Police Brutality

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Author: Thomas Lewis
Editor: Gerald D. Jaynes
Date: 2005
Encyclopedia of African American Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Throughout the history of the United States, police brutality and discriminatory and unfair treatment by the police have been among the most common grievances of African Americans. Physical violence by policePage 645  |  Top of Article officers is frequently motivated by racial prejudices, negative stereotypes, and fear. Although conditions gradually improved after the 1960s as a result of the civil rights movement, police misconduct in their treatment of blacks remains an explosive issue in the early twenty-first century.


During the period of slavery, criminal laws were designed to protect the safety and property of white citizens, who lived in constant fear of slave insurrections. The violence inherent to slavery even affected the treatment of free blacks because the logic of the system of race-based slavery demanded black subordination to whites.

The police in that period had the duty of enforcing the laws, under which African Americans were often presumed guilty until proven innocent. In most communities, police officers who believed that a free black person had misbehaved had the right to administer corporal punishment without a formal judicial proceeding. A punishment of forty or more lashes was fairly common.

In the period of Jim Crow segregation that followed the Reconstruction era—from about 1877 to 1954—African Americans continued to have good reasons to feel alienated from the criminal justice system. They were almost never hired as police officers, and the majority of their contacts with white officers were unfriendly. During the race riots that periodically erupted, when whites invaded black neighborhoods, the police usually either watched passively or joined the rioters in attacking African Americans. Until World War II, lynching was not unusual in the South, but the police almost never attempted to find those who were responsible.

Court cases provide abundant documentation of police brutality during the Jim Crow era. One notable Supreme Court example is Brown v. Mississippi (1936), in which three African American tenant farmers were sentenced to death for murdering a white planter. The main evidence against the defendants was their confessions. However, at the trial, the prosecution freely admitted that the three men had refused to confess until they were cruelly whipped, hanged by the neck, and threatened with death. Although the Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ruled that confessions elicited by physical brutality could not be used as evidence in criminal trials, the ruling did not have much immediate impact on police conduct, especially in the South.

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Bloody Sunday: March 7, 1965 in Selma, Alabama

In the passage below, from his memoir Walking With the Wind, John Lewis describes a brutal attack on people marching peacefully for the right to vote. At the time of Bloody Sunday in March 1965, Lewis was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He later served as director of the Voter Education Project. Since 1986, he has represented Georgia's Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. Congress.

On the other side of the foot of the bridge we saw Sheriff Clark, the sheriff of Dallas County in Selma, with his posse. We saw men on horseback, and we heard a man say, Major John Clough, of the Alabama State troopers, it is an unlawful march, and I give you three minutes to disperse, and return to your church. In less than a minute and a half he said, "troopers advance." And these men came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, bullwhips, trampling us with horses. . . . They used tear gas. And that day became known as "Bloody Sunday." ...I was beaten. I had a concussion—but to this day I don't know how I made it back across that bridge, crossing the Alabama River, back through the streets of Selma, back to the church ...I was knocked unconscious, I had a concussion, but somebody apparently gave me a lift or carried me somehow in some way.


During the era of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, strong-arm police tactics against nonviolent protestors shocked the nation. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Sheriff Bull Connor's use of dogs and high-pressure water hoses against young people was particularly disturbing. Two years later in Selma, Alabama, the police assaulted civil rights marchers in an event remembered asPage 646  |  Top of Article "Bloody Sunday." Violent acts by police officers also sparked many of the destructive riots of the 1960s. Ironically, such events created a backlash that promoted the cause of reform.

Despite civil rights reforms, the relationship between African Americans and the police continued to be a major social problem. The 1990s saw a large number of highly publicized incidents, including the brutal beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles, the savage violation of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn precinct station, and the tragic shooting of unarmed Amadou Diallo by police in front of his Bronx apartment. In 2001, Cincinnati experienced the nation's first race riot of the century after an officer shot a young unarmed black motorist, which was the fifteenth police killing of an African American in Cincinnati since 1995.

There are no reliable national statistics on the actual extent of police brutality because each of the approximately 17,000 police agencies across the nation has its own code of conduct and methods for assessing alleged abuses. Yet, the available evidence suggests problematic patterns. In its 1999 Annual Report, for example, the human rights organization Amnesty International reported that throughout the United States, "the overwhelming number of victims of police brutality, unjustified shootings, and deaths in custody are members of racial or ethnic minorities." The report also noted that evidence of brutality and discriminatory treatment by police officers was "widely documented" in court cases, newspaper accounts, studies, and individual testimonies.

In recent years, most cities in the United States have instituted reforms to limit police brutality and improve relations between the police and minority groups. These reforms include the use of video recordings as records, clear policies about conditions for using physical force, citizen committees empowered to examine alleged abuses, improved communication with local leaders, sensitivity training for officers, and affirmative action programs to increase minority representation within police departments.

—Thomas Lewis

Further Reading

Geller, William, and Hans Toch, eds. Police Violence: Understanding and Controlling Police Abuse of Force. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Lewis, John and Michael D'Orso. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York Simon and Schuster, 1998.

McArdle, Andrea, and Tanya Erzen, eds. Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Nelson, Jill, ed. Police Brutality: An Anthology. New York: Norton, 2000.

Ogletree, Charles, Mary Prosser, Abbe Smith, William Talley, Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Institute, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and William Monroe Trotter Institute. Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in the Minority Community. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3452200506