Police: A Legacy of Racism and Violence

Demonstrators in Hollywood on June 2, 2020

Demonstrators in Hollywood on June 2, 2020

By Julia Nichols

For years, Black people have been advocating for justice for those murdered by the police and for a systematic reform of police. It seems like many people are finally listening. Around the world, including in the U.S., Belgium, Britain, South Korea, Australia, Liberia, and Brazil, people are showing their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by protesting and taking down Confederate and colonialist monuments. In this propitious moment, it is important to look to the history and evolution of racism and violence in law enforcement to inform our activism.

Police brutality is not unique to the U.S.: Countries including Brazil, India, Jamaica, and China have problems with police brutality. The Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have recognized that racially based police brutality is an international issue. The United Nations Centre for Human Rights created the International Human Rights Standards for Law Enforcement, which countries like the U.S. and Brazil are in conflict with. American and Brazilian police violate the UN’s ­­standards that restraint must be exercised, damage and injury must be minimized, and force should only be used when strictly necessary. In the U.S., 1,000 people are killed by police every year and in 2019, Brazil’s police were responsible for 1,810 deaths.

Countries like France, the U.S., the UK, and Brazil violate, to various degrees, the UN’s standards for non-discrimination by disproportionately killing, incarcerating, and/or stopping Black people. Brazilian police are responsible for 1/5 of all the murders in the country, and the majority of the victims are Black. U.S. police departments discriminate based on race when enforcing the law and do not afford equal protection under the law for all citizens. The UK police force has a racially biased database that is used to target people for stops. In France, young Black men are reportedly 20 times more likely to be stopped by police. While many countries have a history of slavery, the police departments in both Brazil and the U.S. came directly out of organizations created to control enslaved people.

History and Race

To understand the way racism manifests in modern police departments, we must look at their history. Modern police departments in the U.S. originated from slave patrols and other bodies that policed the more marginalized groups in society. Slave patrols started in South Carolina in 1704 and by the late 1700s, they were ubiquitous in the South. Armed with whips, ropes, and guns, slave patrols captured, punished, and returned those who had escaped bondage. They beat and intimidated enslaved people to prevent uprisings and to ensure they abided by plantation rules. Similarly, Brazilian police departments were originally created for the purpose of preventing slaves from organizing an uprising.

In the U.S., Northern and Midwestern police forces emerged in the early 1800s. The city of St Louis established “Indian Constables” to police neighboring Indigenous groups. The St Louis Police Department grew out of this group. Northern cities experienced an influx of immigrants from Germany and Ireland. These new immigrant groups and more established immigrant groups clashed, leading to an increase in crime. According to Dr. Gary Potter from Eastern Kentucky University, merchants were concerned about how the new social unrest and crime might affect their businesses and lobbied for the creation of public police forces. Once established, they mainly served to enforce laws that protected the merchant class (i.e. the suppression of riots, strikes, and protests). Police began arresting people for public drunkenness, which disproportionately impacted the working class since they lived in small apartments and preferred to drink in the pubs. Already, the police were prioritizing the enforcement of laws most likely to be broken by the working class. Police forces of the 1800s were infamous for taking bribes from politicians and others to look the other way when laws were broken. Just like the slave patrols of the South, the police forces’ main function was to police the working class that, in large part, consisted of Black people and immigrants.

After the Civil War, slave patrols seamlessly transitioned into public police forces. Police were known to be involved with vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which emerged to continue to police Black people through lynching and other violent acts. Furthermore, police in the South were responsible for enforcing Jim Crow laws. They met Civil Rights protesters with excessive force, including attack dogs and high force firehoses. Black people would be met with police brutality if they were found violating Jim Crow laws. Police often failed to prosecute, investigate, or otherwise intervene in the brutal killing, torture, and lynching of Black men and women. This was just 60 years ago, and the mistreatment of Black and brown people by the police continues.

A 17-year-old Civil Rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., on May 3, 1963.

A 17-year-old Civil Rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., on May 3, 1963.

U.S. police departments’ excessive use of force disproportionately impacts people of color, especially Black people. 24% of people killed by police are Black even though they only make up 13% of the population. A study conducted at Stanford University found that Black people are more likely than white people to be pulled over while driving and they are more likely to have those stops escalate to a search of their car. This disparity drops off at night, presumably because officers are no longer able to easily discern the race of motorists.

