|Contemporary Police Brutality and Misconduct:
A Continuation of the Legacy of Racial Violence
Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua
Black Radical Congress, January 2001
"Our lives, our homes, our liberties each day are made less secure because of unrestrained and
unpunished police brutality."
National Negro Congress, Petition Against Police Brutality, 1938.
In the late sixties, Janiil Al-Amin (a.k.a. H. Rap Brown) declared, "Violence is as American as
cherry pie." Al-Amins statement underscores the essential role of violence in maintaining systems
of racial oppression in the United States. Racist violence was fundamental to the creation of the
United States. Moreover, force and violence are not options but necessary to the maintenance of
racial oppression. Racist violence is the scaffolding upon which capitalist exploitation and white
supremacy are erected.
Racist violence has both structural and physical components and it operates in both the
public and private spheres. Structural violence refers to the "impersonal" violence inflicted upon
people of color and the poor by profit-oriented enterprises and institutions. It involves the indirect
violence caused by institutional policies and programs that produce, maintain, and rationalize
poverty, inadequate health care, and substandard housing. Public racist violence refers to
structural and physical violence initiated, perpetuated, and justified by the government. Private
racist violence describes the racially motivated physical and structural violence of private citizens
People of color have been the victims of systematic public and spontaneous private violence
since the slave trade and the colonial conquest of the Americas. Privately initiated racist violence
has taken the form of genocidal invasions, rapacious slaving raids, savage slave whipping, and
repressive white capping, lynching, race riots, and hate crimes. Although private violence is
crucial to the maintenance of racial oppression, it has always supplemented State-sponsored
(government) racist violence.
Over the last 500 years people of color, especially African Americans, have endured a pattern of
State-sanctioned violence, and civil and human rights abuse. To enforce capitalist exploitation and
racial oppression the government and its police, courts, prisons, and military have beaten, framed,
murdered and executed private persons, and brutally repressed struggles for freedom, justice, and
self-determination. It has initiated wars of conquest, launched man-hunts for fugitive slaves,
suppressed slave revolts, brutalized demonstrators, and assassinated political dissidents.
Police brutality and misconduct are merely the major contemporary forms of State-sponsored
racist violence. Police brutality describes "instances of serious physical or psychological harm to
civilians." Contemporary police brutality consists of deadly force, the use of excessive force, and
it includes unjustified shooting, fatal choking, and physical assault by law enforcement officers.
Police misconduct is inclusive of planting evidence, making untrue statements, filing untrue
written reports, condoning untrue statements and/or reports by keeping silent, threatening
suspects, arrestees, and witnesses, engaging in illegal activities, and committing perjury.
This statement summarizes the United States atrocious record of racial repression, specifically
State-sponsored violence. It has a dual purpose:
first to demonstrate the role of government in initiating and sustaining racially motivated
suppression and savagery; and second, to provide a rationale for making police brutality and
misconduct federal crimes.
A History of U.S Racial Repression and Violence
Historically, racist violence, legal and extralegal, and whether State-sponsored or private, has
been used to impose racial oppression and preserve white power and privilege. Racist violence has
served five primary purposes:
1. To force people of color into indentured, slave, peonage, or low wage situations;
2. To steal land, minerals, and other resources;
3. To maintain social control and to repress rebellions;
4. To restrict or eliminate competition in employment, business, politics, and social life; and
5. To unite "whites" across ethnic/national, class, and gender lines.
Domination of people of color necessitated the incorporation and justification of racially
motivated and differentiated violence in the societys law, custom, and popular culture.
Federal, state, and municipal law sanctioned the slave trade, genocidal wars of conquest, slavery,
and the brutalities inherent labor exploitation and racial oppression. Genocide and other forms of
government sponsored or sanctioned violence have been inflicted upon Native Americans since
the countrys beginning. Latino/a people have been the victims of government sponsored or
sanctioned violence since the U.S. unleashed a colonial war of aggression against the Mexicano
people in the middle of the 19th century. Chinese (and later other Asian Americans) have been
assaulted by government sponsored or sanctioned violence since the middle of the 19th century.
Moreover, all branches of government have engaged in violence against workers across color and
gender lines or abdicated their equal protection responsibilities during labor disputes.
