While the definition of what it means to police alters with region and time period, a police force is often defined as an organized government body responsible for maintaining order and enforcing laws within a community. Police brutality is the excessive use of force by police when dealing with civilians.¹ It has been an issue since the founding of the modern police system in America, from the discriminatory practices against European and Asian immigrants in the 18th and early 19th centuries to the treatment of protestors in the 1960s. The rise of video-taping, social media, and the Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness on this issue, but progress in the broader political and social sphere has been slow.
This lesson plan Includes references to police brutality and violence.
The history of policing in the United States varies depending on the region. The Northern colonies initially followed the English system and relied on citizen-led volunteer "night watches." Boston established their own night watch system in 1636, followed by New York in 1658.⁵ However, this system quickly became futile when watchmen began drinking or sleeping on duty.
In states like South Carolina, policing was more centered on maintaining the institution of slavery. All-white and mainly all-male "slave patrols" (also known as "paddy rollers") focused on catching runaway enslaved people and preventing potential revolts. America’s first slave patrol emerged from the colony of Carolina in 1704. These patrols utilized terror tactics to maintain what they saw as "order" and existed in the South until slavery was abolished in 1865.
With the responsibilities of slave patrols dissolving post-Civil War, the mission of police began to change in southern police departments. The first Black Codes were introduced, which were restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans and ensure their availability as a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished.
Black Codes addressed the rights of newly emancipated Black people in an attempt to control where they could work and the pay they could receive. Former Confederate soldiers were primarily taking roles within the justice system and law enforcement, which allowed them to uphold these Black Codes in order to further limit the autonomy of African Americans.
In slaveholding states like South Carolina, Black Codes were not only concerned with how and where African Americans could work, but they also transformed into other laws that dictated what Black people could do in their own time, such as prohibiting apprentices to marry without their masters’ permission, forbidding farmers living on their masters’ land to have visitors, and imposing a curfew.
In the 1960s, the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement shed new light on the unfair treatment and racial profiling of racial minorities by police. The aggressive tactics used by police against these protestors, such as wrongful imprisonment, tear gas, fire hoses, and police dogs, were often caught on television, which helped raise awareness of police brutality in America across the globe.
The 1960s and 1970s also saw an increase in the profiling of members of the LGBTQIA+ community, mainly through the criminalization and raiding of gay bars and clubs.
The #SayHerName social movement and campaign that the African American Policy Forum launched in February 2015 aims to highlight the voices and experiences of Black female victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence to raise awareness for the Black women that have commonly been left out of the conversation.⁷
The importance of the term “intersectionality”, coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, outlines how gender, race, and class join together to create intersecting forms of oppression, making this term crucial when discussing policing and police brutality as a whole.³
America continues to struggle with what role the police should play in our society. From the beating of Rodney King to the subsequent acquittal of the officers in charge that led to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, all the way to Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was fatally shot, police brutality has become a nationwide issue. More recently, the video of the death of George Floyd highlighted the graphic, dehumanizing nature of the arrest and sparked protests against police brutality and racism across the globe.
We often hear and see cases of police brutality but do not adequately discuss the root causes of it. Due to police being in positions of power, people often believe that police have full authority to use excessive force in all circumstances to alleviate the danger at hand, even if the situation would not warrant such a decision.
There is also a lack of ethics training for police, which in turn allows for corruptive behavior and, typically, no person is held accountable for the roles played in allowing these actions to develop.
On the legal side, questions arise as to how and why police continue to receive minor consequences for accounts of police misconduct. According to the Legal Defense Fund, the doctrine of qualified immunity “allows state and local officials to avoid personal consequences related to their professional interactions unless they violate ‘clearly established law.’” This doctrine is repeatedly used as a loophole by police officers to escape accountability and civil liability for engaging in violent acts against the public.
This only further perpetuates the belief that police are above the law and, therefore, can inflict no harm on individuals. On the basis of qualified immunity, police have been able to put minoritized communities at a disadvantage as the doctrine essentially absolves police from the prospects of civil suits. With almost little to no power for victims of police brutality, the cycle continues.
Due to the demanding nature of being an officer, police are often left without adequate access to mental health resources. Officers suffer from the impacts of mental strain from their repeated state of hypervigilance, which increases stress levels, depression, and lethargy.
Although more studies and research need to be furthered, a trauma-informed approach to addressing the well-being of officers could better ensure that the livelihood of these individuals remains stable and healthy.
The mental health of police is often disregarded, and with the stigma surrounding the topic of mental health, officers find themselves not getting treated for such illnesses, which often results in their job not being completed satisfactorily.
With many believing that the unlawful use of force by police is permissible, many want them to be held accountable for using force that can often result in injuries and even death.
According to Amnesty International, police brutality is used to describe the “various human rights violations by police.” In applying this, the unlawful killings of individuals like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Eric Garner would classify as human rights violations due to all three experiencing harm and consequently death at the hands of police. In these three instances, police should not have been permitted to use such deadly force.
While authority comes with being an officer, there are several cases of officers abusing that authority and power to justify why they have used aggressive force in a situation. Many people do not see this, and cases often get dismissed or disregarded.