Why has this country normalized police incited violence? Why is police violence a leading cause of death among Black men? The truth? Police sanctioned violence against Black Americans has existed in the US for centuries.
It has become routine. The fatal trend of deadly police violence towards Black Americans across the US is commonplace. But more importantly, normalizing as a part of the cultural fabric that covers this country.
The reality is; police use of force is a leading cause of death among young Black men in this country. Among the 1,099 people killed in 2019, Black Americans made up 24% despite being only 13% of the entire population. Apart from there being virtually no accountability for these officers 99% of the time, perhaps the worst piece of this disgusting reality is that these killings have no correlation with violent crimes rates.
To the average outsider, higher rates of reported violent crimes would ideally be an appropriate indicator of higher reported police activity. However, in the case of Black Americans (mostly male), it’s just not about the crime.
Police violence culture
Historically, police brutality has always been present among people of color in the US. After the influx of immigrants during the 1920s, poor/working class Europeans voiced complaints regarding police brutality. In the 1940s, tension between the police and Mexican Americans increased, primarily on the West coast. In the 1960s, with the gay rights movement gaining momentum, police raids became prevalent. And post 9/11, police brutality including harassment, racial profiling, and unlawful searches, became routine among Muslim Americans. The common denominator among all of these groups, is the vast majority of victims have always been African Americans. Yes, low socioeconomic status is a relatively consistent non racial/ethnic gauge of areas of crime, homelessness and police activity. However, most experts conclude antiblack racism among majority White police departments to be the key factor in victimization of Black Americans.
Yes, the primary cause of police violence towards Black Americans usually points towards racism. However this cannot be true without first acknowledging the foundational ‘policing culture’ that gives power to this movement. Historically, urban police departments value solidarity, loyalty, and the ‘show of force’ attitude to those who dare to challenge authority. Often times, rookie officers’ acceptance, success and career development rely upon upholding these practices that run parallel to anti-Black sentiment. By encouraging arrests and providing incentives, law enforcement has loosened regulations on searches, and been able to demonize an entire race without a reasonable cause.
Origin of police violence
Initially, the Great Migration (1916 – 70), first established the relationship between Black Americans and urban police. Newly freed slaves from the rural south were still migrating to northern cities. Most of these predominantly White communities were unfamiliar to African American presence. And in turn, responded with ignorance, aggression, and fear powered by the racism driven stereotyping endorsed during slavery. By the 1950s, police departments exploited the intolerant culture and successfully transformed the entire principle of policing into one simple objective; protecting Whites against Blacks. Post WWII, with the rise of the KKK and White supremacy, the policing establishment only grew in power. The so-called ‘war on crime’ discourse was a gilded approach designed to target communities of color. Because systematic racism that has been written into the social, economic, legal, and political fabric of this country upon establishment, police brutality is justified without consequences.
A public health emergency
Given the fact that police violence is a leading cause of death for young Black males, the American Public Health Association has declared it as a national public health issue. In this profession, anything that costs lives, or causes harm is deemed a public health issue. All types of violence correspond with poor health outcomes, especially physical and psychological. Unlawful stops (and searches) by law enforcement are prime influencers of psychological violence directly associated with adverse mental health outcomes, including anxiety, PTSD, depression, substance and alcohol abuse. Inappropriate law enforcement encounters solidifies an inability to achieve better health outcomes, for generations.
Constant fear, discrimination and police brutality, are linked to risk factors of higher chronic illness’ and even early mortality. Exposure to police violence among youth, is associated with rejecting education and social improvement all together. State approved policing has ripped open and abused social inequities for a profit by criminalizing homelessness and drug abuse for example. Both societal issues with proven non-criminalizing methods of interventions that rehabilitate and educate, rather than leave communities shattered. Public health as a profession essentially targets racism across disciplines. Solidifying the need for everyone to declare this a public health emergency.
Black America has a right to be fearful
Years of discriminatory policing and court rulings have led to demonization of an entire demographic of American citizens by law enforcement. ‘Linked Fate’, is a principle that claims the life of one individual is linked to an entire race. So videos of police brutality shot on cell phone cameras that circulate the internet, leave families, friends, and communities nationwide fearing that same fateful encounter.