State-sponsored and state-sanctioned violence has characterized the Black experience since
Africans forced migration to these shores. The Atlantic Slave Trade (144.4-1850) represented
the first moment of capitalist globalisim The slave trade was the first international industry; it was
a business venture of European nation-states. Orderly commodity exchange cloaked the coercion
and disorder undergirding the Atlantic Slave Trade. Raids and kidnapping were the lifeblood of
the slave "trade." About two-thirds of the nearly 12 million Africans enslaved in the Americas
were captured through rapacious raids and kidnapping. During the four centuries the slave trade
operated, 100 million Africans may have died from the predatory commercial wars launched by
European royalty, the papacy, and emerging European and American capitalists.
British colonial and American governments systematically suppressed Africans human rights.
Colonial governments enacted special "slave codes" that legalized physical abuse--whipping--and
authored practices that condoned maiming, rape, and murder. After the revolution, individual
states preserved and refined antiblack laws, with the support of the federal government. For its
part, the new national government enshrined African American slavery into the U.S. Constitution
(Article I, sec. 2) and authorized law enforcement agents to assist in the capture and return of
fugitive slaves (Article 4, sec. 2 and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793).
Racist violence reached its apogee after Emancipation. Lynching, the major form of violence
used against African Americans, from 1882-1910, resulted from the encouragement of law
enforcement agents or their abdicating their equal protection responsibilities. Between 1882 and
1930 approximately 3,000 Blacks (mostly male) were lynched.* During the First Nadir (1877-1917), organized gang rape of Black women by white racist mobs and organizations like the Ku
Klux Klan was a special form of terrorism reserved for Blacks.
After 1930, extralegal race riots and legal executions replaced lynching as means of social
control. All white or predominately white juries and government officials merely extended societal
racial discrimination to executions. More than half (53%) of the 4,220 persons executed between
1930 and 1996 were Black. Despite the history of white men sexually assaulting Black women,
405 or 90 percent of the 455 men executed for rape between 1930 and 1976 were Black. In 1972
the death penalty was outlawed partly because of its racist and class discriminatory
implementation (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238). Since its return in 1976, executions have
adhered their previous racist and class biased patterns. Thus, people of color have comprised 45
percent or 308 of the 679 executions in the U.S. Two hundred and forty-seven or 36 percent of
those executed have been Black. Currently, Blacks on deathrow are nearly three times their
percentage in the overall population (36% to 13%).
The government also bears the responsibility for the actions and non-actions of police officers
during race riots and rebellions. Abdication of responsibility coupled with acts of outright brutality
and misconduct by law enforcement officers enabled hundreds race riots (violent clashes between
private white and Black citizens) throughout the nations history. Police brutality or misconduct
has been the "trigger incident" that sparked almost every modem rebellion from the 1935 "Harlem
Riot" to the 1992 LA Conflagration. For instance, after the beating of Lino Riveria, a Puerto
Rican youth by New York City police in 1935, three Blacks were killed, 57 people were injured
and $2 million dollars worth of property was destroyed in Harlem. A patrolmans attack on
Marquette Frye sparked an uprising in the Watts in 1965. The conflict resulted in hundreds of
injures, 34 deaths, and the damage or destruction of $35 million worth of property. The savage
police beating of Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old Black insurance executive triggered the 1980
Miami Rebellion. The 1992 LA Rebellion was a response to the March 3, 1991 brutalizing of
Rodney G. King by three LA police officers. Twenty-three other law enforcement officers
watched as King was beaten kicked and shocked by officers wielding batons and stun guns..
In contemporary America, police brutality is the preferred form of social controL Several local,
state, and federal commissions, particularly the 1967 National Advisory Commission on Civil
Disorders (the Kerner Commission) have pointed out the immensity of this problem. The police
are as the Black Panther Party declared in the 1960s
(1955-1975) "an occupying army of repression." Police brutality has been a persistent problem
faced by African Americans. The failure of government to protect Black people from lawless law
enforcement officers forced Blacks to act in their own interests. During the 1930s, the National
Negro Congress organized massive rallies against this form of terror. In Washington, D.C., over
the span a few months, the NNC collected 24,000 signatures protesting abuse by the D.C. police
department. The Black Panther Party was created to stem the tide of police abuse. In the 1 970s
the Congress of Afrikan Peoples sponsored the "Stop Killer Cops" Campaigns. Extralegal
violence by law enforcement officers has been a primary concern of the Congressional Black
Caucus since its formation. The CBC has periodically helld public hearing about police outrages
across the country over the last thirty years. Yet, extra-legal violence persists as recent police
killings of Richard L. Holtz (Fort Lee, New Jersey); Tynisha Miller (Riverside, California); and
Amadou Diallo (New York City) attest.
