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A History of (Racially Charged) Violence

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By Julissa Catalan


Never was nationwide attention on racially charged incidents greater than in the early 1990s, when the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots as well as the O.J. Simpson trial captivated America.

People’s opinions of each case largely fell along racial lines—with Blacks protesting following the acquittal of the four white officers who beat King, and many believing that the same would have happened had Simpson been found guilty of murdering his white wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.

Not much has changed since then when it comes to America’s reaction to racially charged crimes, and the shooting of Michael Brown last week is the most recent example.

According to a new Pew Research Center poll, Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that Brown’s shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.”

While 80 percent of Blacks said the shooting in Ferguson raises race issues and questions, fewer than half of whites agreed, with more than a third believing the race factor is getting more attention than it deserves.

A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll had very similar findings. Seventy-six percent of Blacks polled believed Brown’s shooting was part of a larger racially charged issue, while only 40 percent of whites agreed.

Not only have we seen a pattern in public opinion when it comes to racially charged crimes, but we are also seeing a broader pattern when it comes to statistics regarding racial profiling by police in U.S. cities. Undoubtedly, the two go hand in hand.

Since 2000, Missouri police officers have been mandated by law to record the race (as well as gender and age) of every person pulled over. This information is then compiled into an annual Vehicle Stops Report.

According to the 2013 Vehicle Stops Report for Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was shot, Black drivers represented 86 percent of all traffic stops despite making up 67 percent of the city’s population. Meanwhile, white drivers only accounted for 13 percent of the traffic stops in Ferguson despite making up 29 percent of the city’s population.

Additionally, Black drivers accounted for nearly 93 percent of the arrests in Ferguson, while whites accounted for only 7 percent.

Meanwhile, only three of 53 Ferguson police officers are Black, while the other 50 are white. The mayor and the police chief are white, as are five of the six City Council members. The school board consists of six white members and one Latino, but no Blacks.

The NYPD has a long and tainted history of racial profiling and racially charged incidents—most recently, the death of Eric Garner, a Black man who died as a result of a police chokehold after he was confronted on suspicion of selling individual cigarettes. Chokeholds are banned by the NYPD.

Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly caused much outrage during his tenure for his militant approach, from defending his department’s use of stop and frisk to the killings of unarmed Black men Sean Bell, Tamon Robinson and Ramarley Graham under his watch.

There is also the notorious Louis Scarcella, the former NYPD detective who is connected to 71 cases currently under investigation. Scarcella, once celebrated for sweeping New York City streets clean during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, has since been implicated in coercing unreliable witnesses—including a crack-addicted prostitute who served in multiple unrelated cases—into false admissions in order to expedite police work and convictions.

According to a 2008 study conducted by the Center for Constitutional Rights, “data provided by the NYPD plainly demonstrate that Black and Latino New Yorkers have a greater likelihood of being stopped and frisked by NYPD officers at a rate significantly disproportionate to that of White New Yorkers. That NYPD officers use physical force during stops of Blacks and Latinos at an exceedingly disproportionate rate compared to whites who are stopped, and that this disparity exists despite corresponding rates of arrest and weapons or contraband yield across racial lines, further supports claims that the NYPD is engaged in racially biased stop-and-frisk practices.”

Per the report:

