A white Minneapolis policeman killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for some eight minutes as the black man said he couldn't breathe has exposed once again the strained race relations between black communities and police.
“I’m tired of seeing black men die.”
These were the words of Killer Mike, an American rapper and activist who delivered an impassioned speech to Atlanta protesters after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman.
It is an all-too-familiar phrase.
Police shootings of a number of unarmed black men over the last few years have triggered protests, unleashed the #blacklivesmatter movement and raised concern over the excessive use of police force against minorities. Activists are calling for the police system in Minneapolis to be defunded.
Police killed more than 1,000 people in 2019, almost a quarter of them of African-American descent, according to research group Mapping Police Violence, which says it tracks 90 percent of police killings. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. And when they are shot by police, they are twice as likely to be unarmed.
To understand why police inflict disproportionate degrees of violence on black people, we must first look at the structures and institutions that allow them to commit these acts in the first place.
Lack of comprehensive training
Before delving into the race issue, let’s look at how the tendency to use force is instilled from as early as when aspiring officers are in training. Academies place more emphasis on how to use weapons than on how to de-escalate a potentially violent situation.
Police academies spend an average of 110 hours training future officers on fire-arms and self-defence and only eight hours on subjects like conflict resolution, ethics and hate crimes, according to a 2006 report published by the US Department of Justice.
“We have put way too much weight on the officers’ safety aspect of it, those 110 hours of firearms training that they get … defensive tactics training. That should be overlaid with conflict resolution, de-escalation, communication, critical thinking and ethical decision-making,” Deputy Executive Director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Terrence Cunningham tells TRT World.
“So when you are doing your firearms training, you should still be having a conversation at the same time about all those other things.”
Cunningham says that some “forward-leaning” academies have already started altering the way they train.
Lack of police accountability
The Washington Post reported that 1 in 5 police officers' names go undisclosed in fatal shootings. In 2015, the names of 210 police officers' implicated in fatal shootings were not disclosed by their departments to the public, highlighting the lack of transparency.
In fact, between 2013 to 2019, 99 percent of police killings did not result in any criminal charges, Mapping Police Violence group reported.
The culture of impunity has much to do with powerful police unions, which form contracts with their respective cities that often provide a shield of protection to officers accused of misconduct and thus amplify obstacles for residents filing police abuse complaints.
“Places with these contracts are less likely to hold officers accountable, more likely to have misconduct and more likely to shoot people,” Samuel Sinyangwe from Campaign Zero, a group seeking to end policy brutality in the US, told PBS news.
In several cities, union contracts are as crucial in governing departments as police manuals and city charters.
“Police unions engage in collective bargaining units, agreements that not only set the rules for investigations [into] these kinds of incidents but also set outlines for pensions and the like,” Tracey Meares, a law professor at Yale, tells TRT World.
Compounding the issue of accountability is a legal doctrine called qualified immunity.
The concept, created and reinforced in a series of US Supreme Court rulings over the course of 50 years, seeks to protect government employees from "excessive" and "frivolous" litigation.
It has recently been increasingly used to shield officers accused of using excessive force from the perils of civil liability.
“You have 'immune' police officers who are beyond punishment because of their union contract, as well as constitutional law,” Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told Reuters.
“That combination leads to arrogance of a police officer who can kill a man in broad daylight while being taped and believe he can get away with it,” said Browne-Marshall, who teaches constitutional law. “When there are no consequences, that’s when people act with impunity.”
Lack of clear regulations
Meares says the problem also lies in the lack of clear regulations on when force should be used – or what American academic Barry Friedman calls “front-end accountability”.
“If there are not enough clear rules about how police officers can use force or are allowed to use force, or when they can use force, then we are not sure if the rule is broken,” Meares says.
Police reforms over the past few years, kicked into high gear after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, have led to officers in some states having to wear body cams and being banned from using chokeholds and neck restraints. Lousiville police said they planned to increase the number of situations body cams will be worn in after officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a black medic, in her own house in March this year.
Minneapolis agreed on Friday to ban police use of chokeholds and to oblige officers to try to stop any other officers they see using improper force.
“From a policing standpoint, we've made great stride in the last five to 10 years,” Cunningham says.
These reforms have not necessarily translated into a decrease in nationwide police killings.
While figures have dropped significantly in big cities, they have been offset by a rise in suburban and rural areas, Samuel Sinyangwe wrote for FiveThirtyEight.
This is because bigger cities have more resources and funding to train officers on how to de-escalate and better engage with citizens, something that smaller cities lack, Meares told PBS news.
The stark lack of police accountability, comprehensive training and unclear regulations on the use of force have all culminated to reinforce and perpetuate racial bias and contribute to structural racism.
Police officers can be racist because the community they come from is steeped in racial bias.
"Do you think that there is overt racism and racial bias in every single community? Of course there is and we are recruiting from that pool of people," Cunningham says.
Racial biases and these structures work together to maintain the status quo on police violence, making the task of weeding out racial bias in police officers tricky.
“I would say that in a lot of cases, it’s actually impossible to separate [whether] the particular individual’s decision was affected by race or the actual structure of the rules,” Meares says.
“An agency structure that gives individual officers much more discretion in those contexts is, of course, affected by the fact that in this country, people of colour who have the most contact with the [police] system have the least political power,” Meares continues.
Cunningham emphasises that those police officers who are racist or have racial bias need to be trained, and if that doesn’t fix it, that they should be fired.
“There are racist journalists, racist doctors, there are racist lawyers but because the police are the most visible arm of the government and because they are empowered to use force, including deadly force, and they have the power to take people's rights away and arrest them – that's why it’s more important than in any other profession that you get this right.”