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Police Use of Excessive Force against Black Males: Aberrations or Everyday Occurrences

Abstract: This essay discusses the issue of police use of excessive force against black males while focusing on the recent cases of Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Demetrius DuBose and Timothy Thomas. This essay argues that contrary to popular belief that what happened to these men and others like them are not isolated incidents but rather examples of a long line of black males who face the prospect of police brutality on an everyday basis.

Not since police clubbed and maced protestors at the 1968 National Democratic convention in Chicago had the issue of police use of excessive force been the focus of news coverage than when four Los Angeles police officers were videotaped savagely beating Rodney King on the side of the road. The officers delivered 56 crunching blows, fracturing King’s eye socket, smashing his cheekbone, causing facial nerve damage and a broken leg. Police say they were provoked: King had supposedly resisted arrest and reached into his pocket, causing them to believe that he had a gun. Two of the four officers involved were eventually convicted and sentenced to jail.

Because of the publicity that the incident attracted and the jail time incurred by two of the officers, one would have thought that the attention would have made police officers more cautious about employing such force for fear of being videotaped and subsequently reprimanded. Still, some policemen continue to use excessive force, especially against black males. Criminal Justice Professor and former New York City police officer James Fyfe, a leading expert on policing, once asked whether white police officers have “two trigger fingers,” one for whites and one for African Americans (Fyfe 1978).

The number of incidences of white police use of excessive force against black males since the Rodney King beating has seemingly shown little sign of decline (Amnesty International 1999a; 1999b; 1999c; 1998). If this is so, such a pattern is not all that uncommon to African Americans. In the 1970s blacks were seven times more likely than whites to be killed by police (Pinkney 1984). By the 1980s blacks were nine times more likely than whites to be killed by police (Nelson 93). In a previous article published in 2001 this author found that from 1991 to 2001 there were at least twenty-two high profile1 cases of white police use of excessive force against black males (Jeffries 2001).

Recent examples of White Police use of Excessive Force

A year after the King atrocity, two white Detroit police officers bludgeoned Malice Green to death with their flashlights tearing off part of his scalp. Three years later, five foot five inch-one hundred forty five pound Johnny Gammage was pulled over while driving through a predominantly white Pittsburgh suburb, only to be choked and beaten to death after allegedly attacking five white police officers. In 1997, a New York City police officer rammed a stick from a toilet plunger six inches into the rectum of Abner Louima rupturing his intestines (Troutt 6). To make matters worse the officer stuck the soiled stick into the victim’s mouth. Two years later, Amadou Diallo and former pro football player Demetrius DuBose were murdered by New York City and San Diego police respectively. Diallo was shot by four white plain-clothes officers while standing in the vestibule of his own Bronx apartment building. According to the officers upon approaching the building Diallo stepped back inside as if to hide. When Diallo reached into his pocket the officers fired a total of 41 shots, striking him 19 times. What the police thought was a gun turned out to be a wallet.

That summer, DuBose, previously of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets was shot by two white San Diego police officers. The officers were investigating a burglary when they happened upon the multi-millionaire and Notre Dame graduate. An investigation by the family’s attorney revealed that DuBose cooperated with the officers’ investigation until they began to “harass and intimidate” him (Amnesty International 1999a). The officers claimed that DuBose charged at them with a pair of nunchakus sticks, a martial arts weapon that he allegedly wrestled away from one of them. Several onlookers said DuBose was shot in the back (Perry A3). To add insult to injury after shooting DuBose the officers stood over his body for more than ten minutes before calling an ambulance (Amnesty International 1999c). An autopsy report revealed that DuBose was shot twelve times, six in the back (Perry A3). When asked to explain how a young man of DuBose’s stature could end up being killed in this manner San Diego’s police chief called it an isolated incident–an aberration (Perry A3).

In 2001 Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Cincinnati police making him the fifteenth black male killed by police there in the last six years. Some of those shootings may have been justified, but the fact that no whites were killed during this period raises serious questions. Recently, an Inglewood police officer was captured on videotape slamming a sixteen-year old boy on the trunk of a squad car and punching him in the face even though the youngster was handcuffed.

