Consequences of the Policing Game
Although relations between the police and the community have been deteriorating in many urban centers for decades, it is likely that both the increased street-level enforcement of disorder and minor crime and the increased sharing of cell phone video of aggressive police behavior that has heightened tensions between the police and the community on social media. By focusing aggressive police attention on minor offenses, there is inherently an increase in negative contacts between the police and citizens. Each of these is a situation where something can potentially go wrong and in today’s society be captured on video and shared instantaneously. These tensions are particularly noticeable along racial lines as aggressive enforcement efforts are mostly commonly targeted at high crime urban areas that tend to be predominately minority neighborhoods. In 2014 and 2015, the killing of unarmed African American men by the police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; North Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore, Maryland sparked widespread civil unrest and retaliatory violence against the police.
In Ferguson, Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown and unarmed 18-year-old African American man. Brown had just stolen several packets of cigarillos from a convenience store when he was confronted by Officer Wilson. During the stop, a struggle ensued and Wilson fired his weapon at Brown 12 times, hitting him 6 times and killing him. Although Brown was unarmed, Officer Wilson claimed he had feared for his life. As disputed facts of the incident were being distributed over social media, a narrative emerged that Brown had tried to give up, raising his arms to surrender. This account of the incident was later discredited, but not before it had sparked national outrage, led to widespread civil unrest, and popularized the hands up gesture as a sign of protest against the police.
Officer Wilson was exonerated by a grand jury and a U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) investigation. Although he was exonerated in this specific incident, the USDOJ investigation raised concerns about the Ferguson Police Department. The USDOJ investigators found that the department was heavily focused on aggressive (law) enforcement. They found that the Ferguson police department was organized around the production of citations and street arrests. This game created a situation in which residents of African American neighborhoods were seen as potential offenders and sources of revenue rather than constituents to be protected. Further, Federal investigators found that citizens were being detained without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Officers demanded compliance through the use of excessive force as depicted in the following description from the USDOJ report:
In the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a Ferguson public park. An officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification. Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer asked to search the man’s car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of the Ferguson municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his name (e.g., Mike instead of Michael .... Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in his possession. The man told (DOJ investigators) that, because of these charges he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years. (USDOJ, 2014b)
The USDOJ report clearly showed that the routine practice of aggressive law enforcement (i.e., the game they were playing) in the Ferguson police department had given rise to a worldview and disposition in officers, which was hostile toward citizens and who directed most of their attention and law enforcement efforts toward African American communities. The USDOJ investigators also found that the widespread claims that the rioting and civil unrest in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown were not the result of outside agitators trying to stoke the flames of bigotry, but that a culture existed in the Ferguson police department which promoted unjust and aggressive law enforcement by Ferguson police officers against the members of the African American community was to blame (Levin and Nolan, 2017).
Also in 2014, Eric Garner, an African American man, was choked to death by a New York City police officer in Staten Island during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner was unarmed and could be heard pleading “I can’t breathe” on a cell phone video of the arrest, which circulated widely on social media and became a rallying cry for civil unrest. Then in November 2014, Cleveland police were dispatched to a city park in reference to a person (probably a juvenile) pointing a pistol (probably fake) at random people. Within 2 seconds of arriving on the scene, one of the Cleveland police officers fired two shots hitting Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy with a toy gun, and killing him. Again, video footage of the shooting was circulated on social media creating an outcry against the excessive force by police. The USDOJ investigation of the Cleveland police department found a pattern of unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons; the unnecessary, excessive, or retaliatory use of less lethal force including Tasers, chemical sprays, and fists; excessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis, including in cases where the officers were called exclusively for a welfare check; and the employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable and places officers and civilians at unnecessary risk (USDOJ, 2014a).
Then in April 2015, Walter Scott, a 50-year-old African American man, was shot in the back as he was running away from a white North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager. This incident was also caught on video and circulated on social media. It clearly showed that Scott was no threat to Slager as was claimed. Officer Slager was arrested and charged with the murder of
Scott. The trial of Slager ended in mistrial as the jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision (Binder, 2016).
Only eight days after the fatal assault on Scott in North Charleston, Freddie Gray, a young African American man, was arrested by the Baltimore police department for possession of a switchblade and for running from the police. Although Gray was being transported by a police van to a booking center, he suffered three fractured vertebrae and an injury to his voice box. His spine was 80% severed at his neck. Gray died days later which sparked rioting in the city of Baltimore and in other cities around the country. Some had speculated that the police officers in the van had given Gray a rough ride, referring to a practice of bouncing handcuffed prisoners off the wall of the van as street justice for resisting arrest (Fernandez, 2015). The officers in this case were arrested but later exonerated. A USDOJ investigation of the Baltimore police department following the incident revealed that the culture of the department supported unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests, using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches, and arrests of African Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression (USDOJ, 2014b).
In combination, these highly publicized cases of excessive force by the police against unarmed African American men have helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The BLM movement initially began in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American male, by George Zimmerman, an armed member of a local Neighborhood Watch group. On the night of the shooting, Zimmerman was volunteering his time patrolling the neighborhood. He noticed Martin, who was wearing a hoodie up over his head. Although it was raining which would explain Martin’s appearance, Zimmerman thought Martin looked suspicious. Zimmerman called the police and—against their advice—began following Martin. Prior to the arrival of the police, Zimmerman confronted Martin and a fight ensued. The unarmed Martin was shot and killed by Zimmerman who claimed self-defense. Zimmerman was charged with murder, but later acquitted by a Florida jury.
It was the verdict of not guilty that prompted spontaneous protests across the country and gave rise to the BLM movement whose mission, in part, is “... working for the validity of the Black life ...” (Levin and Nolan, 2017). Since its inception, the BLM movement has been involved in many of the protests following police shootings nationwide. Although they are intended to be peaceful, these protests sometimes become violent. For example, in November 2015 at a protest over the police killing of an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, five BLM protestors were shot by three men with ties to white supremacist groups (Wagner and Peralta, 2015). Also, it was at a BLM rally in Dallas where 12 Dallas police officers were shot, killing 5 of them.