Police brutality refers to the use of excessive or unnecessary force by law enforcement officers, but may also refer to excessive force used by corrections officers and prison officials. The controversy over police brutality centers on disagreement over the extent of force that law enforcement should be entitled to use while engaging suspects, perpetrators, prisoners, and other members of the general public. Those who believe that police brutality is a problem would argue that the current system of law enforcement gives officers too much discretion and impunity in using violent methods of engagement while those who don’t believe police brutality is a problem would argue that the dangerous nature of law enforcement requires that officers have far-reaching discretion in carrying out their duty, including the use of potentially violent confrontational tactics.
According to the National Institute of Justice, “while police officers are empowered to use force, they should use the minimal amount of force needed to ‘control an incident, effect an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm or death.’” There is much debate about what may be characterized as “the minimal amount of force needed.”
The police brutality controversy is framed by two polarized positions:
A wide range of perspectives exist between these two viewpoints, though like many other issues with relevance to modern political discourse, this subject tends to be highly polarized across party lines. Still, the debate over police brutality can be nuanced, with some observers taking a moderate position which expresses both support for the work of law enforcement and which holds that police reform could lead to safer engagement for officers, suspects, and members of the public.
However, this issue is further complicated by the issue of race and policing. In response to evidence demonstrating that racial biases play a role in police engagement and tactics, critics of law enforcement would argue that police brutality carries distinct racial implications as well.
The racial dimensions make this a particularly combustible issue in American public life. Numerous incidents of police brutality in which the victim is Black, and in which officers have faced limited or nonexistent consequences, have inflamed racial tensions in the United States, often spilling over into widespread condemnation and demonstration among critics while further entrenching the views of those who support an empowered police force.
The United States of the 18th and 19th centuries evolved along two divided paths, with the South emerging as an agrarian society dependent upon the African slave trade and the North developing into a production economy characterized by increasingly dense cities with growing immigrant populations. These two distinct identities contributed to two separate origin stories for policing in the North and South. Therefore, a discussion on police brutality must necessarily address these two separate and parallel histories, particularly before the Civil Rights Era.
The history of policing in America is inextricable from the Black American history. This is especially so in the American South, where policing first evolved directly out of efforts aimed at keeping Africans enslaved and, in the ensuing generations, was often the first line of defense in the preservation of existing racial hierarchies.
Early policing in the Southern United States grew out of efforts to control slave populations. Groups of vigilantes volunteered to join slave patrols, who were given wide latitude in policing the lives of slaves. The first such slave patrol was formed in 1704 in South Carolina and all slave-holding states soon followed suit by producing their own slave patrol squadrons.
These squadrons carried out such duties as recapturing fugitive slaves, putting down slave rebellions, intervening in meetings between slaves, and generally engaging in tactics of strategic violence and brutality aimed at dissuading rebellion. In essence, these slave patrols would be among the first state-funded, organized law enforcement groups. Actions which would be considered brutality by current standards were considered lawful in the antebellum South.
As the United States progressed toward the Civil War, these slave patrols played a prominent role in defending the institution of slavery, especially in its efforts at preventing fugitive slaves from reaching free states. In the era immediately after the Civil War, white militias and Ku Klux Klan chapters formed from the ashes of these slave patrols. And as the Southern States began to establish official police forces, there was considerable membership overlap with these militias and KKK chapters.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the abolition of slavery meant the end of the slave patrols. And in the brief period known as the Reconstruction Era, the activities of white militias and Klansmen were greatly diminished by the presence of Union forces. However, the end of Reconstruction brought with it a sweeping series of Black Codes—state and local laws aimed at deeply restricting the lives of freed slaves in the South. As the defunct slave patrols morphed into formal police forces, their primary function became the enforcement of these Codes.
