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How Racist is American Policing?

April V. Taylor

As tensions regarding racialized policing have exploded across the country, many have tried to quantify the racism that exists in police practices, but there is one problem.  As Mother Jones reports, “Federal databases that track police use of force or arrest-related deaths paint only a partial picture.  Police department data is scattered and fragmented.  No agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way.”  Despite this partial picture, what is clear is that even without comprehensive data, policing in America is racialized.

Outside of federal data, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter conducted an analysis in 2007 of data regarding fatal police shootings in 10 major cities.  Every city they analyzed had a disproportionately high number of African Americans who were victims of police shootings.  In an interview with Mother Jones, NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks states, “We need not look for individual racists to say that we have a culture of policing that is really rubbing salt into longstanding racial wounds.”

Brooks also points out that American society has become a place where people who are simply suspected of minor, petty crimes are acted upon with “overwhelmingly major, often lethal, use of force.”  An example of how blacks are disproportionately affected by this use of violent force is Oakland, California.  Between 2004 and 2008, 37 of 45 people shot by police were black; none of the 45 were white.  Another example comes courtesy of the New York Police Department where more black people have been shot between 2000 and 2011 than Hispanics or whites.  Data also shows that black people are most likely be targeted as suspects in shooting and firearms crimes and to be shot at by police.

As law professor Delores Jones-Brown points out, it is not just that black people are more often the victims of police violence, it is also that, “The police don’t show as much care when they are handling incidents that involve young black men and women, and so they do shoot and kill, and then for whatever reason, juries and prosecutor’s offices are much less likely to indict or convict.”  Jones-Brown also points out that police using excessive force or profiling blacks is not limited to those who are poor or live in predominately black neighborhoods.  She states, “You don’t have to be poor, you don’t have to be in your own community…and this can happen to you.”

There is no reliable way to track whether or not police use of force against black people has increased in the last decade because the data simply is not available.  What is clear is that the entire criminal justice system continues to function as an inherently racist system according to what data is available.  Statistics that illustrate this are that despite blacks making up just 13.1 percent of America’s population, they make up 40 percent of the nation’s prison population; despite blacks using or selling drugs at rates very similar to whites, blacks are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drugs.  In addition, black offenders are given longer sentences.  As Mother Jones points out, while data may not give a complete picture of racist policing, what is absolutely clear is that the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

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