(Newswise) — When two friends of Frank Rudy Cooper were stopped by officers for questioning but had nothing in common with the suspects but their race and gender, Cooper, now a UNLV Boyd School of Law professor and expert on race and policing, became interested in why the police tend to stop young Black males more than other subgroups. Cooper, along with Boyd School of Law colleagues Stewart Chang and Addie Rolnick, heads UNLV’s Program on Race, Gender, and Policing, which publishes research and brings together international scholars and works nationwide with law enforcement regarding excessive force, racial bias, sexual assaults by police officers, and policy reforms.
Policing and problems that can arise due to bias or misconduct impacts communities across the nation, and discussions on these issues are both interesting and important for American equality, explains Cooper. Their goal is to help navigate those issues by challenging the public to call for reforms and help police craft reforms, particularly for communities of color, which have a disproportionate amount of police attention and police misconduct. We are all better off when we have policing that represents all of us in the way we want to be represented, he explains. “Police act for us, and we want them to speak for a community that’s equitable.”
Most scholars believe there are two strands from which contemporary U.S. policing developed. One is the southern slave patrols of the 1700s that checked any Black people out after dark for passes from enslavers. Over time, formal police departments grew out of that experience. Especially around the Reconstruction era, the focus was on monitoring movements of freed Black men. In the North, they developed from something called the “night watch,” to watch for anything untoward. Originating in England in the 1700s, these groups operated mainly in big U.S. cities and eventually became more formalized in the North after the 1850s.
Stepping into the 1950s, there’s a sense, especially in the North, that police departments were captured by big city bosses and patronage hires. Part of the criticism is they weren’t particularly professional, so a 1950’s to early 60’s movement developed standardized procedures for conduct and hiring so police could be seen as significant civil servants.
For decades, there were proponents and opponents of increased police funding. The declaration of a war on crime during Nixon and the war on drugs during Reagan gave urban police a mission of fighting rampant drug use, and due to the violence during the crack era from mid-1980s into the 90s, they made the case for more and more equipment.
The Clinton era, with Biden’s support, beefed up money for police departments across the nation. One measure was offering free military surplus equipment. That militarization continues in lots of ways today. We saw that especially during protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Michael Brown, and to some extent, prior to that during the Occupy movement, when police were very militaristic when dealing with protesters, using military tactics and gear.
Social media has certainly put more scrutiny on police. The Rodney King video is seen as a watershed moment when officers’ violent, excessive activities came to light, opening some eyes for the first time to the possibility that police misconduct could be a problem. But as we got into the social media era, people could talk about their experiences with the police. Especially in communities of color, people were having negative police experiences, which allowed them to magnify and amplify their voices.
I think it came to a head with Ferguson with Michael Brown when we think of how the ’BlackLivesMatter’ hashtag really collected people into a movement against police abuse toward Black people. The movement sprang out into the physical world, with meetings of Black Lives Matter groups as a rallying point. I think it’s an important social moment: The George Floyd-Ahmaud Arbery-Breonna Taylor summer really brought attention, when tens of thousands in the U.S. and worldwide marched to protest police misconduct. We saw a lot of white people participating. One of the most poignant things was the Portland grandmothers standing on the front lines to protect younger protesters behind them.
People now have cell phones with cameras. There’d already been an increase of misconduct videos and, post-Ferguson, I think a lot of people felt deputized to record police. A number of state judiciaries have ruled that there’s a right to record police doing their jobs.
The use of body cameras also enhances the chances of recording police misconduct. Consider Tyre Nichols, with video taken by body camera and a public camera on a light pole. If not for the footage of officers beating him to death, we might not know what happened. On the flip side, body cameras have been helpful to police in cases of wrongful accusations.
Repeated video exposure to police beatings and killings impacts all viewers, especially people of color. This exposure has mixed effects. It enables people to see that misconduct continues as a significant problem, and it can give people fatigue as they get used to this exposure. But when they’re not as dramatic as the George Floyd or Tyre Nichols images, the images don’t stick to the headlines. It’s particularly painful to people of color to see these constant reminders. It could be traumatic in feeling of empathy or a signaling of second-class status.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we should stop releasing these videos, but they can be a double-edged sword. It should be something that validates what communities of color, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, have been saying since the ‘60s. The reason for a lot of race riots during that era was a police encounter gone bad and what people felt was the result of police misconduct.
Policing is part of the story of increasing segregation because officers too often harass Black and brown people for being racially “out of place.” It’s my understanding that the U.S. is more segregated now than before the Civil Rights Act, at least in northern urban areas.
Cooper’s article “Who’s the Man” thinks about why police officers have a greater tendency to get macho with civilians and why some civilians may feel they have to prove their manhood by standing up to the police. Police have a role of taking charge of situations when needed. That’s why they talk about “command presence,” the ability to take over situations, hopefully verbally, and, if necessary, by physical force. Sometimes that need to take command can be exaggerated by male officers who feel their manhood is being challenged by kids on the street who don’t listen right away. This can lead to conflicts, incidents of violence and police misconduct.
This is triggered in some ways by our changing norms of what it means to be a man and traditional norms a lot of police officers adhere to, which say to punish disrespect. Police tools like “contempt of cop,” where somebody didn’t really commit a crime, but police charge them with something like disorderly conduct or resisting arrest, which becomes a way of punishing them for not doing things the way the police officers want it done. A few prosecutors’ offices around the country have started to reign in on contempt of cop arrests.
Going back to enslavement, mainstream white exaggerations of Blacks’ physical abilities were perceived as threats to whites. Moving quickly forward to today, studies show whites tend to overestimate the age of Black children. The way you’d treat a 9-year-old and a 15-year-old committing vandalism is very different, especially given the tools police use to intervene. This can result in child abuse due to a perceived higher age. The means to fix this is not so much a police reform, but reforming the way our larger society thinks about Black people and Black children in particular and allowing them the opportunity to be children.
Light was shed recently on white neighbors calling police on Black people doing lawful or insignificant activities, aka “white caller crime,” which brings the threat of excessive force. I think the police don’t like it either because when they’re told that someone is acting suspiciously, they may make a mistake. New York has adopted a statute to combat this.
The three facilitators of the Program on Race, Gender, and Policing have written an article on multiple incidents of U.S. police violence in 2020 and the phenomenon of “white-caller crime.”
Several reforms were adopted or recommended over the decades to train, reduce incidences of violent police encounters, and instill checks and balances across law enforcement. Under the Obama administration, more investigations of police departments, a mostly unused power of the Department of Justice, showed patterns of abuse. After Las Vegas Police utilized COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) Office to achieve voluntary reform plans, police killings, especially of Blacks, dropped. The program works to peaceably come up with reforms rather than being prompted by court-ordered changes in the midst of a lawsuit. Of the important reforms were transparency around public notification of use of force, the release of body camera footage, and de-escalation training, where a continuum of force allows those involved to comply, de-escalating potential conflict. The department has continued to re-evaluate, establish reforms and update policies, and the Program on Race, Gender, and Policing has hosted Metro officers to discuss their use of force reports.