This initiated the “Jim Crow Era,” defined by laws segregating Black southerners into separate schools, neighborhoods, hospitals, churches, and public spaces. This period was also marked by countless acts of violence against black individuals, families and communities, especially in the form of lynchings. Police forces played an important part in preserving the practice of lynching either by allowing this mob violence to occur without repercussion or by participating in the act themselves. According to one source, “at least one-half of the lynchings are carried out with police officers participating, and that in nine-tenths of the others the officers either condone or wink at the mob action”
For nearly a century, between the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the emergence of the Civil Rights movement, police brutality was a state-sanctioned and legally permissible measure of engagement against Southern Blacks for an extremely broad range of offenses including agitation for civil liberties, violation of segregation policies, perceived social or sexual offenses, especially against white women, and a range of other possible triggers too varied and extensive to name. Any of these offenses could have resulted in police engagement or mob lynching, and in either case, the perpetrators of this lynching would rarely face legal consequences.
These conditions played a significant part in defining Southern policing and in shaping their predisposition toward tactics that either employed or permitted brutality. Likewise, these conditions would foment the eventual confrontations between police officers and activists that would define the Civil Rights Era.
While policing in the South evolved out of the same functions that were used to control the slave population, a separate type of police force emerged in America’s growing urban centers. Major cities saw their populations growing as a combination of immigrants and freed slaves flocked to increasingly densely populated areas, especially along the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts. Policing emerged out of the perceived need to maintain social order in these population centers.
Dr. Gary Potter of Eastern Kentucky University’s (EKU) Police Studies program notes that the earliest incarnation of policing in American cities came in the form of the night watch. “Volunteer” forces—more often than not those who were conscripted to service as punishment for some public misdeed—were charged with the duty of keeping watch for “impending danger.”
Potter notes that these forces were notoriously ineffective, as night watchmen were often prone to drinking and sleeping on the job. The first of such night watches was created in Boston in 1636. Cities like New York and Philadelphia followed suit. In most cases, watchmen answered to a constable who was paid fees for serving arrest warrants. In 1833, Philadelphia became the first city to also adopt a “day watch.”
In 1838, Boston became the first city to transform its watch force into a formal police department, one with codified rules, accountability to a central government authority, and salary from public funding. Over the next four decades, nearly every major city in America would create a formal police department.
According to Potter, these first urban police groups operated “under the control of local politicians” and that they “were notoriously corrupt and flagrantly brutal.” Local politicians, explains Potter, frequently had connections to both local businesses and organized crime. These same politicians generally also appointed chiefs of police, which meant that police forces were beholden to certain mercantile interests.
Moreover, as cities swelled with the arrival of immigrant groups from Ireland, Italy and all over Eastern Europe, the relationship between policing and immigrant populations proved especially volatile. Police forces of the mid-19th century viewed these groups as “dangerous,” and therefore were often quick to employ violent tactics in engaging these populations.
Whereas policing in the South revolved largely around social control of slave populations, the emphasis in America’s northern and midwestern cities was on controlling immigrant populations.
By the start of the 20th Century, America’s cities were booming with new arrivals, growing commerce, and massive industrialization. Working conditions, especially for Black and immigrant populations, were harsh and oppressive. From this environment emerged the labor movement. Immigrant groups played an important role in this movement, participating widely in some of the earliest and most influential labor demonstrations, strikes and campaigns.
This would bring labor demonstrators into direct confrontation with police forces in big cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago. Large factories, industrial operations, railroad construction and other labor settings saw widespread worker revolts in the first decades of the 20th Century. Wealthy factory owners would rely heavily on law enforcement to confront these demonstrators. Police use of force was commonplace during these confrontations.
Such is to say that “the police broke up strikes through two primary methods: extreme violence and making “public order” arrests at a mass scale. Some state governments authorized privatized police forces to repress strikes, such as the Coal and Iron Police in Pennsylvania. Private detective agencies, such as Pinkerton, often supervised these efforts. Violent confrontations came out of this system, such as the Latimer Massacre (1897), in which 19 unarmed miners were killed, and the Coal Strike of 1902, which involved a pitched battle for five months.”
In fact, so intense was the violence surrounding the labor movement during the early 20th century that state governments would establish a new tier of policing just to contend with striking workers. It was thus that “state governments decided that it would be easier to police labor with public forces, leading to the establishment of state police forces (such as the Pennsylvania State Police, formed in 1905).”
