Armed and dangerous? An examination of fatal shootings of unarmed black people by police.

Author:Chaney, Cassandra
Position:Report
 
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"Please don't let me die"--16-year old Kimani Gray's last words on March 9, 2013

The aforementioned five words were the last ones uttered by a young unarmed Black male that died at the hands of police. Since police officers who come face-to-face with armed and dangerous suspects are trained to "shoot to kill"(Danyiko, 2014), it is imperative that scholars critically examine circumstances surrounding the deaths of unarmed African Americans. This topic is significant for four reasons. First, compared to other developed countries such as England, Australia, and Germany, the United States has a significantly higher number of civilians shot and killed by police (The Economist, August 15, 2014). According to a recent report, American police killed more people in March 2015 than the entire United Kingdom police have killed since 1900. Specifically, a total of 111 people were killed by police in the United States in March of 2015. Since 1900, in the entire United Kingdom, 52 people have been killed by police (King, April 1, 2015).

Second, the number of Blacks killed by police has reached epidemic proportions (Chaney & Robertson, 2013; Cush, 2013; Fletcher, 2014; Gabiddon, 2010; Gabbidon & Greene, 2013; Huff Post, 2014; Kane & White, 2009; Karenga, 2010; Mitchell, 2014; Police Brutality Statistics, 2011; Robertson, 2014; Staples, 2011, Tonry, 2011). In a report on the extrajudicial killings of Black people by police, security guards, or self-appointed law enforcers, the Malcolm X grassroots organization found that from January 1-June 30, 2012, one Black person was killed by law enforcement or someone acting in such a capacity every 36 hours, representing a total of 120 persons. Moreover, while five percent of the Blacks killed were women, the bulk of those killed have been Black men like Rodney King. Perhaps more alarming is that 46% of those killed were unarmed (just like King) and 36% were alleged to have weapons by police, including a cane, a toy gun, and a bb gun (Operation Ghetto Storm, 2012). Sadly, while the murders of Black men by police are well-known, incidents in which Black women are murdered by members of law enforcement receive far less attention (Dionne, 2014). Even Black children are not immune to being victims of police violence. One study found Black boys as young as 10-years old may be seen as less innocent than their white peers, are much more likely to be mistaken for being older and to be perceived as guilty, and face police violence if they are accused of committing a crime (Goff, 2014).

Third, the increasing number of incidents in which police have used excessive force or killed unarmed Blacks (or other persons of color) has resulted in increased local and national scrutiny of law enforcement agencies (Aguilar, 2012; Boyer, 2001; Clifford, 2014; Crochett, 2015; Desmond-Harris, 2012; Elicker, 2008; Hassell & Archbold, 2010; Kumeh, 2010; Lozano, 2012; Rafail, Soule, & McCarthy, 2012; Stuart, 2011). The DOJ (Department of Justice) has investigated over 17 police departments across the country and has monitored no fewer than five settlements involving four police agencies since 2010 (Gabbidon & Greene, 2013). The recent findings of the Department of Justice's (DOJ) investigation of the Ferguson Police Department confirmed the cries of many Black men and women that have made complaints about police.

In particular, the DOJ found the Ferguson Police Department frequently engaged in "implicit and explicit racial bias" and "routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents" (The United States Department of Justice, Wednesday, March 4, 2015). As a result of the DOJ's findings on the Ferguson Police Department, greater attention has been given to simultaneously protecting members of law enforcement whose mission is to protect and serve as well as protecting members of the citizenry from being harmed by police.

Finally, this paper will critically examine the circumstances around the deaths of 78 unarmed Black males and females by police in various parts of the United States between 1999 and 2015. Since the number of police beatings and killings of African Americans and other people of color, continue almost unabated since the Rodney King incident (African Americans Killed By Police, 2014; Victim Archive of Law Enforcement Murders, 2014), we will critically examine the circumstances surrounding the deaths of African Americans. The scholarly and societal importance of this examination of Black lives has been reinforced by "Black lives matter," the rallying cry of the new movement against racist police violence," which has been embraced by people of different races across America (Petersen-Smith, 2014). While the media is instrumental in giving national attention to a relatively few number of murdered Blacks (e.g., Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner), our study validates the lives of Black men and women that received much less public attention.

