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Racism In The Police Essay, Research Paper

I. Introduction and Thesis

When Americans are asked what most concerns them with the direction of this country, crime and racial tensions invariably figure prominently in the answer. In the minds of many, these two problems are inextricably linked, and for some they go hand in hand.

When living in a country comprised of a variety of races, one might think that acceptance and the freedom to live free of discrimination, especially by law enforcement officials, should be automatically granted, for a society of different individuals allows the realization that a specific race is not the only one inhabiting this world and that other races are here for the same reason. And yet this is not the case with the majority of the population today. Racism is one of the unfortunate social ills that is plaguing today s society and generating corruption as far as the eye can see. To further this social contamination, some of the community s personnel dedicated to law and order are playing with the lives of many citizens, only to gain a more egotistical attitude towards their position in society.

Racial bias and discrimination are existent in the minds of many individuals, some of whom may have, if it is at all possible, a justification for such thoughts. But when it comes to the protection and justice of a society, race should not even be an issue. The criminal justice system of today fuels it s flame of democracy with decisions influenced by a certain individual s race and stature in society, and allows these preconceptions to be the basis of such decisions. Whether it is the African American motorist being pulled over with no probable cause, or the racially spurred brutalizing by the police, racism prevails in the world of criminal justice.

II. Police Harassment and Brutality

A. Introduction to Police Harassment and Brutality

When inquired about their experiences with police harassment, African American males, as a group, have as many police stories as Vietnam veterans have war stories. The ways in which the harassment is applied varies, but the most repeatedly reported cases include being mistaken for a criminal, being publicly humiliated, being called derogatory names, and in the worst case, being beaten and physically harmed (Russell 33). Most often, these tales of harassment often begin with the individual being stopped by law enforcement officers, for no justifiable and usually a fabricated reason, while driving a vehicle. This is a scenario that has happened all too often, enough so that it has acquired its own acronym- DWB (Driving While Black) (Russell 33).

When the alleged harassment evolves into the more dangerous and controversial area of brutality, society becomes even further outraged at the fact that their protection may be corrupt. Police brutality is a topic that affects many lives, whether it be the life of the officer and his family that is being scrutinized under the public eye , or the victim of the beating and their family. Of the many cases that have made national news headlines within the past decade, the Rodney King case seems to be the most remembered.

Whether the motorist is African American, Caucasian, Asian, or any other of the myriad of races in this world, the behavior and demeanor or the law enforcement officers should be based on the severity of the offense, rather than the pigment of the offender s skin, and should never become violent. But unfortunately, this is not always the case. When police officers cross the line of racially dependent policing, they are putting themselves at a greater risk of harm, both physically and mentally, and should revaluate their motivations and priorities to serve the community.

B. Driving While Black (DWB)- A wrongdoing in the eyes of many officers

This play on words of DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) refers to the commonly employed police practice of using an alleged traffic violation as a pretext to stop any African American or Hispanic motorist they suspect of being involved in criminal activity unrelated to driving. Following the incident, a mendacious report is filed by the officer in attempt to conceal the truth of his or her prejudice beliefs. The following grounds for suspicion of criminality are among the many reasons that African American motorists are pulled over:

Driving a luxury automobile (e.g., Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, etc.)

Driving an old car

Driving in a car with other black men

Driving in a car with a white woman

Driving early in the morning or late at night

Driving a rented automobile

Driving in a low-income neighborhood, known for its drug traffic

Driving in a white neighborhood

Driving in a neighborhood where there have been recent burglaries

(Russell 33)

Although the above list may in fact be the reason that a prejudice officer s attention is obtained, none of the reasons listed can be filed as a probable cause in the police report, for obvious reasons. Officers who participate in such practices must fabricate a report to make the case valid. Blondie (true identity withheld for protection reasons), an ex-Phildelphia police officer who now resides in a federal prison and is currently serving 13 years for violating the civil rights of many civilians, as well as for stealing money during searches and arrests, explains the process of flouting the laws that they are sworn to uphold in an article by Michael Kramer in Time:

Basically, the first thing you really learn as a cop is how to lie. Now, say you see some guy driving who you think is wrong ( wrong in his lexicon invariably means an African American male). You stop him on no basis that could stand up in court. So you lie if you have to. You say he ran a stop sign or had a broken taillight that you break after you ve determined he s bad. This makes the stop legal. You search the car, which you have no probable cause to do. (Kramer 4)

When and if the officer finds illegal material, they have two options: Blondie continues, Lie, and testify that the guy gave you permission to search. Or, say the contraband wasn t in the trunk at all, but rather in plain view. Why sweat it? Sure, you ve fabricated the probable cause and done an illegal search, but the guy is bad, right? We do what we have to do (Kramer 4). Blondie adds, How you get a bad guy, if he really is a bad guy, is pretty much your own business. Your job is to get him. Period (Kramer 4).

