Is Police Brutality a Social Issue: Critical Essay

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Police brutality has been around in America since the first police force in the 1800s, but received nationwide attention in 1991 with the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles (Davis 276). The desensitization Americans have to police brutality and the decriminalization of the systemic murder of African Americans is indicative of the larger culture surrounding policing in the United States. Through militaristic propaganda, the Blue Lives Matter movement has redirected the conversation away from the brutal killings of African Americans and thus has allowed these murders to continue in silence with no repercussions for the offenders (SOURCE).

The need to study police brutality is imperative in order to prevent more lives from being lost. The power of the police is corrupt and unchecked, and, while using that power, has allowed police officers to commit murder against mostly African American men without consequence. Currently, police brutality–particularly, but not exclusively, against minorities–is de facto decriminalized in the United States and has been so since the murder of Rodney King (Davis 275).

There have been many attempts to explain why this corruption occurs, with the most common explanation being the “bad apple” defense (Chaney 481). This excuse is most commonly used by police and states that most cops are good, but there are some bad officers mixed into the bunch. The “bad apple” defense removes policing culture from the conversation and puts the blame on a singular officer instead of asserting that corruption is part of the function of policing. Breaking the “Blue Wall of Silence” is imperative to remove so proper policy measures can be put into place to reduce the occurrence of police brutality

Literature Review


Every serious prescription for controlling police brutality rests at least implicitly on some theory of police behavior. The exercise of officers’ authority to make arrests has been analyzed in a number of studies, as has the use of deadly force, and a substantial (but still inadequate) body of empirical evidence has been accumulated. Unfortunately, little social scientific evidence has accumulated on the use and abuse of nonlethal force, and a faint effort seems to have been made to consider whether the theories applied to other forms of behavior apply to the use of nonlethal force.

Literature Review

Past research on police brutality has applied sociological and psychological theories to the empirical analysis of arrest and deadly force (Worden 23). One prominent sociological approach to understanding the behavior of police officers is based on the premise that police behavior is influenced by the social dynamics of police-citizen encounters. For example, Donald Black’s sociological theory of law holds that the “quantity of law is influenced by the social attributes of concerned parties–victims and suspects, or plaintiffs and defendants, as well as the agents of social control themselves (Worden 24). The role of the police is best understood as a mechanism for the distribution of non-negotiable coercive force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational exigencies (Worden 24).

This sociological theory supports the belief that minorities are more likely to be shot at by police, and the empirical evidence confirms that minorities are overrepresented among the human targets at which police shoot, relative to their numbers in city populations, but it also indicates that minorities are overrepresented among those whose actions precipitate the use of deadly force. However, the hypothesis that minorities are more likely to be the objects of police deadly force merely because of their race has received support in only a few analyses (Worden 25).

Psychological theories have also been applied in order to understand what kind of police personality seems to cause more violence. This approach highlights variation among officers in their behavioral predisposition, a variation that is obscured by the sociological approach. This perspective directs attention to the outlooks and personality traits that presumably produce different responses to similar situations by different officers. One hypothesis states that officers who are predisposed to use force have “authoritarian” personalities (Worden 26)

The first large-scale observational study of police was undertaken by Black and Weiss in 1967, where they note that almost all victims of force were “young, lower-class males from any racial or ethnic group. Furthermore, most encounters were devoid of witnesses who would support the offender,” (Worden 34).

Research Question

Worden looks to analyze the frequency and severity of two categories of behavior by police: the use of reasonable force, and the use of improper (unnecessary or excessive) force.

Sample and Methods

Most empirical research on the use of nonlethal force by police is based on data collected through the observation of officers on patrol (Worden 32). In his research, Worden recognizes the shortcomings of observational data. They may be biased as a result of “reactivity” when officers refrain from the use of force in some instances due to the presence of observers (33). Worden looks at data not only from the Weiss-Black study but from the PSS as well in order to draw conclusions on police behavior in America.

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Analysis and Findings

Bivariate analyses of PSS data indicate that the use of improper force is somewhat more likely if “the citizen is black, male, and over eighteen if the citizen exhibits signs of drunkenness or mental disorder if the citizen has a weapon, and if the citizen is hostile or antagonistic,” (Worden 37) The results of a multinomial logit analysis showed that multiple variables have statistically significant effects on the use of both reasonable and improper force. Whether reasonable or improper, force is more likely in “incidents that involve violent crimes and against suspects who are male, black, drunk, antagonistic, or physically restrained to the police,” (Worden 37).


The analysis of Black-Reiss data and the PSS data show that physical force is infrequently used by the police and that improper force is rare in the sense that it is infrequent relative to the large volume of interactions between police and citizens (Worden 46). However, the infrequency of these events does not diminish their significance of means that efforts cannot be undertaken to reduce the frequency even further.

Additionally, the use and abuse of force by police are influenced by the characteristics of the situations in which officers and citizens interact. Officers are more likely to use force–and especially improper force–against suspects who are inebriated or antagonistic, and even more concerning, they are more likely to use improper force against black suspects. The reasoning for improper force against African American citizens has varied. Perhaps it's just simply that the behavioral manifestation of being hostile towards police is more prevalent in African Americans. One chief of police stated that he thought some of his officers were especially fearful of black suspects; the unstated implication is that those officers might use force preemptively (and necessarily) or act (unwittingly) in such a way that provokes resistance to which they must respond with force (Worden 46).

