Historical Context Police Brutality Criminology Essay

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"Police brutality is one of the recurring, persistent questions that has never died down because it exists all over the nation," said Benjamin Hooks, head of the N.A.A.C.P. Police officers were given power to protect the average citizens from the illegal, but some abuse their supremacy. Police brutality is the social injustice of police officers using their given power in the direction that strongly contradicts its original purpose. They act authoritatively to fulfill personal wants. Police brutality can target anyone since each individual has different values and often have different judgment on some morally gray actions such as a little girl killing her abusive father under self-defense, but most of the time, it overlaps with some sort of racial discrimination.

Major cities in the Bay Area, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are all places that have incidents involving inappropriate actions of the police. The presence of police brutality strongly influences the image of law enforcement in the minds of average citizens. The fact that a person may be betrayed by the people they trust to protect them and to maintain order creates doubt toward authority.

Police brutality fits as a social injustice in the sense that suspects or innocent citizens are treated as criminals, even animals; they are verbally and/or physically assaulted.

When asked about the issue, officials often try to justify it by saying, "[these officers] applied the appropriate action under the given circumstance," (Delair) when truth and logic


Historical Context

Police brutality has existed since the presence of police: the people who carry the responsibility of protecting their citizens and the law. To help them do their job, police officers are allowed to have more power than the average person, such as legally carrying weapons and arresting suspects. People tend to adapt to their powers and often use it in an inappropriate manner. For the United States, current incidents of police violence can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s, when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak and the police were known for using fire hoses as well as tactical dogs against protesters (Owens). More evidence of police misconducts can be seen in the 1960s, when the crime rate skyrocketed and the entire nation was shocked by two assassinations: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s in April and Robert Kennedy's in June of 1968. In the same year, Chicago, one of the great American cities, announced that it will now succumb to the criminals. As a demonstration of the police's will to fight crime, the mayor responded strongly to the race riots that occurred in the African American neighborhoods right after Dr. King's shooting. The mayor, Richard Daley ordered his officers to "Shoot to kill" (Perlstein). During the Chicago riot of 1968, more than 10,000 police officers were went to maintain orders; during the two days that it took to restore order, eleven African Americans died, hundreds were injured and almost three thousand people were arrested (Hull).

For the past decade, there had been events of police brutality reported all over the world, many of which occurred in America. These events range from false arrests to racial profiling to police corruption. It is extremely difficult to find a balance between the power and the responsibility of police officers, and the pressure that came from the need to please both their superiors and the citizens is causing an increasing number of extreme use offence cases across the country.

Long-Term Effects

The root of the modern police, which is based on the authority of the government, can be often traced back to developments in eighteenth century France, while modern police systems being founded in most countries by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The issue of police brutality seems to have been common then, while "the routine bludgeoning of citizens by patrolmen armed with nightsticks of blackjacks" (Johnson 365). Large-scale occurrences of ruthlessness were frequently associated with labor strikes, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Ludlow massacre of 1914, the Steel strike of 1919, and the Hanapepe massacre of 1924. (Johnson)

The reason as to why police brutality still occurs is very complex. One likelihood is that the police officers gain a feeling of entitlement and being "above the law" due to their position and duties in society (Owens). Another strong possibility is that these behaviors stem from anger or prejudice toward the fundamental differences between officers and citizens (Owens). This includes race, age, religion, gender, apparent and perceived social status or political view.

The effects of police brutality, both psychologically and physically, are devastating to the victims. From April 2009 to June 2010, 5,986 misconduct records were reported and 382 of those led to fatalities (TermLifeInsurance). One of the most famous recent cases is the case of Oscar Grant vs. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police. On the New Year's Day of 2009, Oscar Grant was returning home from San Francisco when police officers rushed to the platform of Fruitvale BART station, responding to a reported fight. BART officer Johannes Mehserle and other officers were restraining Grant, who was allegedly resisting arrest. Officer Mehserle stood, drew his gun and shot the armed Grant once in the back. Grant was pronounced dead in the Highland Hospital in Oakland next morning (Bulwa). Grant's death left his mother, girlfriend, and daughter unsupported. Luckily, the incident was recorded by few of the spectators and posted on the internet through their phones (Mercury News). The videos were watched by hundreds of thousands of people across the country and prompted national attention to police brutality. Grant's family received a 1.5 million dollar settlement as the civil lawsuit was closed (Bulwa). The publicity pressure provided Grant's family with adequate financial care, but many families of victims did not.

Out of the 2,541 cases reported in 2010, only 33% of the offenders were convicted (Gorman), yet all the tragedies left holes in the hearts of victims and their families.


There are currently many groups around the world that are trying to eliminate the existence of police brutality, such as: Communities United Against Police Brutality (TM), NAACP, BUILD and The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project. These groups regularly post new statistics and reports on their websites as well as newsletters that they send out to notify people about the issue of police brutality because many of the owners of these sites and organizations are the family/friends of victims, sometimes they even are the victims themselves. Many protests and campaigns, such as the "Justice for Oscar Grant" protest on January 8, 2009 (Mercury News), were also held to inform the public as well as to force the authorities to face the never-ending injustice of police misconducts.

In spite of hard work of various organizations, police brutality and corruption still occurs. This is mainly because the job of being a police officer is an enormous responsibility and some people cannot resist the power that the occupation offers. As long as the police system remains the way it is today, police brutality is inevitable. However, it is very impractical, even impossible, to change the way the system works. Luckily, the technology today helps stop this injustice. The power of cellphone and portable video recorders is clearly demonstrated through the Grant incident, in which the video of Grant being shot went viral on the internet within hours. These recordings act as strong evidences of the officer's action and played a major part in the trail (Bulwa). Although this injustice may never be eliminated, the technology that almost every one owns today can play a great part in managing it.


The consequences of allowing police brutality to continue are enormous. The police system is designed to help the citizens as well as to protect them from anything illegal, and police officers should be people's guardian angel. The idea that the ones who were supposed to look after the average people turn into the threat themselves is scary; people will lose faith in them, and probably in the entire government. People who are victims of police misconduct live in the fear of the "authority,' and state that "I never got a chance to defend myself," and "I don't know who to trust anymore" (Mercury News).

The easiest and possibly most effective plan to prevent this injustice from happening anymore is to inform the public about the existence of such events, schedule regular physiological tests, and set up a secure way to report such brutality. Schools, news channels, and the government itself should broadcast information about this injustice to let people know that such thing can actually happen and be on the lookout for it when they that feel things are weird. There are already many websites set up about the issue of police brutality, but they generally don't get much attention. Given the current situation, they may require more advertisement to successfully achieve the goal of preventing police misconducts.

Secondly, the requirements for becoming a police officer are actually quite strict: no criminal records, must pass a rigid physical and psychological evaluation and a polygraph examination, pass tough physical training and classes at the police academy, and have at least an associate degree (Education-Portal.com). But as strict as these requirements are, police brutality still happen, and it's because people change. Nobody can guarantee that he/she can be the exact same person in a decade, neither can police officers. Random physiological tests can catch early signs of changes in behavior and could quite possibly prevent some tragedy.

Lastly and most importantly, there has to be secure and efficient channels for people to file reports of police misconducts. It is impossible to completely stop police brutality, but it is possible to maintain a protected passage that allows the police department to deal with the issue once an issue really appears. The passage must protect the victims so they don't become targets of other police officers because they are reporting their "buddy". Aside from anonymity, immediate follow up actions such as questioning and temporary suspension of the suspected police officer must be taken.