August 2014 was the ‘Summer of Wrath’ in the United States. The murder of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a series of protests that spread across the country and opened a new chapter in the civil rights struggle: mobilization to reduce police brutality and its palpable racist bias.
In the following months, other equally suspicious deaths of racism fueled the flames, and the ‘Summer of Wrath’ became ‘Autumn’ and then ‘Winter of Wrath’. Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Sam Dubose, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling. Murders of black youths under questionable circumstances were nothing new, but mobile phone cameras and social media exposed the most violent abuses.
The tidal wave of outrage in the streets, reflected in the media and adopted by some politicians, had practical consequences. The country’s largest police departments forced their officers to wear cameras with uniform, intending to record all their interactions with suspects. At the end of 2015, 95% of large police stations had adopted this measure.
Other provisions went through diversifying the body. The more black or Latino agents, the theory said, the more chances of breaking racist behaviour. Many departments undertook inclusion policies and improved the training of their officers: they taught them how to detect and how to detect cases of mental illness, and to promote conflict-reduction techniques rather than the use of force. The distribution and use of military materials by the agents, who in that ‘Summer of Wrath’ in Ferguson reminded more than the invaders of Iraq, also stopped.
More than five years have passed, however, and the deaths at the hands of the police remain at identical levels, with astonishing stability: between 2013 and 2019, each year there have been a minimum of 1,071 and a maximum of 1,142 deaths caused by officers, according to Mapping Police Violence data. African Americans continue to be three times more likely than whites to be killed by a police officer.
The absurd death of George Floyd, 42, this Tuesday in Minneapolis, has once again unleashed anger on the streets, spreading throughout different cities of the country. A 19-year-old man died this morning during protests in Detroit over police violence. “Being black in the US shouldn’t be a death sentence,” said city mayor Jacob Frey. “For five minutes we saw a white officer press his knee into the neck of a black man. Five minutes. When you hear someone ask for help, you are supposed to help them. This agent failed in the most basic human sense.”
Frey’s words and the dismissal of four agents present at the crime scene did not prevent the protests, which since Wednesday night have turned violent and have been reproduced in other cities in the country. As in Ferguson, but with an abundance of medical masks and a certain social distance, the Minneapolis turmoil has set fire to some 170 businesses and a police station. Agents have used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters.
Why hasn’t anything changed?
The ‘Spring of Wrath’ takes its first steps, activists circulate its message and scholars analyze why we continue to be locked in the same cycle of police brutality and racial prejudice. What happened to those measures and good intentions that began to be deployed five years ago?
According to Jennifer Cobbina, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, increased diversity in the police force does not have a great effect in reducing violence or racist behavior. Half of Baltimore’s police officers are African American, for example, but his department, according to a report by the US Attorney General’s Office, continues to commit abuses: among them “a disproportionate rate of illegal stops, searches and arrests” of African-Americans.
Cobbina says that the police culture, often violent and well-rooted, can do more than the different sensibilities of the agents. “New recruits learn to do police work by observing the practices of their colleagues, internalizing and executing them,” he writes. “Agents of colour are not exempt from this process.”
Samuel Sinyangwe, the co-founder of Campaign Zero, an initiative to end police brutality in the United States, says that many of the measures of recent years have made no sense. “All you have probably heard is a lie,” he said last October. “Specifically, the most debated ‘solutions’ against police violence offer no evidence of effectiveness. For example, cameras attached to the body do not reduce violence. “
The most debated ‘solutions’ against police violence offer no evidence of effectiveness. For example, body-attached cameras do not reduce violence
A study by the National Academy of Sciences, with 2,224 Washington DC agents monitored for 7 months, found that wearing cameras in uniform had no impact on police practice. “Our results indicate that the cameras did not significantly affect police behavior over a range of outcomes, including complaints and the use of force.” Training courses to break down prejudice, according to Sinyangwe, “vary in quality and rarely lead to changes in responsibility or decision-making.”
What is working
Beyond these measures, there would be others that do work. An example is the increased restrictions on the use of force. Police departments that have banned strangulation manoeuvres or force their officers to use a number of mechanisms before resorting to violence have seen a clear decline in deaths. San Francisco applied these measures in 2016. Three years later, deaths at the hands of officers dropped 30%.
Another solution is the demilitarization of the police forces. As in Ferguson, it is not uncommon to see American agents moving around in armoured cars or carrying grenade launchers, assault rifles, or sniper shotguns. A militarization, made possible by the Pentagon, which according to this SAGE Journals study increases the chances that the police will behave violently. On the contrary, those states that have decided to demilitarize the body, for example, Montana, have seen a clear reduction in deaths and attacks.
It is not uncommon to see officers carry grenade launchers, assault rifles, or sniper shotguns. A militarization that increases the chances that the police will behave violently
Professor Jennifer Cobina recommends alleviating the mistrust that often separates officers from the neighborhoods in which they operate. It would be necessary to establish, she says, different channels so that the police officers can approach the community and clarify “the tensions, complaints and wrong ideas.”
Samuel Sinyangwe calls for police liability contracts to be renegotiated. A way to prevent some departments from cleaning files and even re-hiring agents who a few years earlier had been fired for misconduct. Another way is to use data technology to follow in detail which agents or units commit bad practices and thus be able to prevent them from the root.
In Portland, Oregon, psychologists have been given a greater role in responding to certain emergency calls. Sometimes people in crisis and making a scandal need psychological help, before police officers appear directly with their wives and patrol cars. This policy has also managed to reduce violent episodes.
Other experts recall that not everything is free violence and racism and that in a country with serious levels of poverty and 270 million weapons in circulation, the police will have to draw their guns sometimes, and sometimes pull the trigger. The African-American community is also where the biggest blots of poverty, drug addiction and crime affect, which is reflected in police work.
Meanwhile, the largest city in Minnesota tastes anger and fire in its meats. “The images of Minneapolis right now are incredible,” said CNN journalist Omar Jimenez. “Thousands in the streets, a burning police station, fireworks launched against those flames. All while we wait to see whether or not charges will be filed against the agents involved in the death of George Floyd.” Jimenez, a black race, was arrested shortly after by the Police.