The color of police brutality

From Melissa Perry’s tribute to Missouri governor Peter Kinder’s off colored remarks about “Anglo-American civilization,” it seems that racial divide over the issue of police brutality is growing.

While no official record of reported police misconduct exists at local or national levels, many have begun to question the seemingly rampant rate of minority murder by police.

But are there really more minorities brutalized than whites, or is the media distorting facts?

Plinnie Morris, a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department with the rare perspective of both law enforcement and citizen, insists that before an answer can be had, education is necessary.

“Most people are ignorant to what the police do,” he said.  “They view any use of force as police brutality.”

Police brutality in its definition is characterized by the use of a force that is unnecessary in order to maintain the peace, meaning that even if a perpetrator is unarmed, law enforcers may justifiably shoot if there is a perception of danger.

Because each district in each state has its own set of standards for using force, there is no absolute answer as to when police should use force, but Morris stated that the general rule for any policeman is to maintain authority.

Plinnie Morris's NYPD career spanned almost 2 decades (Photo by KG Brown
Plinnie Morris served the 120th precinct before retiring in 2009
(Photo by KG Brown)

“A police officer, no matter how minor the offense, has to retain control of a situation,” he said.  “Any resistance must be overcome.” He admitted that “there are some officers who go beyond their authority and the law and use too much force,” but estimated that this is true of less than 3% of the population.

Still, if statistics detailing the stops of American citizens under New York’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” law are any indication of racial disparity, that truth becomes brighter in light of the fact that more than 80% of stops were of minorities, specifically African-Americans and Latinos.

Research shows the racial disparity in stops by NYPD under the New York "Stop and Frisk" law
Research shows the racial disparity in stops by NYPD under the New York “Stop and Frisk” law (Data courtesy of MSNBC/infograph by KG Brown)

Add to that startling revelation by a recent FBI report of “justifiable homicide” that, on average, between 2005 and 2012, police killed an African-American at least twice per week, and  The Chicago Reporter and Colorlines News joint report which revealed that African-Americans were “overrepresented” in the victim pool in America’s 10 largest cities, and an answer begins to emerge.

Journalist D. Brian Burghart, who spent two years researching and documenting incidents of police killings across the nation to shed light on the issue, believes that the lack of public information about police shootings is intentional.

“No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—,” he wrote in the Gawker article detailing his journey, “wants you to know how many people it kills and why.”

According to Burghart, whose quest has prompted him to create a website specifically for keeping a record of deaths by law enforcement, that database would show that African Americans and mentally ill Americans share the bulk of shooting victims.

So what’s the answer?

There isn’t one.  In fact, the absence of one brings more confusion.  Eric Garner and John Crawford made national news, but there were others-James Boyd, Dillon Taylor, Brian Claunch, all three white men, two mentally ill, one young-who most never even heard about.

On a brighter side, the recent discourse is progress.  Sean Hannity’s recent interview with Ferguson Democratic committeewoman Patricia Bynes illuminates an essential problem:  Americans lack the information to determine what is myth and truth about law enforcement’s use of violence on its citizens.

That more is unknown than known about the issue of police misconduct seems strangely confusing in a country that boasts of its commitment to the public’s right to know, be free and pursue happiness.

And though the story of Michael Brown is neither new nor last, its appearance in our living rooms is beginning the journey that will reveal the truth:  police brutality is neither black nor white; it’s blood red.

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