The U.S. prides itself on our respect for individual liberties, but in practice, these rights are not always respected for marginalized communities. A study conducted by researchers from Yale and Johns Hopkins found that Black Americans’ experiences in areas that are highly policed are similar to the experiences of people in more authoritarian countries in Asia and Africa, nations to which we should not be proud to be compared. According to the law, all Americans have equal rights to privacy, to remain silent, and to assemble. In practice, however, Black and brown people’s privacy is targeted via stop and frisks, they fear coercion and violence if they remain silent, and they are arrested at high rates because officers find it suspicious when they are in groups. They are considered “suspicious” simply because of the color of their skin. U.S. police forces have been used to control and repress marginalized communities for centuries and their practices are ongoing.

Militarization and Enforcement

Armed police forces are nothing new, but now police departments in the U.S. have become more militarized, meaning they are implementing military tactics, attitudes, and weaponry. Other countries, including Brazil, China, France, and Mexico, have militarized police forces as well. It has been proven that the militarization of police forces leads to more violent actions from officers. Militarization heightens the tensions between civilians and the police, while making the police more deadly.

In the U.S., from 1980-2000, there has been a 1,500% increase in the number of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams in police departments, providing those departments with higher caliber guns, grenades, armored cars, and other military grade weapons. Initially, these were supposed to be used in “extraordinary, emergency situations,” but the War on Drugs and the War on Terror made these resources more widely available. There are 50,000 SWAT raids every year in the U.S.: 137 times every day. 80% of these raids are for the sake of executing a search warrant, meaning they are looking for evidence to prove the person has committed a crime. Out of all the raids, 60% are for suspected drug crimes. These raids are not affecting all Americans equally. 68% of SWAT raids against Black and Latinx people are for suspected drug crimes while only 38% of SWAT raids against white people are for suspected drug crimes. The excessive force used in SWAT raids has resulted in the deaths of children, even infants. This is how Breonna Taylor was killed. SWAT teams should not be used unless absolutely necessary because of the increased risk of killing or seriously injuring unsuspecting inhabitants.

7,000 different police agencies across the U.S. have obtained military gear from the Pentagon through the 1033 Program. This gear is subsidized by taxpayers and each agency is able to use these supplies and tactics with little oversight and accountability. Police departments with low rates of crime are acquiring millions of dollars’ worth of equipment like assault rifles, armored trucks, and Kevlar helmets. Once the equipment has been given to an agency, the federal government does not evaluate how it is being used.

Law enforcement officers, including a sniper perched atop an armored vehicle, watch as demonstrators protest the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 13, 2014.

Law enforcement officers, including a sniper perched atop an armored vehicle, watch as demonstrators protest the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 13, 2014.

The military and the police ought to have two very different goals. The military’s tactics are suited for fighting foreign foes. The police ostensibly exist to protect and serve the members of the community. They are meant to enforce the law, which includes citizens’ right to assemble and protest. Wearing and using military gear is inappropriate for regular police work. Researchers found that citizens feel much more comfortable and willing to approach police officers dressed in traditional uniforms as opposed to military uniforms. Trust is integral to a successful police force. There needs to be trust for people to be willing to call on and cooperate with police in the event of a crime. Trust, not fear, should color the relationships between citizens and police officers.

The relationship between citizens and police is further eroded when public officials talk about protesters using the language of war, including the U.S. President referring to peaceful protesters as terrorists. The head of the largest police union in NYC said, “we will win this war on New York City. … It’s good against evil and good always wins.” Peaceful protest is an act of patriotism, not terrorism.

Solving the excessive use of force and institutional racism latent in our law enforcement agencies will not be easy. The UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray has asked Unitarian Universalists—especially white UUs who tend to be resistant to such issues—to open our minds to defunding the police and investing in social services for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. The Black Lives Matter movement has been working for years to advocate for change and solve this problem. Their demands and perspective can be found here.

About the Author

Julia Nichols

Julia Nichols is an intern with the UU Office at the United Nations for the summer of 2020. She is conducting research on migration justice, police militarization, and free speech.


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