Police brutality: Is it really a race problem?
Updated: Oct 18
TW: Racism, Police Brutality, Violence
“The departure from the sickeningly common narrative of white officers killing unarmed Black civilians has led some to claim that race was not a factor in this incident, or even in other police killings of unarmed Black men in recent years. It takes off the table that issues and problems in law enforcement [are] about race.”
In Nichols’ case, five Black male police officers brutally beat Nichols upon his arrest for an alleged traffic violation, ultimately leading to his death three days later. After Nichols’ death, the five Black police officers were immediately suspended without pay and placed under investigation, a stark difference from past white police officers who were suspended with pay and not placed under immediate investigation. The question many people in Black communities are asking is whether police brutality is a race issue or a police issue.
The statistics related to race and police interactions in the United States are troubling. Approximately one in every 1,000 Black men are killed by a police officer, which is two to five times greater than the odds for white men. In 2022, only about 1% of all officers accused of police brutality were indicted. In addition, Black people are five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than white people. Unsurprisingly, 84% of Black adults say police officers treat white people better than them and 63% of white people agree. Overall, the evidence is clear: Black people are far more likely to have a negative, if not deadly, interaction with the police—but are they targeted just because of their race or is it something more?
In addition to the long history of police violence against Black people in the United States ultimately tracing back to days of enslavement, the lack of regulation by government agencies in police departments generally allows officers to enforce their own rules in society. In 2016, the Department of Justice found that around 12,200 law enforcement agencies were independently regulated. This lack of regulation often leads to poorly trained police officers, less diversity in the departments and poor records maintenance related to police violence.
When departments hire police officers, incoming hires must go through a series of tests to qualify for service, including a psychological evaluation, a background check, and a citizenship screening. Notably, many non-white applicants are denied at the first phase of testing because of the inherent discriminatory proceedings that lead to a low passage rate. Moreover, some research suggests that low education requirements may contribute to a lack of knowledge about minority communities and overall concepts of diversity. After being recruited, most police departments train their officers in a way that perpetuates the use of force over providing protection to enforce the law. Unfortunately, without meaningful leadership and regulation, officers are more inclined to ignore abuses of power by other officers.
The overall lack of accountability by police departments enforces a hierarchical system where police officers can abuse their powers. Some researchers point to this issue as creating a national health crisis, where Black communities live in constant fear of being overregulated by police officers, regardless of the officers’ race. In 2020, over 798,000 people in the United States were employed as police officers, 66% of whom were white and 13.2% were Black. The lack of diversity in the hiring process causes a generalized mentality among the officers that policing is up to their discretion. It is whatever they want it to be. Some reports have even found that police officers inherently feel empowered to act without facing much backlash from their departments and agencies, making Black communities feel unsafe and unprotected.
Police brutality stems from a larger systemic racial problem geared towards Black people, but the solutions lie in officer accountability and training. Because police officers often form their own tight-knit community, relying on qualified immunity against criminal charges, it is time for law enforcement to be just as strictly regulated as their many policing programs strictly regulate minority communities.