Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new study finds that African Americans are subjected to threats and non-lethal violence more often than whites when stopped by police.
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke had been the subject of 17 citizen complaints since 2006 before he shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald last year. According to The Chicago Tribune, some of the recent complaints were for excessive force and using racial epithets when interacting with people. The Tribune describes an episode of this:
In one incident from April 2008, Van Dyke and his partner came upon what they thought was a robbery in progress of a convenience store at 71st Street and Ashland Avenue, according to the IPRA reports. They chased a male black suspect into an alley who allegedly made suspicious movements toward his waistband, prompting Van Dyke's partner to take him down to the ground.
The man claimed in his complaint that the partner kicked him in the face and that Van Dyke drew his gun and pointed it at him without justification. The man was not charged with a crime and was treated at Holy Cross Hospital for injuries and swelling to his left eye. Van Dyke said in an interview with investigators he could not recall if he'd removed his gun from its holster that night. His partner denied kicking the suspect.
Encounters with the police like this one, that don’t involve bullet wounds or death, don’t often reach the public consciousness. But they happen pretty regularly—at an average of 44 million times a year between 2002 and 2011, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) researchers Shelley Hyland and Lynn Langton. In a report released last weekend, Hyland and Langton reveal findings on how often police used non-fatal force—and sometimes excessive force—when dealing with civilians.
What they found was that during those years, African Americans were subjected to police aggression at roughly two-and-a-half times the rate of white civilians. This racial disparity existed even though whites had a higher rate of contact with police.
Some of the BJS researchers other findings:
- Blacks (14%) were more likely than Hispanics (5.9%), and slightly more than whites (6.9%) to experience non-fatal force during street stops.
- Of people in general who suffered aggression during their most recent contact with police, approximately three-quarters described it as verbally (71%) or physically (75%) excessive.
- Traffic stops involving an officer and driver of different races were more likely to involve police aggression (2.0%) than traffic stops involving an officer and driver of the same race (0.8%).
- African Americans (1.4%) were twice as likely as whites (0.7%) to experience police aggression during encounters that involved a personal search.
For their report, Hyland and Langton used the BJS’s Police-Public Contact Study, which stores information about people’s most recent “face-to-face contact” with police and tracks the outcomes of those encounters. It’s a comprehensive listing that includes interactions with city police as well as sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, university police, and park police. Police “use of force” or “excessive force” could be defined as police shouting, cursing, threatening, grabbing, hitting, kicking, pepper spraying, Tasing, or pointing a gun at a civilian.
People who had multiple run-ins with police—whether as a pursued suspect or even as someone calling the police to report a crime—were more likely to experience aggression. African Americans who came in contact with police two times between 2002 and 2011 were more likely to be met (20.9 percent) with force than whites (12.5 percent). For Hispanic (the report’s terminology) civilians, that percentage is 33.4 percent.
Meanwhile, African Americans are stopped in the street by police who end up using force or threatening them at a significantly higher rate than whites and Hispanics, as seen in the chart above. The disparity is widened, no doubt, by the large degree to which African Americans have been subjected to “stop-and-frisk,” a controversial police tactic that courts recently have demanded an end to due to racially discriminatory applications. Many of these stops have not resulted in the uncovering of wrongdoing, or they’ve led to arrests for petty marijuana possession crimes. These non-fatal police uses of force happen most frequently in urban settings.
The following map animations from Rehabs.com show the per capita and total number of drug arrests by state. “Drug violations are the single largest reason people get arrested in the U.S.,” reads the Rehabs website, “but it’s not for trafficking or dealing: Over 80% of the time it’s for simply possessing drugs, namely marijuana.”
When stopped by police, African Americans were more likely to be subjected to hostility whether they were personally searched or not, according to the BJS study. But in the situations where they were frisked, African Americans were twice as likely to get handled harshly than was the case with whites.
When neighborhoods go up in flames after an officer shoots or kills an African American, as seen in Ferguson and Baltimore, the narrative is often that the riots are in response to these single fatal incidents. The BJS study provides a wide view of just how prevalent non-fatal police-initiated injuries are, and how black civilians are more often on the receiving end of them. Residents in these cities are responding to this build-up of minor police aggressions that happen well before an unarmed, black teen is dead in the street from police-inflicted wounds. Such tragedies are the last straw.