Police brutality is one of the most emotive topics in the United States. Ioanide defines police brutality as “the abuse of authority by the unwarranted infliction of excessive force by personnel involved in law enforcement while performing their official duties” (24). One of the areas where police brutality has been common is handling of the protesters. Since independence, the country has witnessed a number of cases where civil rights groups take off to the streets to protest against some of the issues considered oppressive. Human rights group, LGBT, Black Lives Matters, White Lives Matters, and many other civil societies have often gone to the streets to demand for their rights in the American society. The protesters are often the target of the law enforcement officers.
It is the right of every American to demonstrate or picket against an issue they consider to affect them after informing the authorities. It is the responsibility of the police officers to offer the demonstrators security as enshrined by the law. The presence of officers should be a sign of security both to the protesters and to the members of the public who are not engaged in the protests. The officers are also expected to offer security to properties just in case criminals take advantage of the protests to commit crime. However, it is worrying that in most of the cases the protesters are the target of police brutality even if they have not committed any crime. In this paper, the researcher will look at the issue of police brutality against protesters in the United States over the recent past.
Changes Witnessed in Police Brutality
The United States witnessed many cases of protests during the civil rights era of the 1960s. During this time, there were violent protests, especially those organized by African Americans Civil Rights Movements against the system they considered oppressive. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rodney King, and Mohammed Ali were the notable figures championing for the rights of African Americans. The issues raised by these groups ranged from freedom of religion, equal rights at workplace and in the society, and a host of other issues. According to Ioanide, police officers responded violently to these protests, often using batons against the protesters and sometimes lethal force (24). Many lives were lost during such protests and others sustained serious injuries during these demonstrations.
A good example was the formation of Black Panther Party in 1966 in response to the rampant police brutality in the country. This party was formed after the death of Malcolm X, one of the civil rights leaders who championed for armed resistance against police brutality in this country. In one of the armed conflicts between members of the Black Panther Party and police officers, 15 police officers and 34 members of the party were killed (Potash 43). Many others were wounded in what has remained to be one of the worst conflicts between law enforcement officers and civilians in America’s recent history. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the African American community became even more agitated because they believed that they were unfairly treated in a country they called home. Police’s response was as always brutal and many lost their lives.
The dissolution of Black Panther Party in 1982 marked a major step towards a changed approach in American civil rights demonstrations. The demonstrators avoided engaging in any form of violence against police and other members of society. From 1982 to late 1990s, protests were still common but cases of police brutality came down. Mac says that in some of the cases, police would provoke violent protests by attacking peaceful demonstrators (87). Laws were put in place to protect American citizens who went to the streets from police brutality. However, the officers often find a way of circumventing the law. The argument that the officers’ lives and lives of other innocent Americans are put in danger has been exploited to justify the use of lethal force. There has been a significant drop in police brutality towards protesters in the country. However, most of these protests are often captured in the media as the society has become more sensitive to the issue of police brutality. The picture below shows police officers charging at an unarmed protester in the recent past.
Pros and Cons of Police Brutality
The use of force to respond to protests has its pros and cons. According to Ioanide, sometime the use of force is necessary when responding to some of the protests, especially in cases where criminals become part of the protesters (24). News outlets often portray the protesters as the victims of police brutality. It is true that police should offer protection to the protesters. However, numerous cases have been reported where criminals take advantage of such chaotic conditions created by the protesters to steal and harm other innocent members of the public. Others even engage in wanton destruction of property of hardworking Americans who have nothing to do with the protest. The police have the responsibility to use force when it becomes clear that such protests would lead to chaos or criminal acts. The officers are under instructions to use minimal force possible to disperse the protesters and create law and order in such cases. A good example of cases where police officers have to use force is demonstrated in the figure below. In this case, a criminal is taking advantage of the chaos created by the demonstrators to steal from innocent members of the public. The use of force in such cases is a reminder to the protesters that they have the responsibility of ensuring that they do not allow criminals to be part of their protests.
The use of force has a number of disadvantages. One of the main disadvantages of the use of force is that it may create a violent reaction from the members of the public who would otherwise engage in very peaceful protests. Cases where Americans use lethal force against officers or other innocent Americans because of what they believe is unfair treatment by police officers against members of certain ethnic groups have been witnessed in the past. In a peaceful protest organized by Black Lives Matter on July 7, 2016 in Dallas, a veteran ended up killing five police officers and wounding nine others, blaming the officers for unnecessary murder of unarmed African American. Whenever the officers use force, there is often the desire among the group feeling offended to retaliate. Use of force against peaceful protesters also goes against the American constitution that gives people right to demonstrate as a way of passing their message to those in authority.
Laws Regulating Police Brutality
Laws and regulations have been enacted to protect American citizens from police brutality during demonstrations. Section 1983 of the United States Code prohibits police officers from the use of excessive force when handling protesters. The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable seizure. It means that police officers have no right to arrest protesters unless they have a proof that a specific protester has engaged in an unlawful activity. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects Americans’ right to liberty. During protests, police officers have no right to arrest people without a probable cause. There are other sections within the constitutions that emphasize on the need for the police officers to protect protesters from harm. It is unfortunate that the officers often ignore these laws. The clause that gives officers authority to use force when their lives or lives of other Americans are endangered is often abused as a way of justifying police brutality. As Mac says, more still needs to be done to the existing laws to ensure that police officers who abuse their authority by using unnecessary brutality against protesters are subjected to full force of the law (95). It is necessary for these officers to be prosecuted as a way of passing a warning to others that law must always be upheld.
