This paper will look at police brutality and the prosecuting of the officers of the events; from the earlier era in America to the present day. If will also look at how the media can shape the narrative that is presented to the public at large an how that effects how police brutality is viewed as a whole. Then finally look at whether or not America has gotten better or worse when it comes to police brutality.
Society today is a highly connected society through the use of social media and other news sources. Now when events happen they can be shared around the U.S. and the world in the matter of minutes or hours. Due to this there has been a rise of awareness of police brutality, throughout the populace. In the following paper we will look at specific police brutality events and their outcomes. Along with looking at how the media can affect the perception of the event to the populace.
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Police brutality isn’t a new development but a problem that has unfortunately existed since there have been police forces. Looking at an early case of police brutality brought to the Supreme Court can highlight some of the difficulties there were with prosecuting police for their behavior. Screws v. United States is a great example of this. Claud Screws was the sheriff of Baker County in the state of Georgia. He arrested Robert Hall, a Negro, for tire theft. He handcuffed him and then drove him to the police station where he and two other officers beat Hall with their fists and 2 blackjacks. (Robert, 1945) Then dragged him to the jail cell and called an ambulance, where Hall died without gaining consciousness. Screws and the other individuals claimed Hall used offensive language and reached for a gun. (Robert, 1945) The State of Georgia did not prosecute the individuals and the United States Attorney with Department of Justice ended prosecuting them. The individuals were prosecuted under section 52 of title 18 of the United States Code. This is important as it was used to because by killing Hall the Sheriff and his deputies denied Hall his constitutional right to not be deprived of his life without due process of the law. (Roberts, 1945) A trial by jury found the all three defendants guilty and they were fined 1,000 dollars and sentenced to 3 years in prison, the crime was considered a misdemeanor. The defendants appealed to the Fifth circuit court of appeals who affirmed the conviction. (Robert, 1945) However, it then went to the Supreme Court where the end result was a little more complex.
There were four opinions from the court with the majority being a re-trial due to the vagueness of section 52 and its application to this event. One of the dissenting opinions was that it was obvious that by killing Hall that Screws and the deputies had deprived him of his life without a trial, so the verdict should be affirmed. Then another dissenting opinion stated that section 52 shouldn’t have applied to Screws and the deputies in the first place as it was made to be more specific and not used broadly. This shows how imperfect section 52 is when trying a civil rights case, especially one of this magnitude, considering it is only a misdemeanor crime by this statute. (Robert, 1945) However, it gives a glimpse of what the courts had to work with in that time frame.
March 3, 1991 one of the most visible cases of police brutality in America, the beating of Rodney King took place. King, a black man, led police on a car chase and once apprehended was beat by the officers. This was captured on video tape by a white bystander and played all over the media. (Maurantonio, 2014) The video tape is an important factor of this police brutality case as let everyone be the eye witness to the event itself. (Maurantonio, 2014) This is why the 1992 Los Angeles riots happen when the acquittal of the four officers accused in the case. The minority community saw it as an injustice with the officers not being held accountable to what they did. So not long after the verdict was read a group of black boys beat Reginald Denny, a white truck driver. The media unfortunately used this beating as a kind of qui quo pro for the King beatings. (Maurantonio, 2014) Maurantonio argues that the media portrayal of King as a hapless victim that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, down played the racism that was part of that police brutality episode.
It is also important to look at the Media’s portrayal of police brutality when no actual brutality occurred but a rush to present the story to the public inflamed a local populace. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Michael Brown case and the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative. Now it is important to note that it is vital for the media to present both the victim and the officers equally as Dukes points out a negative view of the victim in the media increases a bias in the populace against said individual. (2017) However, the issue in this case was by presenting that narrative before facts were established the town of Ferguson ended up rioting as they believed another senseless death of a black teen at the hands of the police. It wasn’t until later when it was discovered that that quote never happened and he was going for the officer’s gun that led to the ordeal and the fatal shooting. By then it was too late and the narrative was believed by too many therefore accepted by some.
The examples above show both real cases of police brutality and then a false case of police brutality however, the biggest factor of these types of issues in the police department is the eroding of the public’s trust because of them. This is exasperated when the officer involved in the event fails to be punished if deserved. In 2013 92% of police officers in major cities had collective bargaining agreements. (Adams, 2016) This is important as this provides the officers with an arbitrator that will help when it comes to disciplinary matters. Just like the regular public the officer deserves to justly punished and not punished due to a perceived guilt. The problem can come though when even though the officer is guilty the arbitrator is able to get the punishment reduced to a lesser punishment. (Adams, 2016) This in turns make the public think that the officer is getting away with beating or killing them. A good example is Freddie Gray who died in police custody in Baltimore and led to riots. (Adams, 2016) In this case the officers were tried in civil court. The officers were tried separately but one ended in a mis-trial and the others were found not guilty. This shows how hard a conviction can be on an officer in the line of duty.
The reason the paper has focused on race cases of police brutality is that it is an event issue within the United States. Depending on the media its portrayal of this issue is full of ambiguities, emotions and different perspectives. (Lawrence, 2000) There is an appearance of the minorities receiving the short end of the stick while the political powers protect the police officer. The police officers want to be tough on policing and crime but that can lead to issues sometimes in the inner cities and minority communities. (Lawrence, 2000)
Overall police brutality is a real issue that needs to be resolved as the past has shown us. There is no way around the issue as it has been documented and shown to be an issue. What needs further study is trying to define and develop a way to further combat it at an agency level and not just at an individual level. Key to that would be ensuring that punishment is given to the officers when they have been found guilty of the brutality. However, ensuring not to rush to judgment and try the officer in the court of public opinion before the actual facts are discovered.
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