How to Reduce Police Violence Towards African-Americans

Protests demanding reductions in police violence towards African-Americans have rocked the US. Let's examine four possible actions that could help the US make great movement towards achieving the goals of the protests.

5 minutes
June 5, 2020

Image: Clay Banks, Charlotte, NC

This week the US has seen sizable protests and unrest in many large American cities. Protesters took to the streets to support the Black Lives Matter movement, which has attempted to shine a light on disproportionate use-of-force by police towards black citizens. Some in the public have taken advantage of the disruption to loot stores and smash for thrills, even while many protesters have worked against those lawless individuals in order to reduce distraction from the purpose of the protests.

The protests were sparked by a recording of the death of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minnesota. Mr. Floyd was apprehended by police for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill, and then police restrained him by kneeling on his throat for at least 8 minutes until he asphyxiated and died. The policeman who knelt on his neck has now been charged with murder, and the other police officers who stood by while it happened have now also been charged.

George Floyd's death came in the midst of frustrations and economic pains related to the COVID19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders. The behavior of looters and vandals has repulsed many, and led to mandatory curfews in many cities (which were often disobeyed in protest, and police then enforced the curfews violently in many cases). Some who objected to the protesters and the Black Lives Matter movement have also said that those who disobeyed the curfews got what they deserved in the form of police enforcement of the curfews. It is ironic that many of those who find themselves loudly supporting the curfews appear to be the same individuals who objected vehemently to the shelter-in-place orders related to COVID19, even practicing their own "civil disobedience" by flouting those orders. One can only imagine the outrage if police had attempted to enforce shelter-in-place in the same manner they are enforcing the curfews now.

But let's not allow distracting hypocrisies to bury what this is about: the unequal treatment of blacks in America, especially when it comes to law enforcement. In August 2019, a joint study from researchers at Rutgers University, Washington University, and the University of Michigan found that black men are twice as likely to die by police use-of-force than white men. Some suggest that this is simply because of higher crime rates in black neighborhoods, while others suggest that it is in part due to inherent police bias. Regardless of why, it is a fact that every police encounter presents a new event where force may become part of the outcome. And for black men, that result appears to be deadly twice as often as it is with others.

It is likely that there are four key elements that would need to be addressed, if progress is to be made:

  • Update use-of-force policies.
  • Empower civilian oversight of police.
  • Address inherent racial bias.
  • Reduce wealth inequality.

According to available data, police kill over 1,000 people every year in America. This is a rate far higher than other developed nations. Samuel Sinyangwe, former Stanford researcher and co-founder of advocacy group Campaign Zero, released a study in 2016 that examined the role of use-of-force policies in ending police violence. Sinyangwe asserts there are certain use-of-force policies that dramatically reduce the likelihood of police killings. When used in conjunction, they appear to reduce police killings by as much as 72%. Taken nationwide, that would be 720 lives saved each year. According to Kanyi Maqubela from Kindred Ventures, a venture capital group focused on funding socially-responsible startups, one key reason that these policies are not adopted by police departments is the fact that many departments do not actually write their own policies on these topics, nor do they have them mandated by any sort of empowered legal governing body. Very frequently, their policies on use-of-force are actually written by Lexipol, a private firm that is led by a group of former law enforcement professionals. "As laws are updated + guidelines change, if you are a budget constrained department, it can be costly to find resources to maintain your policies. Lexipol slides in happily and profitably. They are in 35 states and 1000s of agencies now," says Maqubela.

Whether by forcing revision of policies through pressure on Lexipol, or kicking them out and writing new policies independently, the use-of-force policies that have been found to reduce police killings are (in order of effectiveness): 1) Exhaust all alternatives before shooting; 2) Require all use of force to be reported; 3) Ban chokeholds and strangleholds; 4) Establish use of force continuum; 5) Require de-escalation; 6) Duty to intervene; 7) Ban shooting at moving vehicles; 8) Require warning before shooting.