  • In 2005, the NYPD made fewer than 400,000 stops in comparison to a projected more than 500,000 stops in 2008. Over a period of three-and-a-half years, the NYPD has initiated nearly 1.6 million stops of New Yorkers.
  • From 2005 to mid-2008, approximately 80 percent of total stops made were of Blacks and Latinos, who comprise 25 percent and 28 percent of New York City’s total population, respectively. During this same time period, only about 10 percent of stops were of Whites, who comprise 44 percent of the city’s population.
  • From 2005 to mid-2008, Whites comprised 8 percent and Blacks comprised 85 percent of all individuals frisked by the NYPD. In addition, 34 percent of whites stopped during this time period were frisked, while 50 percent of Blacks and Latinos stopped were frisked.
  • A significant number of stops resulted in the use of physical force by the NYPD. Of those stops, a disproportionate number of Blacks and Latinos had physical force used against them. Between 2005 and mid-2008, 17 percent of whites, compared to 24 percent of Blacks and Latinos, had physical force used against them during NYPD-initiated encounters.
  • Of the cumulative number of stops made during the three-and-a-half-year period, only 2.6 percent resulted in the discovery of a weapon or contraband. Although rates of contraband yield were minute across all racial groups, stops made of whites proved to be slightly more likely to yield contraband.
  • Arrest and summons rates for persons stopped between 2005 and mid-2008 were low for all racial groups, with between 4 and 6 percent of all NYPD-initiated stops resulting in arrests and 6 and 7 percent resulting in summons being issued during this period.

In 2012, two unrelated, racially charged shootings took place in Florida—both boys killed were 17 years old and Black.

Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood patrolman, George Zimmerman, in his gated community because, as Zimmerman told police, Martin looked like “a real suspicious guy” and was “up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.” Martin was wearing a hoodie in the rain, and was unarmed.

Zimmerman, claiming self-defense, was acquitted of the crime.

Later that year, Black teen Jordan Davis was murdered by Michael Dunn, who is white, for listening to “thug music” too loudly in a parked SUV. The two argued before Dunn shot and killed Davis.

Dunn claimed self-defense, saying that Davis threatened him with a shotgun. Police did not find a shotgun in the SUV.

Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder and a count of firing into an occupied car. Jurors deadlocked on the charge of first-degree murder, resulting in a hung jury, but Dunn is expected to be retried on that charge.

In 2001, Cincinnati seemed to be in a very similar situation as Ferguson is today. Racial tensions were already high after a series of racial-profiling cases were brought to the attention of the city officials within a three-month span.

The city erupted when 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot at close range and killed by an off-duty police officer, Stephen Roach, following a 10-minute chase.

Thomas was wanted for 14 nonviolent counts, 12 of which were traffic citations.

Roach claimed that he saw Thomas reach for a gun, but the investigation later determined that Thomas was trying to pull up his “baggie pants.”

Roach was eventually acquitted of all charges.

The city experienced four days of protesting and riots, which was considered to be the largest urban disturbance since the 1992 L.A. riots.

A study conducted in Los Angeles—where the Rodney King beating took place—showed very similar findings to those of the aforementioned NYPD study.

Research found that:

  • Per 10,000 residents, the Black stop rate was 3,400 stops higher than the white stop rate, and the Latino stop rate was almost 360 stops higher.
  • Relative to stopped whites, stopped Blacks were 127 percent more likely and stopped Latinos were 43 percent more likely to be frisked.
  • Relative to stopped whites, stopped Blacks were 76 percent more likely and stopped Latinos were 16 percent more likely to be searched.
  • Relative to stopped whites, stopped Blacks were 29 percent more likely and stopped Latinos were 32 percent more likely to be arrested.
  • Frisked Blacks were 42.3 percent less likely to be found with a weapon than frisked whites, and frisked Latinos were 31.8 percent less likely to have a weapon than frisked whites.
  • Consensual searches of Blacks were 37 percent less likely to uncover weapons, 23.7 percent less likely to uncover drugs, and 25.4 percent less likely to uncover any other type of contraband than consensual searches of whites.
  • Consensual searches of Latinos were 32.8 percent less likely to uncover weapons, 34.3 percent less likely to uncover drugs, and 12.3 percent less likely to uncover any other type of contraband than consensual searches of whites.

Researchers also found that “the Black arrest disparity was 9 percentage points lower when the stopping officer was Black than when the stopping officer was not Black. Similarly, the Hispanic arrest disparity was 7 percentage points lower when the stopping officer was Hispanic than when the stopping officer was a non-Hispanic white.”

The researchers concluded: “These results justify further investigation and corrective action.”

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