Our laws can help — but won’t save — victims of police brutality from racism.
The most marginalized groups often suffer unjust experiences with law enforcement. People of color, LGBT people, people who enter the country illegally, sex workers, indigenous people and homeless youth are most often dehumanized by police.
On March 18, Martese Johnson, a student at University of Virginia, showed police his ID outside of a bar near the UVA campus.
Police assumed his ID was fake and slammed Johnson to the ground. He started bleeding and helplessly yelling, “How did this happen? I go to U. Va.!”
Johnson’s story was captured on video and went viral the following days. He was charged with two misdemeanors, which were subsequently dropped.
Jessica Hernandez is a queer Latina who was 17 years old when she was shot dead by Denver police this past January. Officers originally claimed she was driving a stolen car that hit them and were acting in self-defense.
However, Hernandez’s family attorney argues that the two bullets that entered through the side of her chest show that cops shot Hernandez from the
driver’s side of the car.
In June, the Denver Police Department released a letter claiming the 17-year-old’s stolen car did not hit the officers.
Their stories are two of many over the past year involving unjust police use of excessive force. Hundreds of men and women are killed by police each year — but we don’t have data on these numbers.
We only know some of their names: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd.
In 2014, more black Americans were killed at the hands of police than black Americans who died on 9/11. Yet the response to both of these crises could not be more stark — sending the signal the United States does not feel black lives are worth preserving.
Part of the problem is our laws do not comply with international standards for law
enforcement’s use of excessive force.
According to a 2015 Amnesty International report, the U.S. does not ensure “domestic legislation meets international human rights law and standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.”
Also, the report found no state limits the use of lethal force only to those situations where there is an imminent threat to life or serious injury to the officer or to others.
Even when police use excessive lethal force, the report found no accountability mechanisms for victims to seek justice in any state in the U.S. This accountability gap leaves many citizens vulnerable and some citizens dead when police abuse their power.
The U.S. failed to protect its citizens from police brutality. We need to change the law to define the use of lethal force and when law enforcement officers can use it. The law can be one tool to help minimize police brutality, but it won’t stop a cop’s racial bias. If we want to end police brutality, we have to end racism.
Racism is a learned behavior, and I can’t imagine people can lose their racist assumptions overnight. In the meantime, we need to change the law to help victims of police brutality and to prevent police when they abuse their power.
Until this happens, black lives will remain more at risk to police’s use of violence.
Michael Beyer is a 21-year-old political science senior from New Orleans. You can reach him on Twitter @michbeyer.