This paper has three fundamental goals. The first goal is to examine how the fatal shootings of Blacks by police support the aims of White Supremacy. The second goal is to examine the outcome of the fatality for the offending officer. The final goal is to discuss how Black fatalities greatly minimize Blacks' individual and collective confidence in law enforcement. Through the use of Critical Race Theory, the following three questions were foundational to this study: (1) How does the murder of unarmed Black people by police support White Supremacy? (2) What do non-indictments of police suggest about the lives of unarmed Black people? (3) How does the murder of unarmed Black people escalate individual, familial, and communal mistrust of police?

In the section that follows, we present noteworthy scholarship related to the fatality of Blacks by police. We begin by discussing the historicity of law enforcement in America. After this, we discuss the relevance of Critical Race Theory (CRT) to our current discussion. Then, we present the methodology on which this study was built. Finally, we present demographic information on the Blacks murdered by police between 1999 and 2015, the geographical location of those murdered, the unique circumstances of those murdered, as well as the aftermath for police in the wake of these fatalities.

Review of Literature

Historically, a large segment of the European American population has demonstrated an extraordinary amount of racial animus toward African Americans (Alexander, 2010; Bonilla & Rosa, 2015; Bonilla-Silva, 2009; Fields, 1990; Marger, 2012; Tonry, 2011). Since White policemen are selected from the larger White society, it stands to reason that policemen, who are a small subset of the population, share the same racial animosity towards African Americans as members in the larger population (Chaney & Robertson, 2014). Moreover, members of law enforcement, along with judges, are more likely to believe that African Americans 'get what they deserve' in their interactions with the legal system (Chaney & Robertson, 2014; Smith & Hattery, 2009; Walker, Spohn, & Delone, 2004). It is especially noteworthy that in some cases, minority members of law enforcement are more likely to assault a member of their same racial group. One study revealed African American officers to be more likely to hold negative ideals of African Americans and to be more inclined to brutalize African American suspects than White suspects (Dulaney, 1996).

The findings of one study are especially noteworthy. In their study of police officer attitudes and treatment toward Black men, Plant and Peruche (2005) found widespread perceptions of African American males as potential perpetrators legitimized the use of brutality. More seriously, officer's general caricature of African American men as aggressive and criminal justified their disproportionate application of deadly force (Dottolo & Stewart, 2008; Goldkamp, 1982). Thus, when considering instances where officers act aggressively toward Black men, it is logical to acknowledge that these actions may be partially influenced by race (Jefferis, Butcher, & Hanley, 2011). Additionally, understanding the attitudes that law enforcement typically have of African American men can also be gleaned from official government investigations of police malfeasance.

In their analysis of findings from the Office of Civil Rights' 2010 study of the New Orleans Police Department, Gabbidon and Greene (2013) found support for Goldkamp's (1982) earlier exploration of why people of color, particularly African Americans, are overrepresented as victims of police use of excessive force. To clarify, Goldkamp (1982) presented two primary explanations for minority over representation as victims of police use of excessive force: (1) differential law enforcement; and (2) minorities are involved in crimes that increase their rate of victimization by police. Essentially, Gabbidon and Greene's (2013) analysis of the OCR's report discovered strong support for the racism that motivates the mistreatment of Black men and women (Appleby, Colon, & Hamilton, 2011; Bell, 1992, 1991; Bryson, 1998; DuBois, 2004; Katz-Fishman, Scott, & Gomes, 2014; King, 2011; Martin, Mahalik, & Woodland, 2001; Pieterse, Todd, Neville, & Carter, 2012).

An additional lesson regarding police views of African Americans are evident when one examines the circumstances surrounding the massive drug sting that occurred in Tulia, Texas on July 23, 1999. On this date, Tom Coleman, a corrupt undercover cop reportedly framed over 12% of the city's African American population, which involved approximately 350 persons (Johnson, 2007). During this massive police drug sting, 38 of the 47 individuals arrested were African-Americans and came from the small section of town in which Blacks lived (Johnson, 2007). Sadly, approximately one of five African American residents of the town was arrested, and were done so solely on the word of...

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