This paper is concerned with two questions: 1) Are acts of police use of excessive force by white officers against black males aberrations or common everyday occurrences? And 2) why has police use of excessive force against black males continued to persist?

Relevant Literature and Other Important Data

While research concerning police brutality increased after the uprisings of the late 1960s few contemporary articles have been published that focus on race as a factor in police use of excessive force (Human Rights Watch 1998). Moreover, researchers (Weisburd et al. 2000; Tonry 1995; Adams 1986) are divided as to whether racial differences in the use of excessive force exist and, if they do exist, whether such disparities can be attributed to race. The Christopher Commission (a panel headed by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher), designed to provide Los Angeles with an independent study of the practices of the LAPD concluded that local policing was not applied in a fair and non discriminatory fashion for all city residents. More specifically, the Commission found that white officers often used excessive force, especially with African Americans (Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department 1991). By contrast Kenneth Adams (1996) argues that “the available data on the question of whether the rate of excessive force is higher among minorities is far from determinative.” Similarly, Michael Tonry (1995) argues that little if any reliable data is available that demonstrates systematic racial discrimination in police use of force. For many blacks the relationship is not as ambiguous. On the whole, surveys show that blacks believe that white police are more likely to use excessive force against blacks than against whites (Weisburd et. al 2000). Data from a Harris survey in 2000 indicated that only 36% of blacks believed that police treat all races fairly as compared to 69% of whites (U.S. Department of Justice 2000).

Former Los Angeles Detective Don Jackson was so convinced of the relationship between being black and being the victim of white police use of excessive force that he set up an undercover sting to obtain visual evidence of it. The result: a white Long Beach police officer shoved his head through a plate glass window and charged him with resisting arrest and damaging property (Turque et al.1991). Jackson would later quit the force.

The lack of comprehensive systematic data showing a conclusive relationship between the race of the pedestrian/motorist and the use of excessive force by white police officers does not obscure the fact that blacks are treated differently2 by white police, and are more likely than other segments of the population to be accosted by them during an encounter (Bureau of Justice 1997; Turque et al.1991). The absence of a national database has enabled many policy makers and those in law enforcement to deny that such a problem exists. The primary reason for the lack of data is that many incidents of brutality go unreported by the victim as well as by the officer for obvious but different reasons (Turque et al.1991). To some extent the experiences of blacks and the testimony of those in the law enforcement and legal community helps compensate for the lack of conclusive scientific data.

In a recent study more than 25 percent of white officers interviewed in Illinois and 15 percent in Ohio stated that they had observed an officer harassing a citizen “most likely” because of his or her race (Weisburd et al. 2000). District Attorney John L. Burris spoke of excessive force against blacks3 by white police in this manner: “In every city police force that I studied, I found examples of unchecked brutality” (Burris 1999). In Los Angeles such brutality appears to be the order of the day. Officer John Mitchell, who worked out of South Central’s 77th division, said that most of the officers that he worked with were racist and moreover, “extremely eager to be in a shooting” (Dominick 1994). In light of this admission it is not surprising that during the 1980s black males were disproportionately subjected to the LAPD’s use of the chokehold. More specifically, sixteen out of the eighteen citizens that died as a result of the chokehold were black males (Wallace 1982).

Los Angeles is not the only city where policing tactics have been called into question. Investigations of police departments in Buffalo, Charleston, West Virginia, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, New Orleans, Orange County, Florida, Philadelphia and Selma, Alabama have revealed that racism and brutality are widespread and often tolerated by department commanders (Burris 1999; Parenti 1995). In Selma, police harassment of black males had become so prevalent that black leaders installed a telephone hotline for people to report police use of excessive force (Benn 1996). While such findings and personal testimony may appear anecdotal and case specific to some, they still provide some insight into the dynamics of white police use of excessive force against black males throughout the United States.