For a deeper look at the violence and confrontation surrounding the labor movement, check out our comprehensive look at the Labor Controversy.
The passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 made the sale of alcohol illegal. This began the Prohibition Era, in which policing became particularly dedicated to the crackdown on bootleg liquor sales and the raiding of suspected speakeasies.
Prohibition contributed to widespread growth in both of these illegal activities. As a consequence, organized crime increased substantially around these activities. Many speakeasies relied on bribes to law enforcement officers in order to remain in operation. Moreover, as the influence of organized crime grew in the major cities, many crime syndicates included police officers on their payrolls.
Officers “on the take” would often be dispatched to enforce the will of organized crime leaders using violent and confrontational tactics. Police officers frequently “helped perform duties, such as harassment and intimidation of rivals. By the time of the Hoover administration (1929–1933), the issue had risen to national concern and a National Committee on Law Observation and Enforcement (popularly known as the Wickersham Commission) was formed to look into the situation. The resulting “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement” (1931) concluded that ‘[t]he third degree—that is, the use of physical brutality, or other forms of cruelty, to obtain involuntary confessions or admissions—is widespread.’”
The findings from The Wickersham Commission produced the first era of meaningful police reform, one aimed at diminishing the susceptibility of law enforcement to corruption. The result was to create a formal separation between police forces and political institutions. Modernization of policing led to a more bureaucratic set of institutions defined by new practices in recruitment, training, and adherence to a chain of command. By the 1950s, police forces even began to form their own labor unions and engage in collective bargaining.
While these reforms did help to strip undue political influence and external corruption from the process of policing, as well as reduce the entanglement between organized crime and law enforcement, it also had the effect of creating a more insular and opaque set of institutions. Police agencies became increasingly separate and distinct from American public life, a condition which created a sense of alienation between police forces and their communities. This would set the stage for an era marked by protest and near-constant confrontation between members of the public and law enforcement.
The 1960s saw the convergence of numerous protest movements with occasionally intertwining aims. In the South, the Civil Rights movement took aim at the institution of Jim Crow. Major demonstrations targeted segregation at lunch counters, on public buses, and in other public spaces. Civil Rights leaders also took aim at police brutality, with leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking vocally and explicitly about the role played by police brutality in maintaining segregation.
Just as the Civil Rights movement took aim at law enforcement, so too did law enforcement heighten its aggression in attempting to suppress this movement. Using fire-hoses, police dogs, and batons to put down Civil Rights demonstrations, police employed notably brutal tactics during both the 1963-1964 campaign in Birmingham and in the face of 1965′s landmark march from Selma to Montgomery.
The violence displayed by police against peaceful demonstrators was broadcast before a national audience, and created a widespread sense of outrage. This outrage spilled over into streets around the United States, most notably the “Harlem riot of 1964, 1964 Philadelphia race riot, Watts riots (1965), Division Street riots (1966), and 1967 Detroit riot. In 1966, the Black Panther Party was formed by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, in order to challenge police brutality against African-Americans from disproportionately white police departments. The conflict between the Black Panther Party and various police departments often resulted in violence with the deaths of 34 members of the Black Panther Party and 15 police officers.”
The Civil Rights movement also encompassed the struggles of other groups such as the American Indian Movement and various Women’s Rights groups. Likewise, as the war in Vietnam escalated, the anti-war movement coalesced into near-constant public demonstrations and protests.
Just as with the push for Black Civil Rights, these intersecting protest movements brought members of the public into regular and often violent clashes with police officers. This was a period marked by widespread use of aggressive tactics such as the deployment of tear-gas and the use of batons aimed at crowd suppression. The result of this era was a growing tension between police officers and large cross-sections of the public—especially minority populations and youth movements.
These forces came to a head at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The year had already been marked by violence and tragedy, from the continued escalation of war in Southeast Asia to the devastating assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in close succession. Protests, demonstrations and chaos rippled through the cities and streets of the United States.
