Following the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, in Minneapolis Police custody, the city streets in the United States have been filled with protesters and riot police. This is neither a new phenomenon nor the first time such social unrest has erupted in response to police violence in the US.
The chapter ‘Police Homicides: The Terror of “American Exceptionalism”’ (now available to download free here), from the forthcoming Agenda For Social Justice: Solutions For 2020, by sociologists Robert Aponte and Hannah Hurrle of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), engages the very contemporary topic of police violence in the US which is the excessive use of force by police against the public at large.
The issue of police homicide is the most egregious example of excessive use of force by police, and the targets of such violence are disproportionately members of racial and ethnic minority groups. The chapter clearly defines this important social problem, provides evidence for the nature and extent of the problem, and most importantly lays out practical and feasible solutions which, if followed, would reduce the extent and severity of police violence.
When social problems appear intractable and social order appears to be breaking down, it is even more important to understand that the current response to the death of George Floyd has not emerged from a vacuum, nor will this and other cases of social disorder dissipate without addressing the underlying sociological issues.
Aponte and Hurrle’s piece is an outstanding source of information for anyone wanting to understand something of the context of contemporary events in the US. Even after the smoke literally clears from the streets, the underlying challenges will still exist, and this piece reasonably but powerfully makes a case of action which can address not only the issue of police homicide but indeed the issue of excessive use of force by law enforcement.
Police Homicides: The Terror of “American Exceptionalism”
Robert Aponte and Hannah Hurrle
Police-on-civilian homicides have become a critical social issue in the US in recent years due to newly emerging information on the parameters of the problem and the often egregiousness of the killings. Key to the heightened attention is the increasingly widespread recording and sharing of these gruesome killings via cell-phone cameras, social media, and police cameras. Particularly disturbing is the virtual impunity from sanctions accorded nearly all such shooters, along with the startling frequency of the shootings in the US, as compared with other advanced societies.
Over 1,000 persons have been killed by police annually in the US in recent years, with nearly all shot to death, and the remainder tasered, beaten, or otherwise slain. In the first 24 days of 2015, 59 persons were killed by police in the US, whereas only 55 persons were correspondingly slain in the UK in the last 24 years. Similar imbalances exist compared with other advanced nations (e.g., Germany, Japan, Canada, France, and Denmark) in both absolute and relative numbers. While a proportion of the US shootings may have been justified (e.g., suspects pointed weapons or shot at police), most involved lesser provocations and the vast majority could have been avoided if the developing de- escalation techniques had been employed.
Although more Whites than Blacks are slain by police, the role of racism in the killings of many Blacks is evident from their substantially disproportionate numbers, and from the comparatively trivial nature of their provocations. Overall, Blacks are between two and three times as likely to be killed than Whites. Latinos/Native Americans are also disproportionately slain, though at lower rates than Blacks. But, the problem goes well beyond racism. Non-Hispanic Whites in the US are still 26 times as likely to be killed by police than citizens in Germany of any race or racial background. The greater probability of Whites getting shot in the US is consistent with data on police shootings in other advanced nations – civilians are far more likely to be shot in the US.
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