Police officers in America are trained to fight the increasing crime, but with too much leeway, they have committed some crimes themselves. The law is meant to be objective–clear cut, unbiased, just. However, human beings are not; they bring their own prejudices, stereotypes, and perceptions to the table. Some police can’t manage their preconceived notions and struggle to put their prejudices behind them. In many encounters with African-Americans, these bigoted officers unconstitutionally abuse their power and from this results the widespread and barbaric police brutality. Unfortunately, racism is still alive and well in America, and therefore, police misconduct can be negatively pinpointed over the years with a close examination of the cases of Bernard Whitehurst (1975), Rekia Boyd (2012), the recent statistics and history of police brutality, the Rodney King riots, and the flourishing, recent Black Lives Matter movement. The infamous calamity of Bernard Whitehurst occurred in December of 1975 in Montgomery, Alabama.
According to History.com, police reports told this story: Officer Donald B. Foster, was investigating a store robbery when he spotted Bernard Whitehurst, suspected he was the robber and started to approach him to begin the arrest process. Defensively, Whitehurst took out his gun and fired at Foster while fleeing and in response, Foster shot him twice in the chest, killing him. This was a cover-up, the true story is a lot more unethical and criminal: Foster, a white man, was sent to investigate a grocery store robbery and presumed Whitehurst, a black man, was the culprit, although Foster was given a description of the suspect and Whitehurst did not match it whatsoever. Considering his very common, immense fear of police officers, Whitehurst began to run for his life. Foster, instead of following the law and chasing him to initiate an arrest, abruptly shot him twice in the back, ending his life. Once police realized they killed an innocent man, they began to plan their cover-up story while screaming, “We done shot the wrong n-gger” (Watkins).
Instead of owning up to their deadly mistake, they planted a gun on the corpse to masquerade their fatal error and to ensure that the official narrative would be self-defense. On top of this, the coroner relied on police reports rather than performing an autopsy, inaccurately revealing to the public that Whitehurst was shot twice in the chest, like police claimed, and not in the back. Police also intentionally failed to inform the family of Whitehurst’s death while they quickly embalmed the corpse. Six months later, investigators learned of the cruel police misconduct that conspired: Whitehurst did not match the robbery suspect’s description, but was shot anyway. Furthermore, the gun that was placed at the crime scene had been the same gun that was confiscated a year earlier by police during a drug investigation, meaning Whitehurst was actually unarmed; therefore, the police fired at Whitehurst because he was black, not because he fired first. The coroner also relied on police reports to verify gun wounds instead of examining the corpse. The police never even contacted the family; instead they embalmed the body quickly before the Whitehursts found out. Most importantly, an innocent man was murdered and framed by the ones who were meant to protect him. Three officers were indicted for perjury but none were convicted of their brutal crimes. While scandalous, cases like these have been occurring more and more over time with no end in sight. Over thirty-five years later, in March of 2012, an unarmed black woman named Rekia Boyd was shot by off-duty Chicago Detective Dante Servin while hanging out in a park with some friends in close proximity to where the police veteran lived.
According to the Intercept, Detective Servin claimed that Boyd and her friends were being disruptive, so he went to the park and asked them to quiet down when a member of Boyd’s group, Antonio Cross, pointed a gun at him. Servin then fired five shots over his shoulder from his car, hitting Cross’s hand and the back of Boyd’s head. Firing into a group of civilians is a violation of department rules; however, his department ignored his wrongdoings. As they were rushed to the hospital, officers searched for the gun from Servin’s story and prepared Cross’s charges while Servin freely wandered the scene. Detectives soon discovered that Cross had actually been unarmed; despite this, officers asked prosecutors to charge Cross with felony assault and issued a report wrongfully justifying Servin’s actions. They falsely stated that he only fired after Cross approached him with a handgun and aimed it at him. Investigators also discovered cameras at Servin’s house that directly overlooked the scene, but Servin claimed they didn’t work. The detectives, instead of inspecting them or obtaining a search warrant, dropped the matter. After nine hours, Deputy Chief Eddie Johnson, concluded his investigation of Servin’s use of force and approved his actions, claiming they were “in compliance with department policy” and didn’t allow any further investigation (Fan, Stecklow). Furthermore, his report never even mentioned Rekia Boyd, who died the next day. Several months later, when asked if he had been drinking that night, as declared by multiple witnesses, Servin responded, “That’s my damn business;” investigators waited six hours to administer a blood alcohol test.