To call a place that has manufactured structural discrimination into all the functional areas of this country home, has left millions of Black families feeling helpless. This is the same place that treats White offenders with more respect than most nonviolent Black offenders. The establishment that objects to peacefully kneeling in honor of millions of lives lost, but remains silent when that knee is an officer’s on a Black man’s neck. The place where police officers charge peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors with tear gas, but are non existent when armed White protestors storm government buildings. Because after all, policing has always been a struggle for civil rights for Black Americans, a tool for racial control.
By definition, to be a ‘racist’ system, there must be a systematic and institutional level piece. Meaning, there must be policies, rules, regulations, enforcement, influence and most important advantage to one entire race over another. Therefore, the one-sided policies written into employment, housing, education and healthcare are by definition, racist. Yes, various races (including Hispanic, Asian, Middle eastern etc) also fall victim to this system, but it disproportionately affects Black Americans. At an individual level, you can absolutely be prejudiced, biased, and interpersonally hostile towards Whites (or any other race), but by definition, in the US, at a high level, you cannot be ‘racist’ towards White Americans.
Evidence based methods to address police violence (racism)
Priority number one should be to standardize policing data. The federal government’s inability to provide a centralized database presumably means these numbers are most likely underreported. When police violence is a leading cause of death for an entire demographic of US citizens, private companies should not be responsible for the data. The root cause lies with the US treating policing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach to all problems. Not everything requires police involvement.
The dynamic of this country has changed, so why has the method of policing through criminalization remained the same? Why is education and public health funding consistently cut, while the police budget multiplies? Considering the societal problems that we now face, police culture needs to shift from criminalization to social development. Sending White police officers into predominantly Black neighborhoods, with no mental health, behavioral, social, economic, or even political regard/training to address problems, only results in violence.
‘Defunding the police’ does not mean ‘no police’
Leadership need to allocate funds to community based social services instead. Due to years of systematic police misconduct, the public largely feel the individual police officers cannot be reprogrammed and retrained. It’s a lost cause. That the number of ‘good cops’ simply cannot and will not contribute to lasting change. As a result, the only way to bring change is by ‘defunding the police’. To the average American this simply means to cut funding to urbanized police departments.
However, this really means a comprehensive redistribution of public funds. A reallocation and reprogramming effort of the entire policing institution, not the individual police officers. Self proclaimed conservatives claim ‘defunding the police’ means ‘eradicating police’. Rather it means re-investing that money into healthcare, education and public programs that are proven to create an environment that will not require constant policing anymore. Evidence based controlled studies have proven, less proactive policing leads to less crime. Hence the assumption that disinvestment in policing will automatically lead to increased crime, is simply untrue.
Public health (and community based) professionals take the social determinants of health (like socioeconomic status, education, race, religion etc) into consideration and treat police violence for what it is; a public health emergency.
What can average people do?
Racism is the fundamental glue across all structural pieces of this nation. As a result a complete ‘reform of the criminal justice system’ will take years. However, individual involvement at the local level can drive structural decisions now. State Attorneys, Mayors, Governors, local leaders and Congressmen/women bear far more potential for reform over national leadership. Identify your district, local and state representatives and invest in actually voicing concerns over police violence directly to them. This is no longer ‘politics as usual’. Amid the militarization of police the last several decades, this system has camouflaged the fact that the public still holds all the power.
Cancel the ‘we don’t talk politics at work’ culture that has suffocated this nation. Kindness is not a gesture, it is a lifestyle. Normalize difficult conversations in schools, work places, neighborhoods and individual homes. Donate to public services that operate in the interest of victims with police alternative tools that are proven to work.
Unintentional bias influences everyone. Whether aware or not, at times, we all come from a place of privilege. Recognize your individual privilege and ignorance in only publicizing police violence after a murder has already been filmed. Rather push the boundaries of socially acceptable intolerance. Promote Black business owners, teachers, leaders and advocates. Create safe places for Black children, professionals and students to address concerns. Read. Now is the time to listen to the movement. Branch out beyond social media in educating yourselves, and more importantly your children. What may seem obvious to one, might be informative to another. We don’t need to be ‘experts’ when it comes to racism, we just need to be human.
Featured image by: Shoaib Jakvani.
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