Finally, Police administrators have ignored or been lax in using internal department policies and
procedures to punish officers who have displayed a pattern of brutality and/or misconduct.
Internal department policies are often weak and internal investigations are generally conducted
poorly. A Justice department survey found that nearly 22 percent of police admit that fellow
officers sometimes or often use "more force than necessary". Moreover, 61 percent claimed
officers do not report instances of "serious criminal violations of abuse of authority" by other
officers. Civilian review boards are generally under-funded and lack the legal authority to compel
police officers participation, nor can they enforce findings. To date, private Civil suits have yet to
demonstrate the capacity to reform individual or police departmental behavior because they do
not address the policies and procedures of departments. Although the Violent Crime Control and
Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorized the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice
to bring "civil actions" against police departments that evidence a pattern of abuse (Section
210402. Data on Use of Excessive Force), they also have not deterred the continuation of police
brutality and misconduct. Moreover, neither the offending officer nor the department is held
financially liable for judgements. Finally, criminal prosecutions for police brutality or misconduct
rarely occur because few state prosecutors are willing to aggressively pursue abusive officers.
This pattern is also true for federal prosecutors, although to a lesser extent.
We believe that existing local, county, state, and federal policies and laws have been ineffective in
ending the persistent and pervasive practices of police brutality and misconduct. Moreover, we
believe that because police officers operate under "color of law" that civil and human rights
violations committed by officers undermine respect for law and government. Furthermore, we
believe the logical consequence of police violence and misconduct is a society ruled by the force
of arms, not law. Thus, every act of police brutality and misconduct; every frame-up, every act of
illegal surveillance, every "justified murder erases an article from the Bill of Rights and takes us
another step closer to a police state.
Thus, we the undersigned citizens of the United States petition the United States Congress to
make police brutality and misconduct federal crimes. We believe that police brutality and
misconduct should be federal crimes for the following reasons:
Whereas police brutality and misconduct are perhaps the most serious and recurring
violations of U.S. citizens civil rights; and
Whereas police brutality and misconduct are perhaps the most serious and recurring violations of
citizens and permanent residents human rights; and
Whereas police brutality and misconduct are pervasive across the nation at all levels of law
enforcement, municipal, county, state, and federal; and
Whereas race and ethnicity or nationality have been demonstrated to be major factors in.
the occurrence of police brutality and misconduct; and
Whereas socioeconomic class has been demonstrated to be a major factor in the
occurrence of police brutality and misconduct; and
Whereas gender and its intersection with class and race/nationality plays a major factor in
racial profiling; Black and Brown men traditionally have been the primary targets of racial
profiling. However, Black women have increasingly become targets of racial profiling, especially
in airports and Black women also compose one of the fastest-growing segments of new
Whereas existing remedies at the municipal, state, and federal levels of government have
proven ineffective in curtailing the unwarranted use of excessive force and subsequent cover up of
such abuses; and
Whereas police brutality and misconduct are serious offenses that threatens domestic
peace and tranquillity, we call upon the Congress of the United States to pass legislation making
brutality and misconduct by law enforcement agents federal crimes, subject to prosecutions in
*In 1919, the NAACP reported 3,386 incidents of lynching between 1882-1918. In a
controversial 1992 revision, sociologists Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, argue that duplication
of reporting produced an over count. They claim only 2,805 lynchings (nearly 2500 of which were
Blacks) can be documented between 1882 and 1930, in ten southern states. See NAACP, Thirty
Years of Lynching in the United States: 1889-19 18 (New York: Arno Press, 1919), p. 29 and
Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynching,
1882-1930 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois)