“We don’t like that the mainstream media is brainwashing people. We try to make people think with their own head, to see what’s going on.”
It is a widely held misconception that the use of excessive force by police units on civilians – commonly termed “police brutality” – is not indicative of racial discrimination in the United States. However, black men are “seven times more likely to die by police gunfire than white men”, according to the Washington Post database of police shootings.
Still, elements supporting the realities of police brutality remain unclear and grossly subjective. This is largely due to the sparse “voluntary reporting” of fatal shootings by local police officers to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Additionally, while accounts of police shootings in the media have increased since the beginning of 2016, conviction of police officers remains rare.
In light of this, the IPF spoke to young black people in the US to find out more about what has been happening.
Personal recollection of police brutality
Alioune Sow, a New York City resident who has encountered negative police interaction, spoke to the IPF about his personal experience. The 24-year-old American said:
“I, myself have had multiple negative and aggressive encounters with police officers various times in my life, for no explicable reason other than my race. Having spent almost all of my life in NYC, I know that this is a reality for many.”
Talking about the racial nature of police brutality, Alioune emphasised the need to impart greater “exposure” and “education” to police about the rights of non-majority racial and ethnic communities in the US.
“Many of these cops have never been in environments where they are constantly exposed to minorities, so they can’t understand the minority experience. Their exposure has been directly through media, where minorities are often portrayed as thugs, and violent people by nature… I do believe many of these cops fear blacks and other minorities and end up reacting upon this fear.”
He also believes victims of police brutality should resort to law procedures to demand action against police abuse of power.
“The people I surround myself with all have a peaceful and logical nature. We have never responded to police coercion through direct force, because it is very possible that we could end up just another news story and become a hashtag the following day.”
“We usually respond with compliance in the moment and then try to take some action following this via complaints, petitions and voting in local elections that are more likely to have an effect on your day-to-day lives,” Alioune added. “However, it is clear that these methods have not brought the results intended.”
Difficulty in proving illegitimate action
Daniel Reed, Chief Editor of the DoNotShoot.Us, provided an insight into how the legal system fails to respond to and discourage police brutality. For example, not only can officers claim a defence of “qualified immunity”, but a sense of protection is also implied in the nature of proving guilt.
“The point is that police officers have a number of standard alibis that are very hard to disprove,” said Daniel. “Statements like ‘I was afraid for my life’, ‘I mistook something for a gun’, ‘I didn’t mean to kill him/her’ and so on are usually considered by the court as conclusive evidence.”
“There is too much news content about police officers being justified in fatal shootings after giving this kind of testimony.”
A good example is the case of officer Timothy Loehmann, where the jury declined to indict the concerned officer due to “lack of evidence of criminal misconduct” in the Cleveland shootings.
Even evidence such as video footage of the incident is insufficient, Daniel said, having confirmed it by referring to the Supreme Court ruling standards and quoting a formal federal prosecutor. Police officers also used the “presumption of risk” to justify their forms of brutality even in the absence of strong evidence, seeking to legitimise probable illegitimate actions.
Systemic loopholes: from trauma to failure in police training
Daniel explaind that the growing instances of police brutality is indicative of police training failures in the US.
“There is no civilised country in the world that suffers so many cases of police brutality against civilians (including fatal shootings, brutal arrests, beatings etc.).”
The shooting of Arnaldo Rios Soto’s therapist in Florida highlighted the experiences of trauma and secondary victimisation of the family after the police offence. The need to incorporate psychological trauma as an aggravating factor in seeking police accountability is essential to prevent further violence.
“In these cases, they [victims] get a psychological trauma which further leads to a deep distrust for law enforcement and the government, which lets police officers who are supposed to protect people use their position to commit crimes and escape punishment,” Daniel said. “A traumatised person is more likely to act aggressively and assault people wearing uniform.”
Black victims and offenders: The dilemma of race and power
Instances of brutality showed how “police deterred an act of crime by committing one themselves”. This occurred through racial profiling of alleged offenders, the disproportionate use of force and how a particular instance of brutality was reported.
Daniel gave the example of a drunk, white Texas police officer responsible for recklessly firing bullets at a church in Somervell County to explain the disparity between black and white when it comes to conviction.
“Now imagine if it was a black man with a gun randomly shooting around. He would have been shot dead right on the spot, or at least wounded.”
In the meantime, black police officers and their role in overall police brutality remains unclear.
“Well, in the majority of cases it is white police officers who abuse black people,” said Daniel. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any statistics about it, but black police officers seem to be more responsive communicating with black citizens because the moment they take off their uniforms they face the same challenges, don’t they?”
Technology and “new” forms of policing
Technological advancements are supporting the growth of new forms of policing. Two prominent developments in the US are militarised police units with highly capable equipment and undisclosed surveillance. However, they come with their own risks—as with video snippets of police interrogations which – according to Daniel – often tell merely one side of the story, leaving several cases behind.
DoNotShoot.Us is one of the few organisations bringing into attention such underreported cases through first-hand stories and diverse media resources.
“We’d like to warn people to be aware, to do some research and fact-checking. That’s what we are trying to do with our project.”
Daniel believes today’s information is widespread, but it’s also “censored and surveilled by those who control the media”.
“We are trying to keep people informed [and] trying to increase awareness. We don’t like that the mainstream media is brainwashing people, we try to make people think with their own head, to see what’s going on,” he concluded.