More than a year later, Servin was charged with involuntary manslaughter but less than two years after that, the charges were dropped. Cases like this have become nothing out of the ordinary and have been brushed off over the years, but statistics show the severity of this ongoing nightmare. While police misconduct towards African Americans has been brought into the light through movements and social media, statistics show there has been little positive change. Mapping Police Violence shares a few chilling statistics: black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people; at least 104 unarmed black people were killed in 2015; fewer than one in three blacks killed by police were suspected of a violent crime or allegedly armed; less than 1% of all cases in 2015 where an officer fatally shot somebody resulted in any conviction or indictment; police recruits spend seven times as many hours training to shoot than training to de-escalate situations (Mapping Police Violence). Some departments have adopted policies that significantly lower their kill rates. For example, requiring officers to use all other means before pulling the trigger or requiring all uses of force to be reported; both methods lowered kill rates by 25%. Other approaches include banning chokeholds and strangleholds (-22%), requiring de-escalation (-15%), the duty to intervene when another officer uses excessive force (-9%), restricting shooting at moving vehicles (-8%), and requiring a warning before shooting (-5%). Clearly these methods have significantly lowered the number of killings; however, few departments have implemented any of these policies, claiming they “endanger officers” or “put communities at risk” because they prevent officers from effectively addressing crime.
However, data shows this is false and that officers in departments that have adapted these life-changing policies are actually less likely to be killed or assaulted in the line of duty (Use of Force Project). Nonetheless, the only way to solve police brutality is to solve racism. Blacks have been the subject of police misconduct since policing was established in the 1830s as blacks fled the South with Jim Crow laws taking effect. It was not until President Herbert Hoover established the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement in 1929 that police brutality became a known issue. During the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, leaders advocating for peaceful protests couldn’t maintain their fellow activists and brutal, violent, and uncontrollable riots commonly took place. Police brutality was present here too when officers used police dogs, fire hoses, and even tear gas to tranquilize and divide these crowds. Over time, police continued to take on aggressive, pervasive actions towards blacks, building their growing distrust in officers and whites as a whole. In 1967, John Smith, a cab driver in Newark, was severely beaten during a traffic stop, leading to four days of riots and unrest.
Twenty-six people died and many others were injured. This scene served as a way for blacks to courageously stand up for themselves without feeling alone or helpless. A similar situation occurred in 1992 after the beating of Rodney King where more blacks took to the streets to demand change. The Rodney King riots took place on April 29th of 1992 and lasted until May 4th. It all began when Rodney King–who was on parole for robbery–led police on a high-speed car chase through Los Angeles. When police caught up to him, he was ordered out of the car where he was kicked repeatedly and beaten with batons for an approximated fifteen minutes while more than a dozen cops stood by and observed. A bystander who caught the scene on camera broadcasted it to the nation as King lay in a hospital bed suffering from skull fractures, broken teeth and bones, and permanent brain damage. At the same time, four officers were charged with excessive use of force. A year later, a biased and not-so-diverse jury of 12 found the officers not guilty and in less than three hours, citizens were setting fires, destroying and looting stores and restaurants, and targeting–and sometimes even beating–light-skinned motorists. On May 1st, 1992, King stood before a ravaging Los Angeles aside his lawyer and asked, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?” Through this all, over 2,000 were injured, nearly 6,000 were arrested, more than 1,000 buildings were damaged, approximately $1 billion in damage was done, California was put into a state of emergency, a city curfew from sunset to sunrise was announced, and residents weren’t able to leave their own homes for over five days. David Armour, the author of Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism, commented, “Ain’t nothing changed but the year it is” (Sastry, Bates).
Despite the widespread feeling of hopelessness and helplessness, activists, to this day, continue to protest for equality. Black Lives Matter is considered one of the largest, most popular and impactful racial equality movements of the century, perhaps even the biggest overall social movement. It all sprung from the death of black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Florida, called 911 to report “a suspicious person” in February of 2012. Although instructed not to get out of his vehicle or approach the suspect, Zimmerman ignored these orders and approached Martin who was walking to his father’s fiancée’s home in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman then pulled a gun on Martin, ending his life, in what he later claimed was an act of “self-defense,” although Martin was unarmed (CNN). Zimmerman was ultimately found not guilty, marking the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement where people from around the globe fought and continue to fight for their rights and for change. The organization campaigns for an end to racial injustice and violence and systemic racism towards black people; while these may seem like big of issues to tackle, they are slowly and subtly taking small steps to help make their goals become reachable. According to Huff Post, since Black Lives Matter first appeared, they have met with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to discuss policing reform and plans to combat criminal justice issues.
