THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN! Police, Shooting and the U.S.A

Prateek Srivastava - Executive Director & Senior Advisor - Inequalities

A still from bystander video posted to Twitter, showing police following Jacob Blake. @davenewworld_2/Twitter

How many George Floyds? How many Breonna Taylors, before we realize that there is something wrong with the system. Well the answer is, many. The shooting of Jacob S. Blake adds to the list of police brutality in the United States and also to the list of ignorance towards racism.

Indeed the police and security forces have, and continue to, sacrifice their lives for the peace and happiness of civilians, however, no one talks about the secret that lies beneath the power and respects the security forces hold. The US comes with a long history of the celebration of police and security forces, with phrases like “thank you for your service” being part of everyday language. However, the problem lies way beneath the pretty covers of movements and speeches of solidarity and apologies.

On the 23rd of August, Jacob S. Blake was shot 8 times by the police, in front of his kids, on a matter of domestic dispute. As Jacob’s family yelled “No, Don’t do this” in the background, American people, and in fact the world, stood in shock. Just when one thought that the thought-provoking and impactful ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that took over all the world, the police in the USA will learn a lesson and do better, however police is like, in the words of Robert de Niro, “ you talking to me?”

Police Brutality is definitely a contagious virus but it’s spread is not a new phenomenon. Especially in the United States police brutality has been a part of the society's everyday life for centuries. There are several explanations to how the concept of brutality by law enforcement and armed forces has risen in high numbers, the problem lies in the very basics of the great American system.

A nation that stands for a vision of a country whose government is ‘of the people, for the people and by the people’ why the very forces who stand in duty, from hot summer days of Texas to the cold nights of Minnesota, failing to protect the most American thing, it’s people (all people).

This piece aims at looking at the concept of police brutality from the lenses of development and how horizontal inequalities and pre-existing fault lines play an important role in the escalating cases of brutality against the citizens, mainly people of color. This article tries to shed some light on how the very system remains broken, and if not fixed, no tactic of any party or people, will actually work.

1965 Watts Riot, the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the shooting of Clifford Glover, a 10 year old black boy in 1973, Queens New York, the 1980, 1982 and 1989 riots in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, the 1992 Rodney King case in Los Angeles, the 2009 Oscar Grant shooting in Oakland, and the 2014 Ferguson, MO riots all have one thing in common - racial killings by the police. There are just a few cases to name for the sake of example, if one may go to dig deeper, cases of racial brutality is as old as the broken system, and massive in number.

Jacob Blake | Breonna Taylor | George Floyd

Pictures taken from Washington Post

Just in 2020 more than 100 people have been victims of police brutality in the United States, this does not include the violence on protesters. On 25th of May 2020 a young 46 year old black man, George Floyd, suspected of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill, was killed by a police officer, Derek Chauvin. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician, was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove on March 13, 2020.

Just this week (23 August 2020), Jacob S. Blakea, a 29-year-old American black man, was shot from behind seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake suffered multiple injuries, including a gunshot wound to one arm, damage to his kidney, liver and spinal cord. Police were attempting to arrest Blake during a domestic dispute. He was shot as he tried to enter his SUV, where his children were in the backseat.

Mapping Police Violence, a massive database stated that just in 2019, Black people were three times more likely to be killed by police violence than our white counterparts. Out of the 1099 people killed by the police last year, 24% of them were Black. In 2017, we were 34% of the 1127 people killed by police in the US. African Americans only make 13.4% of the U.S. population, so if you are black, you are 2.5 times more likely to be hit by a blue bullet than whites.

Article 5(b) of the Convention ensures that people of color are “secure from violence or bodily harm” inflicted by government officials. However, the importance of this act and its practice is yet to be realized. Police brutality and racial profiling go way back in the U.S. The Civil Rights Movement saw a large number of incidents of police brutality in its struggle for justice and racial equality, especially during the Birmingham campaign (1963–64) and Selma to Montgomery marches (1965). Racial profiling of victims is certainly not a new phenomenon, but escalated massively during the period of ‘war on drugs’ and ‘ war on terror’. The war on drugs has seen a massive rise in the cases of misconduct towards Blacks and Hispanics by law enforcement forces. Nelson, Jill said, “While middle and upper-middle-class Whites use more drugs, police have focused more on communities of color.” The next wave came around the "war on terror", where using racial profiling for force against people of color mainly targeted South Asians, Arabs, Middle Eastern, and Muslim origins.