With the approach of the convention, and the anticipation of massive Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations, Chicago mayor Richard Daley vowed that his police force would not tolerate disorder. However, violent confrontations between protestors and police ensued. In the aftermath, the Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence appointed a local businessman (and future Illinois Governor) named Daniel Walker to produce a report on the violence at the DNC.
The controversial Walker Report found that “[O]n the part of the police there was enough wild club swinging, enough cries of hatred, enough gratuitous beating to make the conclusion inescapable that individual policemen, and lots of them, committed violent acts far in excess of the requisite force for crowd dispersal or arrest. To read dispassionately the hundreds of statements describing at firsthand the events of Sunday and Monday nights is to become convinced of the presence of what can only be called a police riot.”
The Walker Report claimed that the DNC was demonstrative of the brutal tactics employed by police in confronting the various and sometimes interwoven strands of the protest movement.
For a deeper dive into the history of confrontation between police officers and demonstrators, check out our look at the Extremism Controversy.
With the smoke still clearing from the DNC riots, Richard Nixon was elected president and brought with him a message of law and order. In 1971, he followed through on this promise with the initiation of the War on Drugs. Ostensibly, the aim of this policy was to take on drug traffickers and users with more confrontational tactics. But it was also used as a measure of disrupting both Civil Rights and anti-war activities. As such, the policy aggressively targeted Black communities and youth activists.
The primary vessel for carrying out the domestic aims of this War was law enforcement. In both the immediate aftermath of its inception and in long-term consequences of its implementation, the War on Drugs created ever-higher rates of engagement between police officers and Black communities and saw a dramatic increase in incarceration, especially from within such communities.
According to a study from the National Institutes of Health, the War on Drugs also gave officers far wider latitude in the types of tactics employed. The study finds that “erosions to the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution (which protects against unreasonable search and seizure) and the Posse Comitatus Act (which prohibits the Armed Forces from performing law enforcement functions) helped set the groundwork for two vital War on Drugs policing strategies: stop and frisk and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams; and describes how stop and frisk and SWAT teams create conditions conducive to police brutality, particularly brutality that targets Black communities.”
The War on Drugs became an ingrained part of American life for the next several decades, and in doing so, produced a trend of heightened tension and daily violence between police officers and urban Black communities. Police raids, high rates of incarceration, gang activity, and racially-motivated division led to regular incidents of violence between officers and community members. Tension and violence were an everyday reality in big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
In 1991, Los Angeles became a significant flashpoint in the ongoing conflict between policing and Black communities when a bystander video-taped the brutal police beating of a motorist named Rodney King. In the video, King can be seen lying on the side of a highway while four uniformed members of the Los Angeles Police Department kicked, stomped, and beat him with their batons.
On April 29th, 1992 the officers were acquitted on charges of assault and battery. The verdict provoked nationwide outrage, even drawing criticism from Republican President George Bush. The next six days saw Los Angeles engulfed in protest, rioting, and flames. These events brought to great public attention the realities of police brutality and the continued racial biases which played a role in this brutality.
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of police brutality in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Our rankings produced a fascinating list of influencers. While two of the influencers included here are among the most prominent victims of police violence, the remaining influencers are all celebrities who have been outspoken on the issue. Of those, all but one are rappers who have used their platform to expose police violence to wide audiences, demonstrating the important role played by artists from Black communities in the discourse around the controversy.
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of “police violence” in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. The result is a list of largely non-fiction political examinations on the dynamics of power and policing in the context of Western democracy. The collection of books here address such matters as the push for civil liberties, the impact of racial dynamics in America, and the role played by policing in the preservation of existing racial and socioeconomic hierarchies.
|1||Political Order in Changing Societies|
|2||Elite da Tropa|
|3||Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity|
|4||Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking|
|6||The Origins of the Urban Crisis|
|7||The Hate U Give|
|8||The Bluest Eye|
|9||Clash of Civilizations|
|10||The End of History and the Last Man|
The current climate in policing is both rooted in a long and deep history of tension with communities of color and in the more recent developments which emerged after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. During the subsequent War on Terror, federal law enforcement underwent a dramatic reorganization while local agencies were given broad powers in surveillance and engagement. In some cases, the line between urban policing and paramilitary activity became blurred.
