because she is a person of color, her father has experience as a police officer, and she is a child of the next generation. It is people like Anna who give me great hope for this country.
I present her paper to you now as she turned it in to me. I encourage you to read this student's argument with an open mind and heart.
Police Brutality: Racism or Fear
Liberty and justice for all. This has a nice ring, but it does not always ring true for members of all communities. I am associated with two communities, the black community and the blue community. The black community comes from the biological roots of my family. The blue community comes from my father’s years upon years of training and experience as a Kentucky State Trooper.
These two communities have been in conflict for hundreds of years. From the days of the slave patrols to the current use of excessive force towards members of the black community. Yet, my family has found themselves in the middle, but not by choice. The movements of “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” have forced my family to decide which “lives” we stand with. We believe that all lives are equally important, but the violence between them must be stopped. Many other families across the nation have found themselves in the same situation. In the United States there are 18.1 million Black employed police officers in the force as of 2018 (Date US: Police officers). Because new ideologies can be exposed by the Black officers, the involvement of Blacks in the police system can be seen as a positive. However, white police officers still claim the majority in most areas. In the United States, 110 million whites were employed as officers as of 2018 (Data US: Police officers). Therefore, the precedent racist ideologies from white officers still carry over in the system to the civilians in contact with the police. Not only that, but if black officers were to act against these ideologies, their voices may be notoriously shut down by the majority (i.e., white officers). These men and women can change the fear law enforcement diffuses by resisting the racist assumptions in civilian interactions. However, White police officers still claim the majority in most areas. This makes it harder for Blacks within the force to fight the injustice dispersed on the streets.
In the United States, 110 million White officers are employed as of 2018 (Data US: Police officers). Black police officers are trumped by 91.9 million White officers. Therefore, the precedent racist ideologies from White officers still carry over in the system to the civilians in contact with the police. Not only that, but if Black officers were to act against these ideologies, their voices would be notoriously shut down by the large number of White officers. It can be argued that the interests and needs of minorities (i.e. Black officers) may not be accounted for in such as a white male-dominated field.
Unfortunately, these dismissive ideologies from the police system victimize Black civilians more than any other group. We see this through emotional court cases, news stories, and first-hand accounts posted on social media. The debate of this recurring abuse from police is formed on these main ideas: police brutality is based on the racism that has been embedded in the system for years or it’s based on the fear that comes with the job as an officer. It is impossible for this concept to be considered correct for just one side, therefore police brutality stems from fear brought on by racial ideologies which may permeate the law enforcement subculture in some instances.
The true mission of policing is to serve and protection, but unfortunately, discrimination has become a point of concern. As Katie Nodjimbadem states in The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality, “Modern policing did not evolve into an organization institution until the 1830s and 1840s when northern cities decided they needed to better control over quickly growing population.” As different groups came in contact with the police, harsh interactions resulted. First, it was the European immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Then, long lasting harsh tactics were targeted at African Americans from the result of slave patrols and those who fled to the north from Jim Crow laws (laws that forced racial segregation) in the south (Katie Nodjimbadem, The Long, Painful). Northern police officers, who were fueled by stereotypes and negative attitudes towards black, became a source of brutal and punitive victimization to refugees instead of serving as protection.
This abuse from police eventually continued into the Civil Rights Era during the 1960s. This was a time of peaceful disobedience from the African American community, yet violence still erupted on the scenes. During this era, the most common forms of force by police towards protesters were police dogs and fire hoses (Katie Nodjimbadem, The Long, Painful). Because of the abused power from the police, Black civilians suffered dog bites and bruises all over their bodies. As Katie Nodjimbadem states in The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality, “One of the deadliest riots occurred in Newark in 1967 after police officers severely beat black cab driver John Smith during a traffic stop.” The explanation for this account was nonexistent, but if you look close enough, you can see it was merely based on racism.
The observation of frequent violent accounts between police officers and blacks has been clearly documented. The numbers for violent interactions between blacks and police officers have been significantly higher than any other race. This statistical increase indicated that there is an underlying cause. The complexity of the disproportionate contact between blacks and police, the disproportionate use of force against blacks by police, and the racial bias by the police all contribute to the large amount of police shooting of African Americans (Clark et al. 1). Racial bias has proved to be the most supportive evidence to this statistic. There is a higher degree of racial bias in the decisions by officers to shoot Black Civilians compared to non-Black civilians (Clark et al. 3). Social scientists have been invited to dig deeper and observe racial patterns in policing (Clark et al. 2), making it apparent that this issue goes further than just a few negative police shootings toward blacks.