Police Violence against Black Males: A Common Occurrence

Whenever a highly publicized case involving the beating or murder of a black person by a white police officer occurs, police department’s hurry to get out the message that it is an isolated incident. By calling it an isolated incident the department tries to give the public the impression that the incident was an atypical tragedy and that such behavior on the part of the officers involved was not sanctioned and therefore outside the norm of what is considered acceptable behavior by those in charge. After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was tortured and sodomized inside a Brooklyn police station, the mayor and the Police Commissioner immediately held a press conference condemning the officers involved. However, they refused to give any merit to the theory that police use of excessive force was a commonly used practice against black males. Not surprisingly, the police commissioner called the Louima beating an isolated incident, an aberration. Approximately three years later, the mayor and a newly appointed Police Commissioner said the same of the Diallo murder.

Given the ignominious racist past between the police and the black community in the United States one is hard-pressed to find credence in the notion that the beatings and murders of Louima, DuBose, Abner and others are isolated incidents. Indeed in An American Dilemma Gunnar Myrdal (1944) argued that the U.S. has a history of using law enforcement to keep blacks subdued and subjugated, dating back to slavery. For generations the formal, officially approved role of police, both in the South and often in the Northern “free” states, was that of oppressor: keeping slaves in their place and capturing and returning runaways to their owners and, later, enforcing Jim Crow segregation laws (Murphy & Wood 1984). Murphy and Wood (1984) argue that traditionally, the relationship between blacks and the police has been an oppressive one. For example, between 1920 and 1932, white police officers were responsible for more than half of all the murders of black citizens in the South. White officers were also responsible for 68 percent of blacks killed outside of the southern region of the U.S. (Myrdal 1944).

It is this writer’s contention that white police officers’ use of excessive force against black males are not isolated incidents, but rather common everyday occurrences. That black men are more likely than others to be the victims of white police violence suggests that there is a pattern of behavior on the part of some white police officers throughout the United States (Weisburd et al. 2000). This gruesome reality apparently was not lost on one man who, while marching in protest of the Diallo verdict raised his infant son in the air and shouted in a display of perverse prophecy “shoot him now, you may as well shoot him now!” (Troutt 2000).

Why Police Use of Excessive Force against Black Males Has Continued to Persist

The reactions of both whites and blacks to these horrific acts of excessive force go a long way in explaining why such behavior by law enforcement has persisted. I argue that while many whites believe that some beatings and murders of black males by white police officers is unethical they do not believe that such tragedies happen to black people with any frequency. Hence the reason many were shocked by the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Some of these individuals (due to no fault of their own) were so far removed from the daily atrocities of urban life that they were totally unaware that such things occurred regularly. For some whites whose lives were as mundane as the characters in the movie Pleasantville the graphic videotape of King being pummeled jolted them into reality. Unfortunately, this jolt was not enough to produce any kind of mass based mobilization campaign against police misconduct.

A second group of whites believe that black males are at fault. In other words, they believe that the victim brought on the beating or shooting by being combative, resisting arrest or by being disrespectful to the police. After all, the police would not use such force without a valid reason. Hence, in the minds of some whites the person got what he deserved. A third group deems that the beating of Rodney King and other black males is barbaric, but rationalizes these beatings by convincing themselves that, while unfortunate, they are a necessary byproduct of the war on crime. This group of whites I would argue has bought into the rhetoric concerning the War on Crime/Drugs and the depiction of black males as criminals.

In the minds of some whites blacks are synonymous with deviance and criminality (Entman & Rojecki 2000). Indeed the black male was the centerpiece of George Bush’s law and order campaign. In the closing weeks of the 1988 presidential election Bush ran a television ad that criticized his democratic opponent for being soft on crime. The voiceover said: “Governor Michael Dukakis granted this man a weekend furlough from prison. While on furlough this man escaped to Maryland where he raped a woman and tortured her fianc√© in their home” (Edsall & Edsall 1991). The individual to whom the voiceover was referring was a brown-skinned African American man named William Horton. The Bush campaign made Horton darker in complexion and renamed him Willie. In short Horton’s image in the ad was altered to look especially ominous. While the Bush campaign denied that there was any racial connection the ad undoubtedly played on the fears that many whites have about being the victims of black crime. Years later Ron Paul, a U.S. Congressman, reiterated this theme, writing in a report, “I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males are semi-criminal or entirely criminal”(Kurtzman 1997).

