Like many others, I have been moved to write about the recent police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The reaction to these events has been well covered on Amicus and I urge the reader to look to other sources for a more comprehensive conception of the many factors that led to these tragedies. My hope is to zero in on one particular facet that led to these events – the entrenched system that helped cause them. The case against the officer that killed Eric Garner, which ended this week without an indictment, was arguably stronger than the case against the officer that killed Michael Brown. Unlike in Ferguson, where there were opposing witnesses and narratives, Eric Garner’s death was captured on camera. This distinction, however, was apparently not enough for the grand jury to countenance a different result. The outrage over this inexplicable failure on the part of the grand jury has resulted in outrage and protests across the country. Yet these grand juries are not alone in determining that there was no police wrongdoing in these men’s deaths. There is a vocal opposition that has argued that the actions of the officers in these cases could have been justified based on the subjective position of the police officers involved. Yet to explore this issue with the myopic focus of whether these particular officers’ actions were justified misses the larger question of why the police are more likely to target young black men in the first place.
It is an undisputed fact that the police are far more likely to kill young black men as opposed to young white men. The reasoning for this disparity could be outright racism – yet it seems unlikely that each of the officers making this decision was an out and out racist. Rather, most officers would probably proffer the same reasons that Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantolea did – that they were simply reacting in the heat of the moment to a dangerous situation. Regarding the viewpoint of the officers, there is no doubt that they have a dangerous job. Putting themselves in danger is one of the main parts of their job description. Hence, it is not surprising that when presented with situations in which they feel threatened, they could be far too quick in using deadly force. After all, police are trained to shoot to kill. Yet this justification does not explain the disparate impact.
There are often gaps between the justification for a given police practice and its impact. Police are more likely to disproportionately target black communities with other practices as well. For example, New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy, while purportedly based on identifying “suspicious” characters, famously targeted minorities at a disproportionate rate. This is a result of, at best, an unconscious targeting of minority communities. This targeting leads to greater police involvement in minority communities, often to the communities’ detriment. One of the more stark and momentous examples of this trend is the mass incarceration of the black community. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. Black American men have a higher incarceration rate than that of any country in the world and face an incarceration rate six times higher than the average United States citizen. The result of this mass targeting of the black community is devastating. Once branded a felon, a citizen in effect becomes a pariah in society. A job, a normal life, and often even basic rights such as voting are out of reach for those that fall within the jaws of the justice system. It is of little surprise that when it comes to trusting the police, the black community is far less enthusiastic than the white community.
What has not been focused on enough is how this relationship goes both ways because of the nature of an oppressive system. This stigmatization of black individuals and communities comes from the systems described above – mass incarceration, mistreatment of ex-felons, and other harmful policies. All of these facets influence the police’s view of black communities as full of potentially dangerous criminals, hence their focus on these communities. In this sense, the police help facilitate an entrenched cycle of stereotypes and violence against the black community that reinforces their own views and fears. These vicious cycles yield tragic results and often explain the disparate impact of police practices. For example, studies have shown that when presented with unarmed white and black targets, police officers are more likely to favor the use of deadly force against the latter. And now, the narrative of the killings in Ferguson and New York City takes on a more comprehensive shape. Police officers are sent into neighborhoods they distrust to police populations that distrust them in turn. They are already used to viewing the neighborhood’s inhabitants as a threat because the system they work for has always treated blacks unfairly, creating the false perception that they are deserving of such treatment. The result is a situation in which young black men are over twenty times more likely to be killed by police than young white men, a situation in which even a child with a BB gun can be gunned down in seconds.
This is why incidents like the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner strike a nerve. These are not isolated incidents. Police are far more likely to kill black men than white men. They are far more likely to arrest black men than white men. They are far more likely to destroy the lives of blacks as opposed to whites. This is an unjust system that has perpetuated itself for far too long. That is why places like Ferguson, where blacks are three times as likely to be arrested as whites, are not shocking because of their anomalous nature. Rather, what should be shocking is how representative they are of the status quo. The greatest injustice in this situation is not that the officers in question went unpunished but rather that the factors that drove them to shoot in the first place could go unchanged and unnoticed by the larger community.