The tragic shooting deaths of young people of color by police has generated outrage after some of these incidents were captured on video. There is no doubt that shooting deaths of unarmed people of color is the most extreme manifestation of this problem, but thousands of incidents take place every day in this country in which people of color are unfairly shot, beaten, harassed, threatened, menaced, humiliated, or disrespected by law enforcement officers.
EJI has documented a presumption of dangerousness that threatens people of color in American society during police encounters. An individual’s race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and sometimes poverty are seen by police as indicators of danger, a basis for distrust or suspicion that marks a person as one to be feared, closely monitored, and targeted with force by police.
Two years ago, in South Carolina, a video captured the non-fatal shooting of 35-year-old Levar Jones, who is black, by a white police officer.
As Josh Marshall wrote this week, the video is a remarkable example of how the presumption of dangerousness drives violent police conduct towards people of color. “Watching the video there’s little doubt in my mind that Jones’ being black was the major reason that Groubert massively overreacted to an unthreatening situation,” Marshall writes, suggesting that the officer “freaks out” in this situation because he “instinctively sees black people through a prism of threat and fear.”
The New York Times reported this week that recent studies confirm that black men and women are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer. The Center for Policing Equity found that police were 3.6 times as likely to use force against black people than against whites, and a second study found that black people were 50 percent more likely to be subjected to nonlethal uses of force by the police.
In 2013, 14-year-old Tremaine McMillian was choked, arrested, and prosecuted after he allegedly gave police officers a “dehumanizing stare” on a beach in Miami, Florida. Just after 11:00 a.m. on Memorial Day on Haulover Beach, Tremaine was carrying his newborn puppy, Polo, and a baby bottle for feeding the puppy, and playing around with another youngster when Miami-Dade police on ATVs confronted him.
“They told him that behavior was unacceptable,” Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta told reporters. “He walked away and officers followed him.” Zabaleta said the child gave officers “dehumanizing stares.” A police officer grabbed Tremaine and slammed him to the ground, injuring the puppy, then held Tremaine in a chokehold until he urinated on himself. The officers arrested Tremaine, and he was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest with violence – a felony.
These non-lethal encounters with police are incredibly dangerous and effective at destroying community trust in law enforcement. They are the primary reason why many people of color feel at risk when they see the police. And while investigations and sometimes prosecutions follow fatal police shootings, excessive use of lesser force is rarely tracked, much less punished.
The impunity with which police officers act violently on their presumption that black and brown people are guilty and dangerous echoes the era of racial terrorism in this country, when law enforcement not only failed to protect black people, but often acquiesced or assisted in lynchings, and government officials at all levels permitted the torture and murder of black citizens.
The presumption of guilt and dangerousness that endangers black lives today is a legacy of that history, and EJI believes that public acknowledgement of law enforcement and government complicity in lynching is critical to change the culture of policing in America.