Although Blondie now admits his wrong doings and is serving his sentence, many more police officers are partaking in similar acts of injustice and are getting away with it. And this practice is not going unnoticed. Robert McGuire, who served as New York City s police commissioner for six years states, There s far more of this type of thing than anyone could be comfortable with. He adds, Do cops perjure themselves routinely on warrants and arrests, where the probable cause is made up after the fact so the arrest stands up in court? Sure they do (Kramer 4).

Despite the fact that some officers will admit that the mind set in which many of their coworkers operate is racially biased and discriminatory, it seems that they are reluctant to emend the situation. The fear of being wrongfully punished for bringing to light such a controversial issue may be one of the reasons that the good (the term good is being used in reference to the many law enforcement officers that uphold their dedication to serving the public in a non-biased manner) officers are keeping quiet.

i. The Maryland State Police Department

One of the most investigated cases of DWB involved the Maryland State Police Department.

As part of a settlement stemming from a lawsuit filed in 1993 by four African Americans that claim that they were pulled over and detained while their car was searched with no probable cause, The Maryland State Police were instructed to maintain computer records of all motorist stops between 1995 and 1997 (Russell 41). In the year of 1995, the officers performed 533 searches along Interstate-95. 77% (409) of the searches performed by the troopers involved African American drivers, 18% involved Caucasian drivers, and 1% involved Hispanic drivers (Russell 41). Illegal narcotics were confiscated from 33% of the African American motorists who were subjected to the searches, and 22% from the Caucasian motorists (Russell 41). The following table illustrates the complete breakdown of the project in the year of 1995:

I-95 Stops African American Caucasian Hispanic Other Total

Number 409 97 20 7 533

Contraband found 33% 22% 10% 42% ———–

(Russell 42)

The evidence of racially motivated policing can clearly be seen in the table. Although it is unclear for certain why the Maryland State Police subjected so many African Americans to searches in comparison to the other races listed, the assumption can be made that the race of the individuals played a key factor in the motivation behind such policing. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland concludes that in 1996, African Americans accounted for approximately 17% of the motorists along Interstate-95 and 17.5% of the traffic law violators (Russell 42). With this data in mind, one can see where the inconsistency of percentages in comparison with the table exists. The racially biased assumption that African American motorists are involved in the drug trafficking through Maryland does not give the legal right to pull them over, as can be demonstrated in the law suit mentioned at the beginning of the section, where the plaintiffs settled for a win of $100,000 (Russell 41).

DWB is one of the many ways in which many law enforcement officers undertake their duty to serve the community. The fact that it is a racist method of pursuing suspects, leaves them at a loss of much needed support. When police officers violate the rights of civilians, it is then that the line is crossed, and the behavior must be corrected for the good of society.

C. Police Brutality- Violence in Uniform

Police work in itself is in many ways violent. Law enforcement officers are authorized by state law to exercise force to restrain and arrest criminals and to calm disturbances (Bornstein 39). The use of force by a police officer can be beneficial to the situation. When the force becomes excessive, that is where it is labeled as brutality.

In a survey of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, 20% said that racial prejudice is a contributing factor that causes police to exceed the guidelines regarding the use of force (Bornstein 64). This statistic shows that police officers themselves know that there is a problem when it comes to racism and brutality. Yet the question of why they do not do anything to resolve this is still unanswered.

No agency keeps national records of police brutality cases, and the comparing of statistics from city to city renders the obtained information useless due to inconsistency in record keeping methods (Harrison 17). Due to this unfortunate fact, the problem cannot be quantified and thus can only be spoken about in an anecdotal way (Harrison 17).

In many police brutality cases, there are no outside witnesses (Harrison 19). This makes many cases hard to prove, since there is usually some sort of cover-up by the officers. Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union says, In approximately 8,000 complaints investigated [in New York City] in 1987 and 1988, there was not a single instance of an officer coming forward with incriminating information about another officer (Harrison 19). The reason is that officers subscribe to a code of silence that bonds them to other officers (Harrison 19). This bond is what police officers use to help themselves and their fellow officers in a cover-up.

On the night of March 3, 1991, there was a witness at the scene of a police beating. Fortunately, the witness also recorded the incident on a video camera. This episode is what is what has come to be known as the Rodney King beating . The Rodney King beating received national and international attention, and opened the eyes of the public, removing a blindfold that was thrown in front of their eyes by the police force. Though many incidences are hard to prove because of a victim s word versus a police officer s word situation, the videotaping removed that factor form the equation.

i. The Rodney King Beating

On March 5, 1991, the nation was shocked when the recording of a police beating two nights before was broadcast on Cable News Network (CNN). The videotape was that of the March 1 beating of Rodney King, an unemployed, African American construction worker who had a previous felony conviction. The incident began after law enforcement officers allegedly tried to pull him over for speeding. After a high speed chase, King s vehicle was cornered by police. He and his passengers were ordered from the vehicle at which time the passengers complied. King, however, hesitated to follow the order. He finally exited the car and was struck with two charges from a stun gun (Bornstein 8). When King still refused police orders to lie flat on the ground, he was then struck repeatedly with police batons. Within the next two minutes, King was beaten 56 times with a baton and kicked six times (Bornstein 8). The injuries sustained by King were serious. He suffered eleven skull fractures, brain damage, broken bones and teeth, and kidney damage (Bornstein 8).

