Seeking accountability in the ruthless police who beat the death of her son, the mother of Tire Nichols filed a $55 million federal lawsuit against the individual officers, the Memphis Police Department and the City of Memphis, Tennessee.
There is no way to predict the outcome of this lawsuit. But civil litigation has become a trusted tool of grieving families on a trusted quest.
Recent settlements of millions of dollars by the City of Minneapolis for excessive police use of force and a The finding of the Ministry of Justice that the police in Louisville, Kentucky, routinely violate the constitutional rights of black people confirms what many have long complained about: that the police are unnecessarily violent and violate their rights.
Mid April 2023, Minneapolis settled two civil lawsuits against the city’s police department, for nearly $9 million. Similarly, the third anniversary of the March 13, 2020 murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers brought federal confirmation that officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department and the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government often violate the Constitution and federal law when they interact with black people.
“It is heartbreaking to know that everything you have said from day one needs to be said this way again; that this was necessary to even get anyone to look into this department,” Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, said after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the Justice Department’s findings on March 9, 2023.
Why are black people so often ignored when it comes to complaints about their interaction with the police? And why are the police automatically given credibility and protection from liability?
In Louisvillein Minneapolis and across the country, Black people have complained of police misconduct, but those complaints have been ignored, while white people’s complaints of misconduct are more likely to be steadily.
One reason for this is that throughout American society Black people are seen as criminals. This stereotype is encouraging more police encountersin which the city of New Yorkfor example, has resulted in black people being twice as likely to be stopped by the police. This could also explain why Black people, who make up 12.5% of the national population, account for 33% of people arrested for non-fatal violent crimes.
There is also a long history of police targeting racial minorities. Of black people in the south and, as I have written about, in the Midwest to Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest or the Irishbefore they were considered whiteIn the Northeast, policing and control of minority groups have often gone hand in hand.
And this history didn’t just fade away with the passage of time. It became part of the culture of modern policing. This may explain the staggering level of police misconduct towards black people. Black men, for example, are more than three times as likely to be killed in a police encounter as white people. Black people are also more likely are arrested by the police.
These racial realities interact with cultural myths about policing and always do paint them as heroes and good guys protecting us from the bad guys who are at great risk to their own personal safety.
These cultural myths and the support of the powerful Fraternal Order of Police — an organization made up of U.S.-sworn law enforcement officers — justifies a violent police culture and helps protect officers from accountability for their behavior.
Together, these things form a hierarchy of credibility that shields the police from accountability.
Protects against liability
According to UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, legal protections such as qualified immunity protect police officers from repercussions arising from abuse. Qualified immunity is a 1967 Supreme Court doctrine that protects police and other government officials from frivolous lawsuits.
The court order is designed to diminish the power of the Klan Act of 1871, which allowed citizens to bring lawsuits against the police for failing to protect them from lynchings.
The law protects police from liability by requiring complaints to include evidence showing that the police’s actions were unlawful and that the officer knowingly broke a law that was considered illegal in a previous case. This legal formula gives the police the power to frame interactions in a way that protects them from claims of abuse.
By claiming that their actions were necessary to protect themselves, qualified immunity makes their actions legal and makes it nearly impossible to hold the police accountable. In short, the police are given the benefit of the doubt and their version of events is taken as the truth.
Even when complaints are made against police officers, the municipal attorney, who represents the officers, often does not pass the complaint on to the police, assuming it’s frivolous.
The issue is not black and white
As a geographer and scholar of African American studies, I use space and place to understand police abuse. And what my research shows that the disproportionate killing of black people by police occurs for two reasons:
1) Black people live in racially segregated communities that are heavily controlled.
2) Black people are seen as eternal criminals.
This perspective has allowed me to understand how other groups are also affected by police brutality in a way similar to black Americans.
Homeless, who are heavily controlled and seen as criminals, also experience disproportionate levels of lethal force. For example, in Phoenix is the Department of Justice investigating claims of abuse and excessive use of force against homeless people. The investigation also examines whether the Phoenix Police Department has a pattern of unconstitutionality the confiscation and disposal of the possessions of people living on the street.
Police misconduct also affects people with severe mental illness. For example, in Salem, Oregon, a woman called 911 because her son was drunk, high, and mentally ill. A police officer within minutes stormed into their home and shot and killed her sonwithout trying to calm him down or assess the situation.
Police shot one 13 year old boy in Salt Lake City after his mother called 911 because he was going through a mental crisis. Fortunately, the boy survived, but the same cannot be said Daniel Prudewho was killed by police in Rochester, New York for erratic behavior.
Systematic police abuse of black people and routine misconduct toward the homeless and those with severe mental illness make encounters with police officers dangerous and potentially deadly. By automatically giving the police credibility and shielding them from accountability, I believe that abusive practices will be perpetuated and subsequently municipalities in a never-ending spiral of using taxpayers’ money to settle matters of police misconduct.