Civilian review boards of police departments grew in number during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and again after the Rodney King riots of the 1990s. As of 2016, there were 144 of these boards in operation. However, many face lack of cooperation (or outright obstruction and hostility) from their police departments and police unions. With not much legally-vested power to force cooperation from the police, these boards often are limited to simply attempting to investigate what misconduct they can, and reporting what they find to the legal system as appropriate. While these organizations are broadly similar in their goal to increase police accountability, they are diverse in their operations. They usually take the form of one of three different models: 1) Investigation; 2) Review; 3) Audit. Investigation-focused groups investigate reports of police misconduct in their area; Review-focused groups largely just review the self-investigations of the police themselves; Audit-focused groups are more typically full-time auditors of not just misconduct, but inspectors of policies and training practices, as well. However, Audit-focused groups can still only make recommendations to police, not force change on them. Perhaps it is time to standardize the practices of these review boards and empower them with the legal ability to force a greater degree of cooperation from police, adoption of proposed policies, and enforcement of officers' adherence to policies and best practices. It is very costly to society if policy-change and punishment are largely dependent on whether the world protests loudly enough. Civilian auditors of police should be given the power to enforce appropriate police behavior daily, before it gets to the point of sparking public unrest.

Much has already been said and written about inherent racial bias in police, but one key evidence of it is the much higher rate at which blacks are arrested for possession of marijuana when it is illegal, even though whites and blacks have typically used marijuana with nearly equal frequency. For example, a 2013 article in the Washington Post reported a Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health showing that 30-35% of whites aged 18-25 used marijuana in the preceding 12 months. However, in every year of the data, fewer than 30% of blacks in the same age bracket had used marijuana. Startlingly, FBI crime data for the same years shows as high as 750 marijuana-possession arrests of blacks per 100,000 versus a mere 190 marijuana-possession arrests of whites per 100,000. A comprehensive update of this analysis was done by the ACLU in 2020, further confirming the disproportionate actions towards blacks for similar behaviors as whites. Further, a Washington Post article from 2018 (and updated again in 2020) adeptly summarized several extensively-validated studies revealing that black men are not only arrested at higher rates, but once arrested and charged, black men are convicted at higher rates and receive harsher sentences than white men accused of similar crimes. Enforcement has not been equal. Whether the bias in enforcement is intentional or not, bias shows itself in the results.

To those who would suggest that black crime is somehow inherent (a despicable accusation, but one that continues to surface), one could point to a country that is 30% more white than the US but has dramatically more murders per capita: Russia. NPR reported in 2013 that, according to FBI data, Russia had 61% more murders than the US, even though they have less than half the population. Isn't it much more likely that crime is an outgrowth of the difficult conditions of one's surroundings, rather than one's race? And it just so happens that in the US, African-Americans have been marginalized for years and kept from building wealth at the same rates as others, and thus remain in more challenging conditions. Poorer communities tend to have more crime. When there is more crime, there are more homicides and more arrests, and that often results in children growing up with a father or mother missing from the home. With the combination of poverty and a lack of parents in the home, youth are more vulnerable to the influence of criminal individuals and groups who can recruit them by preying on the young person's desire for acceptance and mentorship. More wealth is needed in the African-American community. When we say wealth, we don't mean the stereotypes of glamour. What has been the greatest wealth-builder in America for generations? Home ownership. However, until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it was legal for lenders, zoning boards, and others to discriminate (even segregate entire neighborhoods) based on race. Home ownership is the main vehicle for wealth in most households, it provides a hedge against inflation, it creates a home equity line of credit for emergencies, and it is beneficial for increasing intergenerational economic mobility. Until 1968, blacks could be legally denied all of those benefits. That is a multi-generationally different starting line for young African-Americans, compounded over decades, and one result has been that whites are still five times more likely to receive an inheritance than blacks. Even passing the Fair Housing Act did not solve all of this, nor enable any sort of concerted effort to make up the lost ground of generations. As of 2019, there still remained a 30% gap between white and black home ownership. When one has built at least some degree of financial cushion, and one owns a home, there is more to lose. The risks of one's behavior tend to loom larger in the mind, and crime drops.

Many African-Americans are hurting, and are tired of having to make the case that their lives matter. They are tired of having to explain that their starting line, for generations, has been behind the rest of the population. This means their communities are poorer, and economic mobility is more challenging. Difficulty is compounded when arrests happen at greater rates among young black men, even in situations when their mischief and criminal behaviors are similar to young white men. It is infuriating to see police killings happen to black men at disproportionately high rates. This week has revealed an urgency to act on these topics. But the temptation to take a simplified, single-threaded approach will fall short of what is needed to make true progress. Not only are new use-of-force policies needed, and the legal authority for civilian boards to force greater change on police departments, but simultaneously an effort is needed to increase wealth among African-Americans so that intergenerational opportunities for growth emerge on a greater scale.

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