By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania
You already know an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a white officer, Darren Wilson, after the officer stopped Brown for jaywalking. You know the Ferguson Police Department is mostly white, in a mostly non-white community.
You certainly know about the outcome of Officer Wilson’s grand jury hearing, after an unusual process in which the prosecutor didn’t ask the grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson—and it didn’t.
And you also know about Eric Garner. That NYPD arrested him for selling untaxed cigarettes (“loosies”). That the police wrestled the unarmed man to the ground, and placed him in a chokehold that had been outlawed by the NYPD. You know that Garner repeatedly gasped “I can’t breathe” as he struggled to take in air, and was pronounced dead an hour later.
You know the incident was captured on videotape, and the officer who killed him was still not indicted.
You know all that. But to understand why these events resonated so strongly in the public consciousness and sparked protests all across the country, we need to talk not only about Michael Brown, and Eric Garner—and Akai Gurley, and Tamir Rice, and many thousands of other unarmed men of color killed by police. We need to talk about why most of the people killed by police in recent years have been people of color.
Ferguson is everywhere because all across the country, communities of color are disproportionately the target of police scrutiny and violence. “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for people throughout the nation who live every day under the oppressive weight of police practices and a criminal justice system that cast men of color as threats.
Over the past few decades, police departments across the country have turned to “preventive” policing strategies. Broken windows theory, order-maintenance policing, zero tolerance—these strategies have many names, but share an emphasis on pouring law enforcement resources into poor communities of color (so-called “high-crime” neighborhoods) to aggressively stop, frisk, and arrest lots of people for minor, non-violent, “quality-of-life” infractions. This means arresting people for offenses like curfew violations, open containers, littering, graffiti, and sleeping or urinating in public.
Data-driven police management—where police are judged by their COMPSTAT statistics, and how many stops and arrests they perform—creates further incentives for aggressive policing of minor offenses.
The result is that, throughout the United States, people of color are several times more likely to be stopped by police, frisked by police, and arrested by police than white people. Not because they’re more likely to commit crimes, but because of policing strategies that pit the police against communities of color.
Because black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to have an encounter with the police, police come to stereotype people of color as criminals—unconsciously or consciously. This bias then reinforces the decision to concentrate police resources in communities of color.
This dynamic is particularly troubling when combined with the lack of sufficient legal restrictions on when the police are allowed to use force, and the increasing militarization of police departments around the country.
Police are empowered to use violence—tasers, chokeholds, and even guns—when they interact with the community on the street. And around the country, para-military SWAT teams raid people’s homes in the dead of night, often just to search for drugs. These SWAT teams are deployed disproportionately in black and Latino neighborhoods.
In a system that treats police like the military and people of color as the enemy, it’s no wonder that police encounters with people of color too often turn deadly.
Unfortunately, officers who kill people of color are rarely indicted, and virtually never convicted of excessive use of force.
It should be a basic, uncontroversial truth that “Black Lives Matter.” But every day, the American criminal justice system is at odds with that proposition.
On February 7, 2015, Staff Attorney Molly Tack-Hooper moderated a panel at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit in Harrisburg called “Ferguson Is Everywhere.” This is adapted from her introductory remarks.
This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.