Police brutality

For some, this phrase "police brutality" accurately portrays the reality of excessive and/or unnecessary force inflicted by law enforcement in uneven ways - even to the point of systematically terrorizing racial minorities. For others, the phrase has come to signal an overly accusing perspective that portrays anyone in law enforcement as potentially threatening and worthy of distrust.

It's not new to have this phrase taken up in this kind of a broader public debate. Historically in the United States, police brutality has been a component of many major political and social movements. According to Wikipedia, demonstrations surrounding the civil rights movement of the 1960s, anti-war protests, the War on Drugs, and the Global War on Terrorism have all involved claims of excessive force by police.

In the modern-day U.S., widely-shared videos of police shootings prompted the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement - and its core insistence that American police disproportionately use excessive force against/kill more unarmed black people than white people.

Because the FBI does not keep complete data on police shootings by race, the claim is sharply debated.  While some argue that daily reality bears out this out - repeating a list of black victims over the years - others insist there's no statistical basis for the claim, and that this subset of cases involving black Americans has received too much attention.  

So are these cases receiving disproportionate attention - or do they represent a legitimately disproprortionate risk of violence at the hands of police?   

To complicate matters further, different statistical analyses have reached different conclutions.  A statistical analysis done by Roland G. Fryer, a black economics professor at Harvard University, found that black men and women are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police. But the study found no racial bias in police shootings. According to Snopes, in absolute numbers, more white people than black people are killed in police shootings, because white people outnumber black people in America.

Some independent sources, like The Washington Post, which AllSides rates as having a Lean Left media bias, have begun to keep track of police killings in a way that takes race into account proportionate to the overall population. In July 2016, the Post reported that the publication had launched a real-time database to track fatal police shootings the year prior. They wrote:

"According to the most recent census data, there are nearly 160 million more white people in America than there are black people. White people make up roughly 62 percent of the U.S. population but only about 49 percent of those who are killed by police officers. African Americans, however, account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population. As The Post noted in a new analysis published last week, that means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers."

Another Left-leaning outlet, Vox, reported data in May 2017 showing American police shoot and kill far more people than in other developed nations. Vox also reported that black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population.

Yet the National Review, a publication AllSides rates as having a Right media bias, wrote in July 2017 that more context matters in understanding police shootings and interactions between civilians and officers:

"...an officer is not as likely to shoot the cashier selling him a cup of coffee as he is to shoot a citizen with an outstanding warrant he has just pulled over ... In 2015, two-thirds of unarmed people of any race killed by police had been in the process of committing violent crime or property destruction. Fourteen percent were engaged in domestic violence. Ten percent were committing a robbery, 20 percent a burglary or vandalism, and 21 percent an assault on another civilian."

So while some have argued that police brutality is a black-and-white issue that should lead to significant reforms in American law enforcement, others have argued that police brutality is much more nuanced and contextually complex and/or that there is not sufficient evidence to conclude it is racially biased or motivated. We recommend reading other AllSides Balanced Dictionary terms to get all perspectives on this issue: Black Lives Matter, gun violence, inequality-equity, racial inequity.

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

- Is focusing on the race of those affected by police brutality necessary or problematic?

- What evidence would we you need to decide what the truth is about this issue?  

- Does an increased focus on police brutality erode public trust in police overall? If so, is this necessary or problematic?

- Why do you think Americans are coming to such differing conclusions about police brutality? 

Contributors: 

Julie Mastrine, Jacob Hess

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