According to a 2006 report from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the tactics and protections introduced by the War on Terror, “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.”
Increasingly, though, incidences of police violence have instigated vocal response from broad cross-sections of the American public. This is best captured by the growing visibility and impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter refers to a decentralized movement based on political and social action aimed at ending police brutality and racially motivated violence against Black Americans. The movement began as a Twitter hashtag—#blacklivesmatter—as a reaction to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Marvin as he walked unarmed through his neighborhood. Since that time, Black Lives Matter has become the most visible and influential force in confronting instances of police violence against Black citizens and pushing for law enforcement and justice reforms to reduce racially discriminatory policing.
Its role took on added consequence in May of 2020 when video surfaced of a Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd for nearly 9 minutes as bystanders pleaded with the officer to stop. George Floyd’s consequent death sparked months of protest and violent confrontation with police officers throughout the United States. Chauvin was ultimately found guilty of 2nd Degree Murder, which to some, marked a turning point in accountability for police officers.
However, use of force remains a central aspect of policing. Therefore, evidence of racial bias denotes that use of force is far likelier to be experienced by people of color. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, police violence is a leading cause of death for young Black men. According to the Academy, “Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police. Risk of being killed by police peaks between the ages of 20 y and 35 y for men and women and for all racial and ethnic groups. Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.”
Today, there are vocal calls for police reform among Civil Rights groups, activists and progressive politicians—while a number of pro-law enforcement and conservative groups—galvanized behind the slogan that “blue lives matter”—believe that the current level of force utilized by police is necessary given the dangers faced in the line of duty.Back to Top
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
We considered influencers connected to a number of key terms including “police brutality,” “police violence” and “police corruption.” On the other side of the controversy, we initiated our search for influencers with key terms such as “police reform” and “Black Lives Matter,” in reference to the movement that has been on the front lines of the call for such reform.
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the police brutality issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
The primary keyword refers to the use of violent policing tactics in engagement with suspects, prisoners, activists or other members of the public. Some tactics which are seen as brutal and unlawful today may have been sanctioned by state or federal authorities at other points in history. There also remains much debate today on what qualifies as brutality versus what should be seen as the appropriate use of force in the line of duty. Influencers invoked by this term include both victims of police brutality and activists who have protested police brutality.
“Police reform” is a catch-all term for a variety of policy changes advocated for by activists against police brutality. Reform has a long history in the discourse over optimal policing, especially as police forces have grappled with allegations of corruption and bias. Calls for reform typically demand greater accountability, better training, and greater limitations on police powers. Influencers include both law enforcement leaders and public servants who have called for or implemented reform within law enforcement agencies.
“Police violence” refers generally to the use of force in law enforcement. This term may refer to violence which is lawful and considered a necessary extension of policing, or it may refer to acts which may be deemed as brutality. Influencers include researchers who have studied the extent and impact of police violence, as well as those who have spoken out against police violence.
“Black Lives Matter” refers to a decentralized movement based on political and social action aimed at ending police brutality and racially motivated violence against Black Americans. Black Lives Matter is the most visible and influential exponent of the protest movement aimed at confronting racial bias in policing and ending police violence targeting Black citizens.
While “use of force” is a recognized and largely protected aspect of policing, the law also holds that officers should attempt to use the least amount of force necessary in conducting their responsibilities. The phrase “excessive force” is any use of force which is said to go beyond the necessary amount of required force. Influencers in this area include victims of excessive violence and academics who have studied the implications of excessive force in policing.
“Police corruption” is a catch-all for organized unlawful activity by law enforcement including systemic brutality and either the cover-up of such activities or the protection of officers who commit such actions. Police corruption also refers more broadly to the connection—both historically and presently—between law enforcement and organized crime. Influencers include both reformers and perpetrators of corruption from within law enforcement groups.
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Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the police brutality debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:
Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!