In popular media, the reporting of individual cases of police brutality (usually caught on video) results in more attention and sensationalism. In a Washington Post article, Wesley Lowery writes about thirty-two-year-old Edward Minguela, who was standing on the sidewalk with his hands in the air when three Camden County, N.J., police officers slammed him to the ground, punched him a dozen times, and pinned him to the ground on February 22, 2018. The entire incident was captured by a surveillance camera, but this story lacked the outrage seen with Michael Brown and Eric Garner–two black men were killed by police which sparked nationwide protests. Lowery offers an explanation of why police brutality has fallen from news coverage in recent years. Written in March of 2018, Lowery explains that police brutality and criminal justice reform were arguably the leading domestic news storyline during the final two years of the Obama administration, but the issue has all but vanished from the national political conversation. It’s not because police violence has stopped or been reduced–at the time of publication, 212 people have been shot and killed by American police officers, at the same pace of three fatal shootings per day since 2015. It’s also not because reporters have abandoned police accountability, as multiple acclaimed newspapers have launched investigations, including the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald. Additionally, several Washington Post reporters spent 2017 investigating what happens to the “bad apple” police officers after they are fired. They often end up right back on the job.

So why has police brutality left the news stories despite it still continuing? Lowery offers several explanations, the most obvious being the election of Donald Trump, a reality television host elected under accusations of Russian interference–whose White House is plagued by scandals, constant turnover, policy reversals, leaks, and staff infighting. According to Devon Jacob, the civil rights attorney representing Minguela, “The nation has a short attention span, and frankly, is interested in what the major networks tell the nation it should be interested in.” Unlike President Obama, Trump isn’t interested in police reform. He encouraged officers to rough up “thugs” they take into custody, and told an audience of officers in 2017, “Don’t be too nice” Additionally, Trump has also faced no questioning on issues of race and policing, even after Texas police shot and killed fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards or when an Arizona officer killed unarmed Daniel Shaver, despite Obama being constantly asked to weigh in on issues regarding police violence against African Americans.

This silence is not just caused by a lack of emphasis by news channels. In an opinion post in the New York Times by The Editorial Board in June of 2019, they explain Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law passed in 1976. This keeps the personnel and disciplinary files of the police, firefighters, and corrections officers a secret unless a judge orders them released. The main sponsor of the law, Frank Padavan, said that it was never meant to prevent the disclosure of police misconduct. However, its main function today is blocking the release of crucial information about law enforcement officials who abuse the public trust. There have been efforts to repeal it, but police and corrections unions argue that the law is a matter of safety, as they protect officers from retaliation. However, this is just another institutional mechanic in place to keep police brutality in the shadows.

Section 50-a protected Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who used an illegal chokehold on Eric Garner for five years that killed him. An administrative judge ruling on whether Pantaleo should be fired in June 2019 cannot publicly state her decision due Section 50-a. The only reason the circumstances of Eric Garner’s death are widely known is that someone with a cellphone recorded a video of police taking him down in an illegal chokehold. The officer’s previous disciplinary record–four allegations of abuse against him–is only known because someone leaked the files.

In the past, research has approached this police brutality through a psychological and sociological lens. The focus of research has been on why police choose to commit misconduct and who they brutalized while on the job. Worden in particular has looked at observational data collected by Weiss and the PSS in order to synthesize it together and create a deeper understanding of when and why police brutality occurs. However, this research has led to relatively few solutions, as seen in the Washington Post and the New York Times. The lack of improvements on limiting police brutality leads to a stalemate, where other more “interesting” topics compete with primetime news. Where the Washington Post focuses more on how the political climate has shifted away from police brutality and criminal justice reform, The New York Times offers one take–Section 50-a–on why the culture surrounding officer misconduct is shrouded in secrecy. Instead of offering theories, Worden analyses data from multiple sources to establish the frequency and reasoning for excessive and improper force by police officers.

Sociological Imagination

The concept of the “sociological imagination” was coined by sociologist C. Wright Mills in order to describe the act of looking beyond the personal troubles of individuals and see the public issues of social structure, or the forces shifting and intersecting the larger society and their impacts on individual members of society. In his own words, Mills states that the “sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals,” (Mills 3). The premise of the sociological imagination is that understanding the awareness of the relationship between the individual and society allows us to look at a situation from another point of view. Applying the sociological imagination to cases and situations makes it clear what issues and behaviors need to be remedied in order to prevent the behavior, or to encourage that behavior in order to change the status quo.

In Lisa McIntyre’s article “Hernando Washington,” she uses the sociological imagination to understand Washington’s behavior, instead of just labeling him as deviant. Washington’s social milieu was the South Side of Chicago, where they are ostracized from the rest of society and abandoned by their police (McIntyre 19). When his sister Leah was raped and his brother James was killed by one of the neighborhood boys, the police did nothing (McIntyre 21). This lack of empathy and response from the police taught Washington that life was not very valuable. He was on bail for a rape and kidnapping charge and had raped three other women. The one rape charge he had against him was being handled by a private lawyer. These factors all play together and taught Washington that his actions had no consequences (McIntyre 25).

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