The Continuing Problem of Police-Black Community Relations

Dr. Elsie L. Scott


The recent shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year old African American male by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 focused the country’s attention on relations between African Americans and law enforcement agents once again. In the 1960s, a number of cities experienced violent uprisings that resulted in property loss and damage, and loss of lives. Since that time, incidents involving the police and black civilians have resulted in uprisings in a number of urban areas. After each of these incidents, public officials, media representatives and citizens have assessed the causes and suggested improvements.

The reaction to the 1960s riots that started with the Watts riot of 1965 was unlike the reactions to the other uprisings in that national attention was placed on the incidents. The President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed an 11-member commission (the Kerner Commission) to review the causes, the effects and preventive measures. The Kerner Commission found that police action was a major precipitating factor for all of the uprisings they studied. Federal and local resources were invested in actualizing some of the Kerner Report’s recommendations. Some of the reforms implemented were changes in police policies related to police misconduct, changes in citizen complaint process, recruitment and promotion of black police officers, and the implementation of programs designed to increase positive police-citizen interaction.

Despite the positive changes in police-community relations that were implemented in the 1970s, another major uprising took place in Miami, Florida in 1980. The not-guilty verdict of four police officers charged in the killing of a black motorcyclist led to three days of rioting that resulted in deaths, injury and property destruction. Reacting to the riot, a citizens’ review board was created, but there are questions about its effectiveness. More black and female officers were hired and promoted, but the culture did not immediately change.

The police case that personified problems with the police in the 1990s was the Rodney King case in Los Angeles. A tape of police officers beating a black man captured the nation’s attention, and when the police officers charged in the beating were acquitted, rioting started. Over one billion dollars in property damage resulted, and 53 people were killed. The chief of police who helped to create a culture of suppression and confrontational policing was forced out, but it took time and a federally-mandated consent decree to change the culture to one that was more community focused.

Cincinnati took center stage as the major uprising of the first decade of the 21st century. In 2001, four nights of looting and rioted followed the shooting death of a teenager by a police officer. The city was placed under a federal consent decree that resulted in training for officers in handling the mentally ill, changes to the foot pursuit policy, establishment of a Civilian Complaint Authority and the collection of race-related data during police stops.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri has taken the headlines. It is too early to know what the results of case will be. What is known is that the Ferguson police seemed to have learned little or nothing from the earlier cases. Some examples of mistakes they made were 1) not releasing details of the incident; 2) shooting the “suspect” multiple times even after he seemed to walking away; 3) refusing to name the officer who shot Brown; 4) responding to the uprising with military equipment; 5) leaving the dead body in the street for hours.

In some of the cities that have experienced unrest, improvements have been made in police processes, but the improvements often have not been sustained, and they have not been holistic in approach. The problems with the police cannot be isolated from the problems within the rest of society. In many urban areas, people have risen up in part because of the economic oppression they are facing. The police shooting is just a spark that ignites a flame after years of frustration around unemployment, underemployment, housing conditions, etc. Until investments are made in addressing economic and social disparities, uprisings will continue to occur.

After an incident, rhetoric is heard from the various sides, bandages are placed to stop the bleeding or a stop-gap solution is applied. Business goes on as usual or people find a way to move on in a new environment, but the core of the problem remains. At the core is the legacy of slavery and racism. The stereotyping of black men as criminals has become ingrained in society to the point that police officers and other people are quick to act upon mistaken assumptions of the motives of black men, whether they are walking or driving. Until the country is willing to develop and implement a long-term strategic plan to address deep-seated racial problems and issues, Fergusons will continue to occur.