Again the image of black men as criminals resonates with many whites. This is in large part the reason why whites can kill other whites, blame it on black males and initially not be considered suspects. Case in point: In 1989 Michael Stuart of Boston shot and killed his wife, but told police that while driving in a bad neighborhood he and his wife were confronted by a robber (Steinberg 1995). During the encounter, the assailant supposedly shot and killed Stuart’s wife. The assailant also shot Stuart, but Stuart managed to get away. Five years later, in South Carolina, Susan Smith locked her two sons in a car and pushed the vehicle into a river, drowning the two boys. In both cases Smith and Stuart claimed that the assailant was a black male. The result: local law enforcement embarked on a manhunt in search of this black phantom killer, violating the rights of many in the process. The reason that Smith and Stuart figured that blaming black men would be a practical and viable alibi is because they were very much aware of the view that some whites have of black males. Indeed, research into the attitudes of whites bears this out. In a recent study of white jurors in capitol cases some whites were found to harbor bigoted feelings toward black defendants. Examples of comments made under anonymity in one capitol case include (Amnesty International 1999b; 1999c):

“He (the defendant) was a big black man who looked like a criminal.”

“He was big and black and kind of ugly, so I guess I thought he fit the part.”

Complicit in this depiction of black men as criminals is the American media. Black men have been unfairly, but in some instances intentionally depicted by some media as dangerous criminals (Entman & Rojecki 2000; Wilson & Gutierrez 1995). In his book The Culture of Fear Barry Glassner criticizes the media for stigmatizing black men. He says,

Thanks to the profuse coverage of violent crime on local TV news programs

… night after night, Black men rob, rape, loot and pillage in the living room. The media do their part in influencing the attitudes of the white public so that such warlike measures against Black people by the police are tolerated (Glassner 1999).

Hence, some media have constructed black men as dangerous criminals who should be controlled and admonished. Some whites have undoubtedly bought into this erroneous depiction, and it manifests itself in their belief systems.

A fourth, albeit small group of whites genuinely believe that blacks should be kept in their place and as a result feel little sympathy for the Kings, Louimas and Diallos of the world. Some of them may have grown up during an era when hatred of blacks was commonplace and publicly acceptable. Indeed, the hatred of blacks has been so much a part of being a white American that many individuals do not feel personal guilt or responsibility for the oppression of black people. For example, when asked in an interview to explain the high percentage of black choke-hold deaths in Los Angeles, Police Chief Daryl Gates said, “the veins and arteries do not open up as fast in blacks as they do in normal people” (Wallace 1982). In their book, Black Rage, psychiatrists Grier and Cobbs (1968) assert that the nation has incorporated such racist thinking into its folkways and traditions leaving the individual free to shrug his shoulders and say: “That’s our way of life.”

The black community’s response to incidents of police use of excessive force against black males is just as underwhelming and typical as whites. I would argue that unlike many whites most African Americans are not shocked by the beatings of black males like the one recently in Inglewood, California because nearly all blacks are aware that such incidents are common occurrences in the lives of black men. For many blacks, police use of excessive force against other African Americans is not news. Unfortunately, because such travesties happen frequently many blacks do not feel compelled to thwart this madness, as they believe based on past experience that any effort to address the issue will be ignored by those in power or be met with increased repression. It should be made clear that whites have a vested interest in the conservation and protection of the economic and social resources they currently hold. The police, through differential enforcement and violence against blacks, play an important role in maintaining the status quo as whites see it (Fielding 1991).

A second and much smaller group of African Americans are indeed taken aback when they hear of instances or see videotapes of white police beating black men. They are surprised to learn that such a thing could still happen in this day and age. Individuals who make up this group are the ones most likely to participate in a march or protest as a way of demonstrating their displeasure with police treatment of blacks. Such protests are usually short-lived, because the participants know that no matter how long they march and protest police will continue to deal with blacks in a harsh and asymmetrical manner. In other words police use of excessive force against black males will persist because that is the manner in which white police have always dealt with black males.

