The issue of racial discrimination in the U.S. criminal justice system remains acute especially when it comes to the interactions with police. The pandemic has also unleashed enormous tensions in American society over the issue of racism and social stratification into riots. The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has further exacerbated existing social inequalities and created new challenges for both government and society. The crime rate is rising, and the society is rather strongly polarized, as the political division within the society is only growing. Nearly 80% of the United States population believes the country is more divided now than it was before the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a study by Dimock and Wike (2020). The main cause of mass disadvantage among Blacks is institutional racism – and one of the most prominent examples of it is police and judicial abuse.
The situation with the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers against African Americans has not changed significantly. Fettig’s (2018) report to UN shows that an African American is about six times more likely to be jailed than a White American. At the same time, law enforcement officers are rarely prosecuted for killing civilians, the study (2018) also notes. African Americans are almost three times more likely to be killed by police than Whites, according to the Mapping Police Violence research group (2022). According to the same statistics (2022), Black citizens killed by the police are 1.5 times more likely than Whites to be unarmed. In the absolute majority of cases, no charges were brought against law enforcement officers for cases of arrests with a lethal outcome. If one looks at the actual number of those killed, there will be more Whites, however, it is important to remember that Black Americans make up only slightly more than a tenth of the total population of the country. Thus, it can be concluded that they are twice as likely to die at the hands of the police than Whites.
The numbers of lethal outcome cases for Blacks are very concerning throughout the years. According to a database maintained by The Washington Post (2022) since 2015, police in the United States kill approximately 1,000 people a year. While the vast majority of the 5,000 killed by police were carrying firearms, about 400 were unarmed (The Washington Post, 2022). Among them are quite high-profile murders of Blacks, like Eric Garner, 12-year-old Tamir Rice or Breonna Taylor. Thompson (2021) estimates that since 2015, 135 unarmed African Americans have been killed by police officers. Of these, only in 13 cases were police officers charged with premeditated murder and in 7 with manslaughter, and only four people were found guilty – two for each case (Thompson, 2021). Thirty-three murders ended in forced or voluntary dismissal, but three of those fired were employed in the police again, and five – in other law enforcement agencies (Thompson, 2021). Although African Americans constitute a relatively small part of the US population, they account for 27% of police killings, and in the case of killings of unarmed people, the figure reaches as much as 35% (Police Violence Report, 2021). Thus, the society is rightfully concerned about the racial issue within the criminal justice system, bringing it into public discussion.
It is important to understand why this is happening, despite the multiple federal and societal efforts to fight against institutional racism. One of the reasons is related to the doctrine of the so-called “qualified immunity,” which severely limits the ability of citizens to file lawsuits against law enforcement officials for violations of their rights. In order to be able to sue the police, it is necessary to prove that, firstly, the police used excessive force. Secondly, in the practice of the court, there must be a similar precedent in which the court decided not in favor of the police. Moreover, the degree of similarity of the cases should be extremely high, sometimes down to the position of the hands and other small details of the circumstances of the detention. This, however, does not mean that the illegal actions of the police go completely unpunished – rather, the responsibility for them is shifted to the taxpayers. For example, the Minneapolis authorities paid the Floyd family a significant compensation on the lawsuit. This practice is not at all unique: over the past decade, the authorities of many American cities have paid billions of dollars in compensation for police actions.
Police violence has also been linked to internal law enforcement practices. University of Chicago (2020) reports that none of the police departments of the U.S. largest 20 cities have officially established standards for the use of violence that meet the level of international human rights organizations. The abolition of the aforementioned “qualified immunity” for police officers has been suggested, which will allow citizens to actively sue law enforcement officers who violate their rights. Additionally, there are also quite a few proposals to reduce unjustified police violence and increase their accountability to the population. For example, in March 2021, the lower house of the U.S. Congress passed the George Floyd law (The U.S. Congress, 2020). It abolishes “qualified immunity,” prohibits “racial profiling” and the use of asphyxiation by police during arrests. All federal law enforcement officers are going to be required to wear body cameras. Although Peterson and Lawrence (2020) state that they have no effect on the use of force police officers, cameras allow at least to record offenses, and not rely on the testimony of law enforcement officers. Thus, changes are introduced to resolve the issue of racial discrimination – however, their effectivity is yet to be proven.
Since the federal government in the U.S. has very little influence over state and city law enforcement, the main reform effort should come from state authorities. Since 2020, a number of states have adopted more than a hundred police-related laws. They also mostly involve legal immunity for police officers, body cameras, bans on chokeholds, and restrictions on searches that can be carried out without notice. In addition, there are often proposals to standardize and improve police training programs with an emphasis on conflict resolution skills without the use of lethal weapons. It is also suggested to create a single database of employees who commit offenses in order to deprive them of the opportunity to get similar positions in other cities or other law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, society demands to redistribute funding from the police in favor of other social services, as well as limiting the powers of the police or transferring them to other services. The high influence of police unions is also considered an issue, which creates a system of collective responsibility among the police, making it difficult to dismiss colleagues who break the law. Overall, the issue of the racial discrimination in the U.S. criminal justice system has not been successfully resolved yet, despite all the efforts from both society and authorities.
Dimock, M., & Wike, R. (2020). America is exceptional in the nature of its political divide. Pew Research Center. Web.
Fettig, A. (2018). Report to the United Nations on racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. The Sentencing Project. Web.
Mapping Police Violence Project. 2021 Police Violence Report. Web.
Mapping Police Violence Project. (2022). Mapping police violence. Mapping Police Violence. Web.
Peterson, B. E., & Lawrence, D. S. (2020). Do the effects of police body-worn cameras on use of force and complaints change over time? results from a panel analysis in the Milwaukee Police Department. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 48(6), 734–754. Web.
Thompson, C. (2021). Fatal police shootings of unarmed Black people reveal troubling patterns. NPR. Web.
The U.S. Congress. (2020). H.R.7120 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. Congress.Gov. Web.
University of Chicago Law School – Global Human Rights Clinic. (2020). Deadly discretion: The failure of police use of force policies to meet fundamental international human rights law and standards. Chicago Unbound. Web.
The Washington Post. (2020). Fatal force: Police shootings database. The Washington Post. Web.