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.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Okay, now that excuse was really lame—if there was even a vehicle fitting that description stolen in the first place…run the license plate? And think of all the cases that never even made it to the media–anywhere in this nation (as well as those who were murdered by white people who weren’t cops). I think back to a guy just a couple of months ago not too very far from the crime committed by the officer above—this person was white, known criminal history among the local officers, past white supremacist involvement, etc. When he encountered the cops he ran from them (granted he was running from the cops in cowboy boots on concrete…so obviously he’s not going to get far—hell give him a head start…) but he didn’t get shot. There are numerous such examples….

    Law enforcement is problematic in this nation anyway. It attracts the wrong personalities—overwhelmingly people with power and control issues…and that combined with racism? Plus, let’s throw the lack of education on top of it…back in 2003 or so in the state of Colorado, the cops only had to go to a 6 month training course at a community college. WA state requires (or used to) a 2 year degree and all officers to attend the same police academy after their education—plus they encourage officers to increase their education and give pay raises for each higher degree obtained. I don’t know about other states…. But the overall lack of education, coupled with ridiculous laws (many of which should be struck down) and discretion they are granted combined with their own inherent biases and prejudices…. It’s beyond disturbing. As much as I avoid television…I can say I am thankful for RENO 911….

    Very sad story above.

  2. Why am I in the South?

    Look i’m from Houston, I know all about these situations… The two white cops were clearly fucking in the bushes and were too afraid of getting caught. “Ohh, but look there’s two Niggers we can shoot, lets assume that they stole this vehicle. I’m sure that my lovely white brothers and sisters will see that shooting a defensless Nigger will hide the fact that me and my partner are some grade “A” very close southern male companions.” Than again why were the cops in the bushes at 2:AM. Anyways?? Like there aren’t any motel rooms avalible in Bellaire? By the way ” I am Black” Hahahaha!!! I’m actually wondering what these two grown ass white men were doing in these bushes together? Doesnt that seem kinda awkward?
    =-O okay, well bye bye now.

  3. DB

    Back in 1980 I got arrested by HPD officers who were moonlighting in a bar, and no, it wasn’t a “gay” bar, although HPD was famous in those days for its illegal sweeps of gay bars in the Montrose area. Anyway, these two moonlighting cops came swaggering through the dance floor near where I was standing. I don’t know what the hell possessed me except their posing and styling as bad ass cops irritated me. Anyway, I threw a napkin, a damn NAPKIN, at the shoes of one of these goons, and they instantly grabbed me, nearly pulling my arm out of the shoulder socket, starting beating my legs out from underneath me with batons, dragged me into the kitchen, and threw me on the floor. After they had me handcuffed, one of them (the Mexican cop) put his foot on my neck, and he says, “that was a piece of ice wasn’t it partner?” The white cop (partner) says,” yeah it was. I saw it.” I said, “I assaulted your shoes with a piece of ice? Oh yeah, that’s going to be really credible in court.” The cops laughed and said, “what court? We’re taking you to the ship channel.” They didn’t of course; they called for a black and white which took me downtown where they threw me in jail for the night after several more cops threatened to “fuck you (me) up.” Houston’s finest are always so brave when they have you in handcuffs. I think I was the only white boy in the jail, well, other than the gaybos they had beat up and thrown in for the night. All the rest were black dudes with a few Mexicans in there for the equal opportunity police misconduct effect. Oh by the way, the Mexican cop’s name was T.P. Serna. Apparently Serna was interested in the lady I had been talking to in the bar, so he took it upon himself to arrest me for, heh heh … get this: simple assault and public intoxication. I had had one drink. Nevermind that I didn’t even so much as breath on his pig skin and, in fact, he assaulted me for talking to his intended girlfriend, a white woman. So you see, even if you’re white, police officers can kick your ass and get away with it. Small consolation to be sure, but even a white boy can be a brother at times. Since then I became a lawyer and a prosecutor, not in Houston, but you get the picture here: I haven’t forgotten HPD Officer T.P. Serna. If you have any information on this man, please contact me at:


  1. Police Brutality and the National Political Agenda |

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