In 2019, police officer Amber Guyger was found guilty of murder for fatally shooting a neighbor who lived in the apartment directly above hers. She entered Botham Jean's, a 26-year-old black accountant, unit after a long day and shot him dead, thinking of him as an intruder. Understandably, the race of the person has a major role to play in this case and many such. Had it been a white man, would she shoot him dead right away? Some traits cannot be hidden but as soon as the very trait becomes a deciding factor of one's fate of justice, the problem lies way within the institution.

The system of policing on the lines of race is not a new 20-th century thing, In the Southern United States, earliest roots of policing were known as slave patrols. These patrols consisted of white volunteers who were squadrons that acted as vigilantes. These patrols focused on enforcing discipline and policing of African-American slaves. After the Civil War, in the Reconstruction period, the former slave patrol groups joined with other white militias and groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. In the mid 1800s police forces of the South began to take on the role of policing and regulating the movement of African-Americans who had gained their freedom. New laws were put in place to restrict their rights, which were known as Black Codes ( special laws to govern the conduct of African Americans). This gave birth to the modern day police and their basic grounds of policing were developed from these experiences. The institutionalization of these practices has now resulted in today’s police and other law enforcement forces.

There is certainly a sense of inequality in the concept of police brutality. Research shows that measures of the presence of Black and Hispanic people and majority/minority inequality are related positively to average annual civil rights criminal complaints.The concept of inequality and the deprivation caused by it remains deeply rooted in the system of justice. The inequalities and existing fault lines among communities has made its way to the system of justice and hence is now majorly institutionalized. The problem lies within the system as it is transferred to people who train to become the saviors of our societies’ peace and security.

Indeed, in most situations, cases of clashes between communities appear to have been caused by the presence of severe political and economic ‘Horizontal Inequalities’, corruption, and elite competition for resources and power. Importantly, when the underlying economic and political causes of these conflicts are ignored by politicians and lawmakers, and conversely cultural differences are simply propagated as the main causes of difference between the communities, this could give rise to ‘primordial’ views on ethnicity and race among the general population. While a widely discredited view among academics, primordialism essentially sees difference leading to clashes to be the almost inevitable result of (historic) hatred and animosities between different ethno-cultural groups. Hence clearly, the dissemination of primordial views of clashes by police and law enforcement teams alike may have serious consequences for people’s perceptions concerning the feasibility of peaceful conflict resolution and coexistence. This perception results in frustration, resulting in violence. Violence seen in the cases of police brutality. As these factors make up the evidence of everyday inequality in the United States, relative deprivation among communities result in violence - hence the cases of police brutality never stopped.

Moving away from the concept of inequality, one other major factor that contributed to the raging police brutality is ‘militarization of the police’ especially in the post -9/11 world. Militarization of police is defined as the “process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model.” This process tangibly occurs when a civilian police force adopts the equipment, operational tactics, mindsets, or culture of the military.

Criminal justice professor Peter Kraska has defined militarization of police as "the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from, and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model."

Riot police at the 2009 G20 meeting in Pittsburgh Picture; U.S. Police Public File

Several researches focusing on police militarization have suggested that utilizing certain types of military equipment may result in reduced crime within a community however, increase use of force by police officers against community members, specially members of marginalized communities. Researchers further elaborate that the rise of police militarization can also be determined by the recruitment of candidates for police forces. Creation of recruitment videos in the United States shows SWAT raids and the use of military equipment as the ideal job role of policemen. Researcher shows that through these videos, patterns in the minds of officers and attracts potential candidates which are more excited about using military equipment against “bad guys” rather than helping their local communities.

