Living In Fear: History of Police Violence In America

Credit: Vice News

Since 1971, police violence in America towards minority populations has been steadily increasing. President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs was followed by higher rates of incarceration within the Black community. The post-9/11 announcement of the War on Terror further exacerbated this level of violence. A combination of legislation, law enforcement policies and media-encouraged attitudes towards Black communities in America have caused violent and perpetually increasing police brutality. This has lead to their mass-incarceration, culminating in alarming figures: United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world prison population, Black incarceration comprising nearly six times that of whites. Recently, this has sparked large protest among disquieted citizens, notably the rise of the Black Lives Matter activist movement, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Black teen Trayvon Martin. The situation persists in the country, and with the election of Donald Trump, it  appears that the policy will not be ameliorated by policy makers, but through the people.

By Rebecca Chacon Naranjo

The policies that make up the War on Drugs have been a major culprit behind such astounding rates of incarceration among Black Americans.As reported by Human Rights Watch, the level of Blacks in prison in 2000 was 23 times the level in 1983. It began in 1971 with Nixon’s condemnation of substance abuse, and called for “all-out offensive” stating that the United States’ “number one public enemy was drug abuse.”

As the War went on, it became clear that there was a substantial disparity between Black and white incarceration rates for drug-related crimes. This would have made sense if Blacks committed more drug crimes than whites; however this was not the case.

 Many surveys and government reports, such as one conducted by the NHSDA [1], consistently found that whites were much more likely to consume, produce, and traffic narcotics that their Black counterparts, yet whites were continuously able to avoid being sent to prison for such crimes.

The first cause of increased police brutality comes from the policy makers.The Nixon administration was rife with systematic racial bias.. Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman wrote of his policy that “[Nixon] emphasized that you had to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks…the key is to devise a system that recognizes this without appearing to.” This sentiment became the catalyst for legislation that was inherently biased against the Black community. Economists such as Gregory Jordan thus concluded that the War on Drugs became the perfect surrogate for the anti-Black agenda, likely stemming from the conservative outlook towards poverty and crime as caused by Black culture rather than economic problems. The “stop and frisk” policy that was established after the Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court case three years prior to the War would initiate a trend of law enforcement infringing upon privacy rights in cases of possible drug-related offenses.This had a particular effect on Black Americans.. The case held that Americans’ 4th Amendment right of police requiring probable cause to stop and frisk their person or property was not necessary where “reasonable suspicion” [2] was present. This was due to “frisk” being defined as different from “search” because the (Black) defendants in question were standing on a street corner, and police found them to be “suspicious”.

        The policies of the Reagan and Clinton administrations also increased the level of police violence against Black communities. The “crack epidemic” of the late 1980s under Reagan created a condition in the public’s minds in which drug crime became synonymous with Blacks, youth, the poor and the overall “hood” lifestyle. By making crack synonymous with Black criminals, the media played a major role in forming the police and public’s racial bias. As put by the New York Times, “America discovered crack and overdosed on oratory.” The Acts of 1986 and 1988 continued the War and created policy that increased the federal government’s involvement in combating street crime to an unprecedented level. Blacks were stopped, searched, and subsequently arrested for low-level drug crimes more frequently than whites. The War facilitated these arrests and drastically reduced the number of rules that constrained law enforcement in drug-related offenses. These arrests were usually violent, and they affected Black communities, creating second class citizens. During the Clinton administration, federal cash grants based on the number of drug arrests incentivised seeking the maximum quantity possible, causing arrests of Blacks for low-level drug crimes to increase. Police found it easy to arrest poor Black criminals on inner-city street corners rather than spend months arresting the generally white producers and upper-level drug traffickers. From 1980 to 2000, rates of drug arrests of Black Americans increased from 6.5% to 29.1% per 1000 persons.

The effect on Black communities was immense, and continues to be so today. President Clinton’s “One Strike and You’re Out” address in 1996 created a policy where felons who are released from prison are not entitled to food stamps, welfare, or public housing. Clinton’s harsh policies served as a gateway for employment discrimination. Considering that most probations and paroles required a released convict to retain gainful employment, ex-criminals were forced to either break their parole or seek employment in menial jobs that paid poorly and made them more likely  to commit crimes in order to better their economic situation.

Many of these policies continue to exist,, creating a system which is cruel and biased against Black communities. This has also created a culture of mistrust toward law enforcement, which further perpetuates police violence.

In 1990, The Sentencing Project reported the number of people in prison to be the highest it had ever been. According to their statistics, 1 in 4 Black men were under the criminal-justice system and had been subjected to some sort of violence by law enforcement. However, this is changing. Black Lives Matter explains in their own words who they are, as an example of the backlash against this 40 year bias: “Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” This backlash provoked by police violence is mainly due to the highly publicized cases that shed light on the atrocities routinely committed by police in America. 37% of unarmed people killed by police were Black in 2015 despite Black people comprising only 13% of the U.S. population. Statistics like these have revealed to the general public the horrors that the Black community faces in the country today. This brutality arising from policy has created a system that encases Blacks in a self-perpetuating cycle of criminality. Movements against this through social media and protests may have brought awareness to the public, but the election of Donald Trump has only served to change the nature of the brutality to encompass Latino communities as well.. Until people begin to change policy from within, deaths at the hands of police like those of, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, and countless others will persist.


[1] National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health

[2]  a form of legal proof implemented by law enforcement

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *