A survey released this week by the Pew Research Center has revealed glaring differences of views among blacks and whites when it comes to the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American youth killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, and the protests that have followed. Unfortunately though, the wording of the survey leaves some pertinent questions unaddressed, focusing on the racial aspect of the controversy while overlooking the public’s general perception about the problem of police brutality in America.
Nevertheless, the survey significantly found that blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that Brown’s shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed,” with about 80% of African Americans agreeing with that statement and whites saying by a 47% to 37% margin that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Although the Pew survey neglected to ask, it’s possible that at least some of the white respondents objected to the focus on race because they feel that the epidemic of police violence cuts across racial lines. As anyone who regularly follows news pertaining to police brutality knows, the police are generally out of control across the country and the victims of their brutishness are not just African Americans – but in fact, Latinos, Asians, and yes, even white people.
In one recent case that received some national attention, police shot and killed a homeless white man in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sparking a wave of demonstrations in the city.
Police officers gunned down 38-year-old James Boyd on March 16 in the Sandia foothills following a standoff and after he allegedly brandished a small knife, authorities said. But a helmet-camera video showed Boyd agreeing to walk down the mountain, gathering his things and taking a step toward officers just before they opened fire.
Amid the popular uproar that ensued, the U.S. Justice Department issued a report on April 10 documenting that the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) has for years engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates the United States Constitution and federal law.
The investigation, launched in November 2012, specifically identified three general patterns of police abuse in Albuquerque:
- APD officers too frequently use deadly force against people who pose a minimal threat;
- APD officers use “less lethal” force, including tasers, on people who are non-threatening or unable to comply with orders; and
- Encounters between APD officers and persons with mental illness and in crisis too frequently result in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary.
While these findings specifically pertained to law enforcement practices in Albuquerque, largely vindicating the grievances of demonstrators protesting the shooting death of James Boyd, they could just as easily apply to any number of police departments across the country that engage in similar practices of excessive force. The national epidemic of police violence has even caught the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which earlier this year issued a scathing report raising serious concerns about human rights abuses in the United States, including police brutality.
In a section on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the UN found that across the country, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces,” as well as “reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers.”