There is a third group of African Americans (many of them affluent) who while they find police use of excessive force against black males disconcerting they tolerate police transgressions because like some whites they too have bought into the politicians’ rhetoric on the war on crime and the depiction of black males as criminals. Charles Stewart, the press secretary to State senator Diane Watson of South Central and himself an African American, best summed up the attitude of LA’s black politicians on the issue: “As long as you have this sort of fear, then the perception of law-abiding minorities is going to be that the police are not as bad as the gangs. When you have a state of war, civil rights are suspended for the duration of the combat” (Dominick 1994).

Conclusion

No driver or pedestrian welcomes being stopped by the police, but for blacks such incidents contain a potential for harm and abuse seldom experienced by whites except those who are actually wanted by the law (Bell). In the world in which black males live, the prospect of being accosted by a white police officer4 is a real everyday threat. Again, by calling the beatings and murders of black male motorists and pedestrians by white police officers isolated incidents or aberrations, the establishment tries to convince the public that such occurrences are rare and outside the norm of acceptable police protocol. In reality, though, the atrocities committed by whites against blacks have historically been carried out by a few, but with the silent assent of the majority. For the most part there is no outrage, no revulsion, no call to conscience; rather, there is a tacit agreement that such things happen because of a “few hotheads” who are criticized but are nevertheless protected by the social body (Grier & Cobbs 1968).

The frequency with which white police officers employ excessive force against black males has led a new generation of black men to teach their sons “The Lesson” – instructions on how to handle a police stop (Roddy 1995). The recent manhandling and beating of a black teenager by a white Inglewood police officer is but one example of an atrocious yet everyday common occurrence in the life of an African American male. That a bystander was there to videotape this grotesque display of force is an aberration, but the attack on the youth by the officer was not. Given the environment in which we live it is reasonable to conclude that racism, indifference and the conspiracy of silence will continue to send a message to some white police officers that brutal acts against black males are acceptable (Davis 1993). Police use of excessive force against blacks is so mundane that it is no longer considered a pressing social ill. This state of affairs has contributed to an entrenched sense of inertia on the part of blacks and those whites that are concerned with the preservation of civil liberties. Because police use of excessive force against black males is not an issue of any significance the perpetrators of these dastardly deeds have not been held accountable by their victims, supervisors or the nation’s lawmakers in any systematic fashion. Indeed there seems to be a feeling on the part of many that such things continue to occur to black males because they have always occurred.

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume put it best when he said, “The fact of the matter is, if you are a person of color living in the United States, the police often look at you differently and with a greater level of suspicion. They always have, and until something is done to raise the level of accountability, they will continue to do so” (About… Time 2000).

Works Cited
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Notes

1 High profile cases are defined as those that received coverage in the New York Times or Washington Post newspapers. The thinking here is that if the Post or Times covered an incident that occurred somewhere other than New York or the DC area then that incident should be considered national news.

2 A 1997 household survey by the Justice Department found that Blacks were about 70 percent more likely to have had contact with the police than whites. The survey also revealed that at least one-half of all the people who reported having been hit, pushed, choked, threatened with a gun, or restrained by a dog were Black.

3 The words Black and African American are used interchangeably according to sound and context.

4 After reading this paper a white colleague commented unconvincingly that black males are increasingly being victimized by black police officers. When I asked the Professor to provide the source for this information my request went unanswered. It should be noted that none of the major surveys that have been conducted in the past or recently indicate that black pedestrians or motorists experience problems with black officers on any kind of consistent basis. In a fairly recent study Lersch and Feagin stated that of the 130 cases of police use of excessive that they found over a two year period 113 (86.9%) of the victims were black. In addition, of those 130 cases 104 (92.8%) of the officers involved were white while only 5 (4.5%) of the officers were black. For more detail see Kim Michelle Lersch and Joe R. Feagin. “Violent Police-Citizens Encounters: An Analysis of Major Newspaper Accounts.” Critical Sociology 22 (1996): 29-49.

Author: Judson L. Jeffries is Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He has written widely on the issue of police brutality. He is also the author of Huey P. Newton, The Radical Theorist (University Press of Mississippi, 2002).

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