On top of hoping to make a change, activists prayed this would help people recognize the movement as a national political force and take it seriously. Soon after, mothers of police brutality victims Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown met with Clinton to discuss gun reform. The Black Lives Matter organization includes many smaller, yet still important establishments, including Say Her Name, a campaign for black women who have been neglected, overlooked, and undervalued in the past, that give blacks a chance to stand up for their rights and what they deserve as human beings. The movement also highlights the danger and disrespect that transgender people face–especially those of color as it is an even harder journey for them. Janet Mock, among others, brought recognition to seventeen tragedies involving transgender women of color as she read the names aloud on NBC, drawing heaps of attention to the seriousness and harshness of black people’s painful history in America. People all over the world are a part of this organization and are working together to make changes. At the University of Missouri, black student activists rallied to fight the racial issues that had “plagued their campus for years” (Workneh). More than thirty football players refused to play after facing racism on a daily basis at this school and a brave Jonathon Butler even started a hunger strike to further urge change. Days later, faculty, students, and state lawmakers called for the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, to resign–which he finally did. At Georgetown, even more student activists protested and succeeded in getting administrators to rename buildings which were once named after slave-owners. Furthermore, black students at the University of California protested the university’s prior $30 million investment into private prisons.
After meeting with students, the administration met their demands and wrote the prisons a letter stating the investments were “ethically embarrassing” and that private prisons turn “black, brown, and immigrant bodies into profit under the guise of rehabilitation.” Moreover, activists across the country protested the Confederate flag–a symbol of white supremacy and racism–leading to its removal in many locations. The eradication of the flags began when Bree Newsome bravely scaled the pole outside the South Carolina statehouse and temporarily removed the flag. She shares, “I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free” (Huff Post). More activists, scarred after Sandra Bland died in police custody three days after being arrested for a traffic violation, fought to let her legacy live on. They marched to the city council and demanded that the road where Bland had been pulled over be renamed in her honor; the request was approved and University Boulevard was renamed to Sandra Bland Parkway. On top of this accomplishment, many musicians–including John Legend and Pharell–teamed up for a benefit concert on the A&E Network titled, “Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America.” These voices emphasized how “the uncomfortable truth of racial inequality and bias still impact our society” (Workneh). With each of these achievements and the increasing relevance of this organization, a significant change sometime in the future seems promising.
The sad, cruel fact remains: police misconduct is still prevalent in America. With an examination of the disheartening stories of Bernard Whitehurst and Rekia Boyd, policing can be seen as an abusive power and black people can be seen as common victims of their unconsitutional assault. Statistics put into perspective the severity of this barbaric–and sometimes even fatal–treatment. Meanwhile, the history, no matter how it is written or read, can never truly uncover the traumatic past of blacks everywhere. The Rodney King riots and the Black Lives Matter movement show blacks finally standing up and making a change to show that skin color does not define a person’s capabilities. Police have a tendency to pigeonhole blacks as criminals and more often than not, when officers see a different physical appearance than white, they expect a different mental appearance as well. The solution to police misconduct is simple in concept but proves to be more elusive in reality.
- Fan, Andrew, and Sam Stecklow. ‘USE OF FORCE.’ The Intercept, 14 Nov. 2018. The Intercept, theintercept.com/2018/11/14/chicago-police-department-superintendent-eddie-johnson/. Accessed 5 Apr. 2019.
- Little, Becky. ‘The Notorious Botched Cover-Up That Became ‘Alabama’s Watergate.” History, 7 Aug. 2017, www.history.com/news/the-notorious-botched-cover-up-that-became-alabamas-watergate. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
- Nodjimbadem, Katie. ‘The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.’ Smithsonian, 27 July 2017. Smithsonian, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-painful-history-police-brutality-in-the-us-180964098/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
- ‘Police Use of Force Project.’ Use of Force Project, useofforceproject.org/#project. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
- Sastry, Anjuli, and Karen Grigsby Bates. ‘When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots.’ NPR, www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
- ‘Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts.’ CNN, 28 Feb. 2019, www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/index.html. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
- ‘2018 Police Violence Report.’ Mapping Police Violence, 2 Jan. 2019, mappingpoliceviolence.org/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
- ‘2017 Police Violence Report.’ Police Violence Report, Mapping Police Violence, 2018, policeviolencereport.org/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
- Watkins, Donald V. ”We Done Shot the Wrong NIGGER’: The Bernard Whitehurst Story.’ Donald Watkins, 2 Mar. 2018, www.donaldwatkins.com/articles-1/we-done-shot-the-wrong-nigger-the-bernard-whitehurst-story. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
- Workneh, Lilly. ’11 Big Accomplishments Black Activists Achieved in 2015.’ Huff Post, 22 Dec. 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/11-big-accomplishments-black-activists-achieved-in-2015_n_567996bae4b0b958f6583320. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.