DOJ study reiterates need for law enforcement reform

By Editorial Board

Since the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014, excessive force, police brutality and race relations have evolved from a national conversation to a political platform issue. In the first Democratic debate on Oct. 13, Drake University law student Sterling Arthur Wilkins asked candidates, “Do ‘black lives matter’ or do ‘all lives matter?’” 

Regardless of how one views the Black Lives Matter movement, statistics prove racial inequality is a persistent issue within the criminal justice system. 

A Department of Justice study, released Nov. 14, reveals the racial disparities in experiences with police, showing black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than white Americans and 1.7 times more likely than Hispanic-Americans to experience nonfatal force or the threat of force from police officers during face-to-face contact. 

The extensive study, conducted from 2002–2011, surveyed 43.9 million U.S. residents who had at least one direct encounter with police officers. 1.6 percent of respondents experienced the threat of use or the use of nonfatal force by police, according to the study. Of those who experienced the use of force, nearly 75 percent of respondents described the officer’s force as “excessive.” 

In the study, nonfatal force was defined as shouting, cursing, pushing, hitting, kicking, pointing a gun or using pepper spray or electroshock weapons. A total of 87 percent of those who experienced force did not believe the officer behaved properly, and 90 percent of respondents who did not experience nonfatal force or the threat of force believed officers behaved properly. 

While critics attack the Black Lives Matter movement for focusing on the experience of black Americans to the exclusion of other groups, it is difficult to argue with the results of a long-term government study that supports the claims of unfair, unequal treatment. 

The force exerted by police in a specific incident can be analyzed and disputed, but the Department of Justice study is a compilation of nearly a decade of real-life experiences of Americans of all races. Data was compiled before Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown were shot. The statistics from this study also reveal that experiences of excessive force, while more prevalent, are not limited to black Americans.

Criticism of law enforcement officers should not be instantly discredited by those who consider themselves “pro-police.” Acknowledging that black Americans experience nonfatal force at a disproportionate rate to white and Hispanic-Americans is not calling for anarchy or the elimination of police forces, but it does call for reform. The DOJ’s study reveals that Americans of all backgrounds perceive the nonfatal force used by police as excessive. These statistics should make it clear to critics that the criminal justice system is flawed, and reform is necessary to ensure all citizens feel safe and equal.

Racial issues, particularly those raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, have been more central to Democratic debates than Republican debates, in which arguments for police reform are often tossed aside. When the issue arose in the first GOP debate on Aug. 6, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker emphasized training for law enforcement officers throughout their career, especially in the use of force. However, no amount of training can combat psychological issues or prejudice among police officers. 

Candidates proposed alternate solutions in the Nov. 13 Democratic debate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) pledged to “combat institutional racism from the top to bottom” through major reforms to prove his support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested the possibility of body cameras on officers and acknowledged that mass incarceration should also be addressed. 

Political affiliations aside, repairing the relationship between law enforcement and the American public is crucial to continue working toward a more just society. The various propositions to combating the alarmingly disproportionate statistics revealed by the DOJ should be explored by legislators to ensure America addresses this crisis.