As injustice has been fought over the years in the police system, there is less evidence of racism being the main contributor in police violence and more evidence of fear influencing the interactions. As Sarah K. Smith perfectly puts it in Are Police Officers Really Afraid, “It occurs to me that the vast number of police officers are not bad people.” The ignorance and incapability to understand what another race goes endures clouds the eyes of many officers in the force. Recruits are usually young and come from areas where they have little to know about interactions with African American (Sarah K. Smith, Are Police Officers). They align their opinions of Blacks based on what their skewed, sometimes racist, community has to say.
It is important to realize that officers are human too. They have family issues that they go back home to, they have health issues they have to face, and most importantly they feel emotions (such as stress just as others do). As Lauren Walter explains in On-The-Job Stress Negatively Impacts Police Officer Health, Study Suggests, “They also face stress, which can negatively impact their physical and mental health, according to researchers at the University of Buffalo (UB).” Ironically, the police system is focused on training invincible officers who are prone to conflict. However, the system also breaks them down by discouraging humility. John Violanti, Ph.D., states, “If you go for mental health counseling, you may not be considered for promotions, and you may be shamed by your peers and superiors. In some cases, your gun can be taken away so there is a real fear of going for help.” (Lauren Walter, On-The-Job). Officers face fear within the streets and the system, so for them there is no escaping it. All they can do is manage it; however, that stress can build up into violent, impulsive actions.
Police who act violently against other races usually talk about fear. What they fear, oftentimes Black suspects, is usually an indicator of their ideologies. For example, George Zimmerman, the self-proclaimed authority figure who killed Trayvon Martin, a young Black male, said he was scared for his life, so he shot. If Zimmerman was scared for his life when he encountered a young Black man, most likely his fear was triggered by Martin’s race. This fear was not an excuse to act violently towards the young, black man. However, it is probable that fear may fuel an impulsive action, such as gun violence.
Police officers are also fearful because of the experiences they have to endure on the streets that alter their morals towards Blacks. The line “I was in fear of my life” justifies the excessive force used by officers (Sarah K. Smith, Are Police Officers). These underlying feelings of fear will surface during stressful situations. This is especially true if one is constantly receiving threats to their own health and safety, while being exposed to people in distress and pain. As Sarah K. Smith describes it in Are Police Officers Really Afraid, “Officers who are afraid approach black people like they are the ‘enemy,’ no less dangerous than an ‘enemy’ in a combat zone, and the action demanded, based on the fear, is to take the enemy out before he or she takes the officer out.” The job requires officers to understand all types of situations, people, and environments. Unfortunately, for some officers, blacks are immediately considered the enemy and viewed as presenting a threat.
Police brutality has improved from the first days of policing, when the northerners created their own forces to protect cities. Law enforcement agencies are beginning to take steps towards supporting officers' mental health, rallies are spreading awareness of the injustice, and people like me are diving deeper into the true cause of this recurring tragedy. It is important to note that all police officers cannot be characterized as racist, however the culture of the criminal justice system in which they work has been evidenced as biased in many ways. It is also important to note that accidents do occur, and it is unfortunate that the consequence is a human life.
In conclusion, it can be implied that police brutality may occur because of the fears held by individual officers toward a specific group of people. Consequently, this fear may be the result of racial ideologies possessed by the officer among other factors.
Clark, Tom S., Elisha, Cohen, Adam, Glynn, Michael Leo, Owens, Anna, Gunderson, and Kaylyn Jackson, Schiff. Are Police Racially Biased in the Decision to Shoot?. 13 March 2020.
Nodjimbadem, Katie. “The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 27 July 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-painful-history-police-brutality-in-the-us- 180964098/.
“Police Officers.” Data USA, datausa.io/profile/soc/police-officers#employment.
Smith, Susan K. “Are Police Officers Really Afraid?” HuffPost, HuffPost, 2 Dec. 2016, www.huffpost.com/entry/are-police- officers-reall_b_8683188.
StackPath, www.ehstoday.com/health/article/21915261/onthejob-stress-negatively-impacts-police-officer-health-study- suggests.
Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.