America caught in a hurricane of police brutality

Although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, blacks are shot at a disproportionate rate, nearly twice the rate of whites

By Chidanand Rajghatta

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Wed 1 Feb 2023, 11:01 PM

It is a familiar sight in American daily life. The police see an infraction or are called in for a "situation." They approach the scene warily, even if it is a traffic violation stop, hands never too far away from a "duty belt" that carries on it a handgun (typically a Glock), a taser, a baton, pepper spray, radio, and handcuffs. In recent years, as part of nationwide reforms to bring in greater accountability, officers on patrol also wear a body camera, which is activated and turned on when they respond to a call. They are unfailingly polite, always addressing purported violators with the honorific "sir."

They are also trigger-happy -- particularly if the perceived offender is black, and the police happen to be white. Occasionally, the template changes. On January 7, five black police officers in Memphis pulled over a young black man named Tyre Nichols for alleged reckless driving, used pepper spray and a taser on him, and beat him to pulp. He died three days later from, according to an autopsy report, "excessive bleeding caused by a severe beating."

Remarkably, the five black police officers were fired and arrested within three weeks, and charged with murder, kidnapping, assault, and misconduct. Black activists say such speedy action would never have been taken if the police officers had been white. They have a point.

Indeed, American police were back on track and back in form a few weeks later. On January 26, police in California shot dead a double amputee on a wheelchair as he attempted to hobble away on his stumps after allegedly stabbing another person and threatening the police with a knife. Graphic bystander videos of the incident showed police officers chase down a man with no legs and pump ten bullets into him. The officers, all white, have been placed on "administrative leave" for now. Doubtless, more action will follow once the video goes viral and outrage grows.

Macabre irony would suggest they had nowhere else to shoot him because he had no legs. But American police seldom shoot at the legs; they shoot to kill. Often and excessively. Police in America now kill around 1,000 people every year, by far the highest among developed countries. Although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, blacks are shot at a disproportionate rate, nearly twice the rate of whites. Blacks constitute roughly 14 per cent of the US population, but they account for a full 24% of the victims of police shootings. In contrast, Whites made up roughly 60% of the population, but only 46% of the deaths from police shootings.

Why are blacks targeted to such a degree? Because they are believed to be, and seen as more threatening, even when they are unarmed. "The most dangerous place for a black man in America is in the mind of the white man," the actor-comedian DL Hughley observed sagely. No allowance is made for the fact that blacks have the lowest median household income in the US among all races and ethnic groups, lower than even Latino and Hispanic communities. Many of the victims of police brutality suffer from mental illness aggravated by lack of medical care due to poverty. They are still cannon fodder for the police.

The hair-trigger response of American police comes not just because of racial prejudice, which is definitely a factor, but also because they operate in a country with growing economic inequity, and one awash with drugs and guns. The US response to this has been to arm its police to the teeth. American police are among the most militarized law enforcement forces in the world. The militarization goes back to the 1990s when the then Bush administration, in the wake of a sharp rise in drug-related violence, allowed the Defense Department to transfer military gear and weapons to local police departments if they were deemed "suitable for use in counter-drug activities." The result, a police force equipped to fight a war, armed with automatic weapons, sniper rifles, grenades and armoured vehicles, fit for the battlefield. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 10,000 police jurisdictions in the US have received more than $7 billion of equipment since the militarisation began in the 1990s, compared to $1 million worth of equipment it had before that.

Many police forces across the world are following the American model, leaving only about a score of countries where the police remain largely unarmed, equipped only with friendly smiles and powers of persuasion. They include Iceland, Norway, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, and South Korea. Can the US return to that path? Not with the kind of permissive gun culture it has. And then there is the small matter of racial prejudice. As the country’s singer and poet Nobel laureate Bob Dylan sang as far back as 1975 in a song called Hurricane, recording the plight of wrongly incarcerated boxer Rubin Carter, “If you're black you might as well not show up on the street// 'Less you want to draw the heat.”

In any other country, police shooting dead 1,000 people every year would have invited universal opprobrium and a cascade of human rights violation charges. But America gets away with it -- because, well, it is America.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

More news from Opinion