Stewart Francis says ‘Crime rates and inequality are positively correlated within countries and this correlation reflects causation from inequality to crime rates, even after controlling for other crime determinants.’ She further elaborates that economists suggest a link between inequality and crime is due to “economics of crime" with more poor people having incentives to rob the rich in unequal societies. However there is a reverse theory here, Donelson Raff explains that a few security forces may view the population (a particular subset) as generally deserving punishments. Also, a certain part of the population may perceive the police to be oppressors. It is important to note that the aspect of the oppressor and deserving victim, creates a concept of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. Looking from afar, combining Fransis and Raff ‘s theories, one can understand the link between inequality and violence.

This brings the other point in this discussion, sentiment of us vs. them, and the following brutality, comes from the ‘War Model of Policing’. The model preaches police seeing crime as a war and have people who are their enemies. Smith (2003) explained police brutality, in the threat hypothesis, which implies “police use force in direct response to a perceived threat from racial and/or economic groups viewed as threatening to the existing social order".Importantly, the perception towards the victims of police brutality often comes to the relatively powerless section of the society, for example, racial or cultural minorities, the disabled, and the poor.

When you combine the theories mentioned above, all result in frustration and hate on the line of race, religion and differences along the communal lines. An example of such kind comes from the violence in the following days of Blake’s shooting. After the incident (Blake’s shooting) people took it to the streets of Kenosha to show their anger and rage against the institutionalized brutality against people of color. On the third day of protests, a 17-year-old boy,Kyle Rittenhouse fired on protesters with a military-style semi-automatic rifle, killing two and seriously injuring a third.

Kyle Rittenhouse pictured with an assault rifle. Pic: Adam Rogan

Kyle, a 17 year old highschool boy believed that it was his ‘job’ to protect this business and people. To do his job, he carries a military-style semi-automatic rifle open on the roads of Kenosha. The teenager was fascinated with the police for years, he openly posted honoring officers killed on duty and supported the 'Blue Lives Matter' campaign, which is often in opposition to the Black Lives Matter campaign. Grayslake Police Department in Illinois said he is a former member of a local police cadet programme and he is pictured in full police uniform.

Guns also appear on his pages, with photos of him posing with weapons, assembling an assault rifle and practicing target shooting. He believes that “Americans should never be deterred from exercising their right of self-defence” a statement used very oftenly to promote public display of terror with militarized weapons.

Looking from afar, his idealization of the police force, his pictures with militarized weapons and fascination with the law enforcement forces, plus his ‘job’ to protect people certainly adds all the theories together.

As we explore the American dream that, at one time of our life, every single one of us had, we ever think about the system remains fringed. The aspect of inequalities and existing fault lines among communities has easily made its way to the system of justice and now is majorly institutionalized. The problem lies within the system as it is transferred to people who train to become the saviors of our societies’ peace and security. Today the online space offers a platform, where cases of police brutality are catching the world's eye and also carving a path to activism speaking up against these institutionalized practices swirling upon violence, pain, and suffering of most marginalized communities. Although police and their heads offer apologies and the offer to ‘investigate’ these crimes, neither will bring back the dead or make the pain and suffering a forgotten memory. When the problem lies in the system, it is the systemic approach that needs to de-institutionalize these practices. So when one says, the system is broken, they are not wrong. To fix a system of institutionalized racism and brutality against people of color one needs to pay attention to divides of communities and the very essence of policing, a service of help and not of terror. It’s time we save lives of Black/Hispanic/Asian/Muslim people and let the U.S. truly be ‘The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave’.


Prateek Srivastava is studying for an MSc in International Politics from KU Leuven and a Micromasters in International Law, with a focus on Human Rights from UCLouvain, Belgium and did his undergraduate studies at the University of Cincinnati, USA. He majored in Journalism and International Affairs. He is an incoming graduate student at KU Leuven for Advanced Master of Science CADES. His research interests include politics, religion, migration, and feminism in South Asia. He was the Scripps Howard Communication Fellow for the World Affairs Council in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, receiving a grant of $2000. Prateek serves as an advisor for several NGO in India, Kenya. Prateek has published widely on South Asian politics, including his first book, Identity and Diaspora. The University of Cincinnati awarded him, Undergraduate Research Achievement Award in April 2019 for the same. Currently, Prateek has been researching ethnic development and violence in South Asia as he prepares his manuscript for his upcoming book.


Disclaimer : This article documents a current event. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses, and initial news reports may be updated on a regular basis.


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