More on Racism in US Policing: It Never Ends?

The Grant case that Jessie blogged on certainly has gotten a lot of discussion. Well, another suspected police malpractice case this week, with a white officer shooting a young black ballplayer, Robbie Tolan, in a general area of Houston where both the creators of this blog grew up, Bellaire, Texas, today a pretty white Houston suburb with few black residents. For years Bellaire and numerous other Houston suburban areas have been known as dangerous places for black men to encounter white police officers. (Houston was a center for slavery, segregation, and open resistance to desegregation. Has had Klan operating in local police departments in the past.) Indeed, Houston area police forces were, until fairly recently, famous for their openly brutal treatment of black and Latino residents they were supposed to protect.

The CNN report on the Tolan incident put it this way:

Tolan sits in a Houston, Texas, hospital bed with a bullet from a police officer’s gun lodged in his liver. The son of a famed baseball player was shot in his own driveway. But how this unarmed 23-year-old and his cousin ended up in the cross-hairs of an officer’s gun, suspected of stealing a car, is a question sparking allegations of racial profiling. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if these had been white kids this does not happen,” said David Berg, Tolan’s attorney. It was 2 a.m. on December 31 when Tolan and his cousin [Anthony Cooper]. . . were confronted in the driveway of their home by Bellaire, Texas, police officers. Police officials say the officers suspected the two young men were driving a stolen car. … As they walked up the driveway to their home, Anthony Cooper said an unidentified man emerged from the darkness with a flashlight and a gun pointed at them. “We did not know it was a police officer,” said Cooper. “He said, ‘Stop. Stop.’ And we were like, ‘Why? Who are you?'” The officers ordered both men to lie down on the ground. Tolan’s parents heard the commotion and came outside. … But Tolan’s SUV wasn’t stolen. Both men were unarmed and relatives say they were hardly a threat to the police officer.

This case is being investigated, and of course the white authorities are claiming it is not about racial profiling. That seems unlikely, as anyone familiar with Houston policing historically and recently would be suspicious.

The data on the general issue of police brutality cases in the U.S. are pretty clear. These are mostly white-on-black and white-on-Latino crimes, and seem to have been that way now for a century or more. For example, in one analysis of 130 police-brutality accounts in numerous major cities, criminologist, Professor Kim Lersch, found those targeted for this malpractice were almost always African Americans or Latinos. People in these two groups made up 97 percent of the victims of police brutality,

(source: powerbacks)

(source: powerbacks)

while the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of the offending officers were white. Such data, together with the absence of an outcry against these events from the white population, suggest that a great many whites in cities across the country tolerate excessive police violence against people of color. Such instances of brutality, as well as more common police harassment and profiling just short of overt violence, still seem to be part of the ongoing process not only of subordinating African Americans and Latinos generally, but also of sustaining the racial segregation of residential communities by pressuring black Americans to stay out of traditionally white areas.

Some more data of interest: EMJ Online has an interesting new study, “Excessive use of force by police: academic emergency physicians,” that suggests how high the level of police malpractice/brutality may be in this country. While the study does not directly deal with racial matters, there are some clear implications of their findings for the discussion of the Grant killing on this blog. Here is part of their summary of findings from a survey of a carefully done random sample of academic emergency physicians across the country:

Of 393 emergency physicians surveyed, 315 (80.2%) responded. Of the respondents, 99.8% (95% CI 98.2% to 100.0%) believed excessive use of force actually occurs and 97.8% (95% CI 95.5% to 99.1%) replied that they had managed patients with suspected excessive use of force. These incidents were not reported by 71.2% (95% CI 65.6% to 76.4%) of respondents, 96.5% (95% CI 93.8% to 98.2%) had no departmental policies and 93.7% (95% CI 90.4% to 96.1%) had not received training in the management of these cases.

Extremely high percentages here. Almost all physicians had dealt with patients who they suspected were victims of excessive police force. Even if this means just a few real brutality cases a year per emergency physician among the 2239 physicians at the 122 approved emergency residency training hospitals, that would be thousands of such incidents. And then factor in other hospitals, and you have a national calamity of police malpractice.

The article also provides other important data relevant for some of the Grant debate too:

There are currently approximately 800 000 full- time law enforcement officers in the USA. In 2002, nearly 45 million people in the USA had a face-to-face encounter with a law enforcement officer, the majority of which (59%) were initiated by the officer.

That is a lot of police officers, indeed more than there are people in the booming city of Austin, Texas. That is a huge number of contacts with police. The best estimate of the percentage of these encounters where “coercive force” is used is about 8 percent, with an unknown part of this being excessive force, malpractice force. The study introduction points out what coercive force means, as law enforcement officers are rare in that they have

legal authority to use coercive force when circumstances deem it necessary. The variety of escalating coercive force options available to police officers in any confrontational setting is commonly described as the ‘‘force continuum’’: from voice commands (normal voice to aggressive and assertive commands) to physical restraint (grabbing, pushing, shoving, holds) to less lethal use of force weapons (chemical sprays, batons, flashlights, beanbag guns, electrical stun guns, police dogs) and ultimately to lethal weapons (firearms).

The U.S. Attorney General is supposed to collect data on excessive use of force by police, but has not done so. The report adds, however, that

Injury and death from excessive use of force by police officers is classified as a human rights violation by the World Health Organization.

One central finding of this study too is that

Despite the classification of excessive force as a form of violence, medical researchers have produced scant data characterizing law enforcement-perpetrated abuse.

The percentages above indicate most suspect brutality incidents are not reported, and that few hospitals have departmental policies or training in the management of these cases. This is rather outrageous, considering that these emergency physicians are required by law to report suspected child, spousal, and elder abuse. Why do law enforcement officers get off so easily, yet have such opportunity to abuse people with excessive violence?

The possible racial implications can be seen in a finding on public hospitals:

This study found that EPs at public teaching hospitals were more likely to suspect cases of excessive use of force than those at university and community-based teaching EDs. . . . EPs at public teaching hospitals consistently see patients who are in custody or incarcerated and therefore evaluate more patients where coercive police-citizen contact is more likely to have occurred.

These are the hospitals that have large numbers of patients of color. It would be very revealing, I suspect, to have a racial breakdown on all these suspected cases.