Ferguson Shines a Light on Police Discrimination


St. Louis, Missouri, a city known in part for its racial turmoil, was thrown into chaos in August of last year when Michael Brown, an 18-year old black man, was shot dead by a Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson.
Recounts of the event vary, but when the police officer identified Brown as a suspect from a previous crime after he was caught robbing a convenience store, the situation escalated into a chase, leading to Brown’s death. The event set off riots throughout St. Louis, and Officer Wilson’s acquittal only fanned the flames.
This case, like many others this past year, is thought to be one of police discrimination. Was Officer Wilson prompted to shoot Brown out of prejudice? Was he acquitted for the very same reasons?
At the heart of it, these questions address a problem that is among the most  in America today: political discrimination. And the issue seems to be showing its colors in the police force.
Police officers seem to be consistently making questionable decisions in the face of these types of situations. Though it may not be prompted by discrimination in every case, color seems to be the common denominator among the victims. One common argument is that the widespread police discrimination is a combination of improper training, and subconscious prejudice.
Eric Garner, a 350-pound black man, was incarcerated over 30 times for selling loose cigarettes in the streets of New York. He was on Victory Boulevard and Bay Street, Staten Island when two police officers approached him for illegal conduct. Garner resisted arrest, and was quickly placed in a chokehold by one of the police officers.
Garner was proclaimed dead only an hour later.
The New York Police Department banned chokeholds in 1994, stating that police officers are prohibited from applying “any pressure to the throat or windpipe” by way of restraint. Yet, in 2013 alone, there have been 233 reported instances when NYPD officers have employed chokeholds; and that is only 4.4% of the total number of excessive-force complaints that year, the New York Times writes.
In a separate case in Cleveland, Ohio, a 12-year old young black male named Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer for waving a toy aerosol gun around in an empty playground. A recording of the incident showed the police officer fire his weapon within two seconds of arriving on the scene.
Both events suggest that police officers are prematurely resorting to excessive violence.
Compared to other nations, the number of deaths by law enforcement in the United States is disproportionately high, and even more so for minorities. Why? Because police officers, while they do not always target minorities, patrol the African American and Latino neighborhoods because, statistically, they are the poorer, and more crime-ridden areas.
This police tactic is evident in New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy, says Eric Draitser, a geopolitical analyst and founder of Stop Imperialism. “…there have been studies conducted in New York City as it relates to the so-called “stop and frisk” policy which undeniably and inordinately targets African American and Hispanic males primarily but people in general, and certainly does not affect the white population in the same way. I can tell you as somebody who has worked in predominantly minority neighborhoods in New York City that I personally have never once been stopped and frisked by NYPD but I know that students with whom I worked were all the time, on a regular basis.”
In other countries, the gun comes out last. In nations like Germany, England and Australia, police officers are responsible for a total of five deaths in a year, whereas in the United States, that number adds up to around 400. Of the 400 “justifiable homicides,” 18% of the victims are black and under 21, compared to 8.7% white and under 18 (usatoday.com).
There is also evidence of a large discrepancy between the ratio of minority police officers to the amount of minorities in the neighborhoods they patrol. Only about 60%  percent of cities in the United States actually have a police force that represents the racial makeup of the city, and of these there is a significant amount in which the minority group is incredibly small anyways, meaning having a few black officers allows them to fall into the “represented” category.  
“The goal should be to be sure the department is a reflection of the community it serves throughout the ranks,” said Lee P. Brown, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and former NYPD Commissioner, “It’s important for people to see police officers who look like them.”
Subconscious prejudice can also play a role in the police response to situations with minorities, but this kind of prejudice is evident in a vast majority of the world population. Subconscious prejudice is what puts us on guard when we see a hooded man walking down the street in a sketchy neighborhood; we develop these kinds of associations over time, and they can manifest into physical responses.
Harvard graduates conducted a study called Project Implicit to test subconscious prejudice by prompting subjects to place words (i.e. good and bad) into the correct category without being influenced by the images of black and white people. The study, though ongoing, has found that only 17% of the test-taking population has little to no racial preferences, with over 70% biased to whites.  A simplified version of the test is available here.
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In President Obama’s State of the Union he briefly mentioned that funds were being directed towards purchasing $263 million worth of body cameras for police officers to wear on duty, but while they, in theory, should prevent police actions from going unmonitored, will these really solve the underlying problem?

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