Because of his prior criminal record, King was certain that his story would not hold up in court. But due to the fact that the incident was videotaped, his case was given much needed credibility. This credibility is what sparked the attention of a nation, and gave King a fighting chance in the conviction of four officers. Officer Laurence Powell, Sgt. Stacey Koon, Officer Theodore Briseno, and Probationary Officer Timothy Wind, were charged with criminal offenses, including assault with a deadly weapon. The trial was not held in Los Angeles due to the defense arguing that a fair trial could not be had because of the extensive pretrial media coverage (Bornstein 18). The trial was moved to Simi Valley, a predominately Caucasian suburb of Los Angeles, where a jury that contained no African Americans acquitted all four officers on all charges. A public opinion poll revealed that 82% of Caucasian Americans and virtually 100% of African Americans believed that the officers were guilty (Bornstein 19). This acquittal is what instigated the furious rioting that resulted in the deaths of 52 people, 2,383 people injured, 500 fires set, a billion dollars worth of property destroyed, and 16,291 arrests made: the bloodiest, most destructive American riot in the twentieth century (Kennedy 118).

After the rioting ceased, an investigation was launched by Mayor Tom Bradely, a former police lieutenant (Bornstein 15). The investigation, conducted by a specially appointed group led by Warren Christopher and known as the Christopher Commission, reviewed more than one million documents and interviewed hundreds of people, including police officers, private citizens, and criminal justice experts (Leone, Szumski, Wekesser, Dudley 11). The results of the investigation concluded that the LAPD had a problem with police brutality and that a certain problem group of officers committed repetitive, unjustified use of force (Leone, Szumski, Wekesser, Dudley 11). To reinforce the effect of the silent code , the Commission reported that 44 police officers were cited in at least six allegations of brutality in a period over four years, yet still received favorable reviews from the department (Leone, Szumski, Wekesser, Dudley 11). But the Commission was not limited to only investigating the King beating, and also reviewed problems of excessive force and racism in the LAPD as well Bornstein 15). The results of these aspects concluded that there was a tolerance within the LAPD of attitudes condoning violence against the public , and also that there was evidence of prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals (Bornstein 16). The Commission also reported that 25% of Los Angeles police officers believe that some officers engage in racially discriminatory procedures (Russell 37-38). The same percentage said that an officers racial prejudice may result in the use of excessive force against a suspect (Russell 38). Although this statistic may not necessarily make the problem seem to be of great magnitude, it is a problem that should not exist in the first place, and must be dealt with immediately. The eradication of such behavior would not only be beneficial to the community, but it would also be a step in the direction of a hate-free and peaceful world.

III. Conclusion

Racial discrimination within the police force is an ongoing cancer that is destroying public trust in authority. In 1968, a group called the Kerner Commission made propositions to deal with the poverty and despair that gave rise to crime and violence, and also about how to reduce the level of tension that existed between law enforcement and minorities (Bornstein 98). Yet, the situation today is not much different from that of 1968, and some would argue that it is even worse (Bornstein 98).

When speaking of racially biased policing, one must take into account their own prejudices. There are prejudices existent in almost every aspect of life, whether or not they are racially motivated depends on the individual s preconceptions about that certain race. This preconception is not an efficient way of keeping law and order. Police officers may in fact be subjected to many forms of violence by minorities, but that subjection is not something that should initiate a judgment on a certain persons character, and thus spur a racially motivated policing attitude. Consider the African American pulled over with no probable cause, and harassed due to the fact that he looks wrong . This is a prime example of an officer s racist attitude. In the officer s mind, he may think that he is committing a service to the community, in reality he is serving an injustice that destroys good relations between authority and society. The officer can still police efficiently without paying attention to race, yet his preconception about that race is too overwhelming for him or her to pass up that opportunity. If an officer were to focus on Caucasian drivers, the results would not be much different, due to the fact that many Caucasian drivers are guilty of illegal activities as well. This form of policing is still not justified. Therefore, the problem needs to be eradicated to protect the rights of the public. People must recognize that there still remains a disparity between whites and minorities in the justice system, and that they need to believe that civil liberties and equality for all is ultimately necessary before any change can be made within the system.

-Bornstein, Jerry. “Police Brutality-A National Bebate.” Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1993.

-Kennedy, Randall. “Race, Crime, and the Law.” New York: Pantheon, 1997.

-Kramer, Michael. “How Good Cops Go Bad.” Time. 15 Dec. 1997: Op-ed page. www.time.com. Online. Aol. 3 April 2000.

-Leone, Bruno, et al., eds. “Police Brutality.” Current Controversies Series. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1991.

Harrison, Eric. “Police Brutality in the US: An Overview.” Bruno Leone, et al. eds. 16-21.

-Russell, Katheryn. “The Color of Crime- Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment,and other Macroaggressions.” New York: New York University, 1998.


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