Pictured: Leshia Evans, 28, at the Baton Rogue police protest in 2016 (Image Credit: Reuters photographer)
“Black Lives Matter” has been an ongoing movement at the forefront of modern politics and social issues, and out of the many concerns it seeks to accentuate, the treatment of African Americans and Latinos within the criminal justice system is an important and prevalent aspect. There is an alarmingly high rate of fatal police encounters with people of color, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having to pay an unfair penalty as opposed to their white counterparts. This issue of racial profiling and inequity within the criminal justice system is still a growing concern that is often neglected by the masses and deprived of the attention and potential reformation that it deserves.
Attempting to reform and amend the justice system as it stands today and the laws already in place to truly protect the rights of minorities and affected groups is a lengthy and brutal process — but it starts first and foremost with a thorough cultural, moral, ethical, and social training of the officers of law and holding them accountable under all circumstances. The introduction of awareness training programs for law officers may appear to be insignificant or an inadequate solution to the larger problem at hand, and it can be argued that time and effort should rather be spent on revising laws and policies; but these trainings are desperately needed if we are to first identify and eliminate racial disparities and violence in these practitioners and enforcers of the law against people of color.
Artwork, Copyright Simra Mariam.
To call the current imprisonment of African Americans and Latinos (both men and women) versus white Americans (again, both men and women) ‘disproportionate’ is a huge understatement. There is clearly a larger issue at play when it’s public knowledge that the likelihood of confinement for white men in this country is 1 in 23 whereas the rate for black men is 1 in 4. “Disproportionate Incarceration of African Americans: What History and the First Decade of Twenty-First Century Have Brought,” written by Arthur H. Garrison for the Journal of the Institute of Justice and International Studies (vol. 11), discusses historical narratives that date disproportionate incarceration back to the first available data on the issue itself. Combining statistical analyses with the most recent data on incarceration, Garrison highlights the undeniable overrepresentation in the prison system of African Americans and other minorities (87—91). Solutions to this issue are also included after Garrison’s research and findings have been showcased, along with various recommendations on his own part to decrease the likelihood of incarceration for minorities — the reformation of police-community relations included.
To start enacting some kind of change, we need to focus on the root of the problem. Who is actively enforcing these laws? Who is behind the excessive policing of historically black neighborhoods? Racial bias in the criminal justice system might have been ‘exposed’ to the general American public when white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in August of 2014, but it has existed as one of the determining factors behind the harsh treatment of people of color at the hands of police. An article published in The Journal of African American History (vol. 98) entitled “Introduction: African Americans, Police Brutality, and the U.S. Criminal Justice System,” written by Clarence Taylor, is a very brief overview of the issue and controversy around mass incarceration in the United States’ prison system. Throughout the report, Taylor discusses the link between incarceration and police brutality, as well as how African Americans (especially black men) are specifically sought out and targeted by officers of the law (200—201). Relying heavily on historical context and scholarly articles to back up this claim, Taylor highlights the importance of recognizing the long and painful history between black communities and law enforcement (203).
“Police Brutality in America Is About Class, Not Race,” an op-ed article written by activist and writer Joseph Kishore, argues that “the driving force behind the eruption of police violence in the United States is class oppression.” Kishore emphasizes his belief that perpetrators target minorities solely based on their economic status, not their race. His perspective, shared by those who frequently deny the race factor in police brutality, is driven by his stance that the United States functions as an aristocracy, and police violence is a contributor to keeping the upper class at the top and the working class deprived of power. While it is undeniable that a capitalist society essentially welcomes the exploitation of the lower-middle class, Kishore’s collective argument that oppression at the hands of police is driven mainly by that factor somewhat lacks substance; especially in the light of recent events where officers of the law have had a race-based motive in targeting their victims.
“Racism and Police Brutality in America,” written by Cassandra Chaney and Ray V. Robertson for The Journal of African American Studies (vol. 17), discusses the changes that have been implemented in law enforcement after the brutal beating of Rodney King, a taxi driver beaten in 1991 by an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department (480). Chaney and Robertson include literature reviews on articles and books published about police brutality and racism; and most interestingly, commentary from bloggers and other respondents on their perception of the police department. Their study conducted on police brutality indicates that many Americans do not find the current structure of law enforcement adequate/beneficial to minorities; and goes to show that it’s absolutely integral that something needs to change (497—505). The United States is home to freedoms and rights we tend to take for granted every day, but this country’s history with slavery and the remnants of that period and its relevance today is often disregarded. As a society, we are conditioned to make distinctions and associations among groups of people — racial views are essentially rooted in what we are taught to believe by various influential external forces. Both the explicit and implicit racial biases that exist among many law enforcement officials stem from the institutionalized prejudices and stereotypes against minorities and marginalized groups. It’s sadly unsurprising then, that these same officers have increased levels of tension with minority communities.
Assessing how an individual might react in a given situation between two races concerning the same crime severity can play a tremendous role in determining whether that individual is equipped to handle such a situation should it arise in real life. “Human Awareness Training for the Police,” a report compiled for The Police Journal (vol. 57) by Wyn Cridland, discusses a study that was conducted in 1979-82 by the Police Studies Institute regarding officers of the law and human awareness training (36—37). The trainings were for young police candidates in the county of Essex in England to “prepare them for their future role in a multi-racial society” (36). Through activities centered around interpersonal communication and conflict resolution, the survey eventually found that adequate preparation to deal with the general public doesn’t just amount to a few hours of training; rather a “deep understanding… of the dynamics of human behavior and the mental luggage that people bring with them” (38). A similar article (though more evidence-based and medically researched) also published in The Police Journal (vol. 57) and written by Eric Shepherd examines whether human awareness training for police actually makes a difference. In “Values Into Practice: The Implementation and Implications of Human Awareness Training,” Shepherd, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, uses various psychologically-based theories to present his research. He concludes that “it is the members of the ‘canteen culture’ (ie: racist/sexist attitudes inhibited by police officers) who will translate human awareness values into policing practice.”
These awareness training evaluations have undoubtedly proven to be an effective way to reveal existing biases, make examples out of qualified candidates, remove problematic individuals with tendencies for misconduct before they even have the opportunity to be officers, and prevent such individuals from transferring to other departments. Many may argue that the process of recruitment is more important than training, and while hiring the best-qualified candidates is absolutely vital to enacting change, it cannot be done effectively without these assessments and evaluations that seek to make candidates culturally and socially aware.
To coexist and be tolerant of those who look and share different views is a fundamental aspect of being a trusting human being, and what Americans of all backgrounds and identities need is trust in the people who are sworn to uphold the law and protect the public. An African American teenage boy should safely be able to walk the streets of his neighborhood at night and make it home without a bullet in his chest. A middle-aged black or Latino man should be fairly read his constitutional rights without lying facedown beaten to a pulp by an officer for a petty crime. Youths from disadvantaged groups and neighborhoods should be able to apply to college and work in minimum wage jobs without their minor criminal record being a permanent roadblock. In a country where freedom of speech is valued and an age where technology and social media are readily available at the tips of our fingers, we literally have the power to enact the kind of change we want to see in society. We need to speak up about these issues and demand the reformation of our broken criminal justice system and the incorporation of training programs for law officers, because this long-neglected injustice is a stain on all the values we are supposed to stand for as Americans. It is time we fight for the brothers and sisters we have lost at the hands of racism, from Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to Tamir Rice; because it’s not about being ‘politically correct’ — it’s a question of our morality as a nation that is supposed to value freedom and fairness for all. It is high time we put ‘justice’ back into the system; all while acknowledging how the concerned communities and society at large are affected by unjust incarceration.