What Should Be Done to Eradicate Police Brutality
The government of the United States and the police department can do a lot to help eradicate police brutality in the country. The government should sensitize the general population on how to react during demonstrations, especially towards the police officers. It should try to foster a positive relationship between the American citizens and the police force. There should be mutual trust and willingness to work as a unit to achieve a common cause. The public should be advised to ensure that during demonstrations, they should not allow criminals to be part of them. When they see anyone engaging in any form of crime, they should act immediately and help police arrest such individuals. The police department should empower their officers through regular training on how to handle protesters using the minimal force possible. The department should also come up with methods of punishing officers who engage in mischief when managing protests. Those who use unnecessary brutal force should be relieved of their duties and subjected to the full force of the law. The department should constantly remind the officers that they are fully responsible for their actions and they should always focus on protecting both the protesters and the general public.
Causes of Police Brutality When Handling Protesters
The use of brutal force by police officers is a social problem that has been common in the United States since the country gained independence. According to Dobhal, Jacob, and Kishore, one of the common causes of police brutality is the suspicion between the police officers and the general public, especially among African Americans (57). The police are always suspicious of the protesters because of the past cases where officers were attacked by the demonstrators. As such, they do not hesitate to use force whenever they feel threatened. Mac has blamed police brutality on racism among some of the officers (73). Cases where officers use brutal force after making successful arrests are common. There are cases where people die in police cells because of police brutality. The hate makes it easy for the officers to use unnecessary force.
A study by Lyon shows that police brutality is common when officers are handling protesters of color (85). The suspicion between officers and these protesters has existed since the days of civil rights protests when officers would engage violent demonstrators in exchange of fire. There is always a perception not only among the officers but also the general public that when people of color go for mass action, then violence is likely to be witnessed. As such, the mentality of the officers is tuned to handling violence whenever they are called upon to offer security to the protesters. In such protests, the officers do not view the demonstrators as people who need their protection. They view them as people who are planning to cause chaos and destruction. As such, any slightest provocation makes these officers use excessive force believing that they are protecting the public. Another common cause of use of brutal force when handling protesters is the fact that some criminals would masquerade as protesters. These criminals join the demonstrators with the sole aim of robbing innocent citizens, causing damage to property, and sometimes causing harm to other members of the society. When such incidences occur, police officers are often compelled to use force to protect lives and property.
Police Brutality from Officer’s Point of View
According to Potash, the police officers have a different perspective towards their brutality when handling protesters (43). In most of the cases, they often believe that their actions are justified. Several officers have died on duty while trying to offer security to the demonstrators. As shown in the discussion above, the peaceful demonstration in Dallas ended up with death of five police officers. Nine others sustained serious gun wounds. It is a sign that the officers are always in danger when handling the protesters. The fear in these officers may sometimes overpower reason, making them react brutally whenever they feel they are threatened. This is common in cases where police use lethal force to manage the protesters. According to a study by Ioanide that collected data from police officers, it is apparent that the media often gives biased coverage to the issue of police brutality (24).
Cases where police officers are viciously attacked by citizens are rarely reported. In case such incidents are reported, the public consider the officer as a weak person who is not capable of protecting himself. On the other hand, if the officers attack a civilian, the issue is often blown out of proportion. The entire police force is criticized for actions of individual officer. The police have also complained about the strong mistrust between them and the general public. During demonstrations, the actions of the protesters often show that they are always ready for physical engagement with the police. Sometimes the officers try to remain calm, but the protesters would provoke them in a way that makes it almost impossible to avoid the use of physical force to restrain them. Building trust between the officers and the general public is the first step towards eliminating police brutality as stated in a study by Williams (87).
The police officers have the primary responsibility of keeping law and order in the country. That is their mandate as enshrined in the United States Constitution. The same constitution gives every American the right to picket in case they feel that those in authority are not doing enough to protect their interest. Whenever protesters go to the streets to show their dissatisfaction towards any issue, police officers should always be ready to protect them. Use of brutality to quell protest is not legal as per the American constitution. Stereotypes have been major causes of police brutality. The general public should be sensitized about the need to develop trust towards law enforcement agencies instead of the hate that is often common.
The police officers should be taken through regular training on how they should handle protesters without using brutal force. They should also be trained on how they can earn trust of the general public. Actions of the officers often define the level of trust that protesters have towards them. The officers should always act in the best interest of the public. Force should only be considered as an option if it becomes clear that there is no possibility of using diplomacy to resolve the standoff. When faced with cases where they have to use force, officers should always focus on disarming the offender and making successful arrests. Police brutality has no place in the modern American society. The police must find ways of managing protests without using brutal force.
Dobhal, Harsh, Mathew Jacob, and Anupam Kishore. Rugged Road to Justice: A Social Audit of State Human Rights Commissions in India. Cengage, 2012.
Ioanide, Paula. The Emotional Politics of Racism: How Feelings Trump Facts in an Era of Colorblindness. McMillan, 2015.
Lyon, Amber. Peace, Love and Pepper Spray. Wiley & Sons Publishers, 2013.
Mac, Donald. The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. Spriner, 2016.
Potash, John. Drugs As Weapons against US: The CIA’s Murderous Targeting of Sds, Panthers, Hendrix, Lennon, Cobain, Tupac, and Other Leftists. Trine Day, 2015.
Williams, Yohuru R. Teaching U.S. History Beyond the Textbook: Six Investigative Strategies Grades 5-12. Corwin Press, 2009.