Law enforcement across US struggles to recruit since killing of Floyd
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File
In this July 7, 2020, file photo a San Francisco Police Department patch is shown on an officer's uniform in San Francisco.
AP Photo/John Minchillo, File
FILE - In this April 14, 2021, file photo law enforcement officers clear an area of demonstrators during a protest over Sunday's fatal shooting of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department in Brooklyn Center, Minn.
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Interim Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant speaks to the Associated Press on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Atlanta.
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Capitol police officers’ mostly peaceful restraint in responding to the Trump-incited mob that overtook the U.S. Capitol building Jan. 6 stands in stark contrast to police behavior during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. Sparse law enforcement presence and gentle handling of insurrectionists violently forcing their way into the Capitol highlight racist double standards illuminated last year by Black Lives Matter protesters, who were frequently met with militarized police utilizing tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and batons in response to activities including a violin vigil for Elijah McClain; walking on the sidewalk in Buffalo, New York during a daytime protest; and residents standing on their porches in Minneapolis in the days following the murder of George Floyd.
At the Capitol yesterday, videos show police with riot shields attempting to stop the mob from entering at some entrances, while other videos show police allowing the insurgents through gates and granting them access to the building, posing for selfies, and calmly escorting members of the mob out. The New York Times reported that officers “tried to reason with the crowd” and, “When asked why they weren’t expelling the protesters, the officer said, ‘We’ve just got to let them do their thing now.’” Thirteen people were arrested during the actual occupation of the Capitol building; that number grew to a little over 50 as the day wore on. By contrast, an inauguration protest on Jan. 20, 2017 resulted in more than 200 arrests, and some 14,000 people are estimated to have been arrested during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests all together.
In light of these contrasts, Stacker compiled a list of 50 chronological events showing the history of police violence in the United States. This report highlights policies, organizations, and events that explore how they relate to police brutality, institutionalized discrimination, and the loss of lives. Our research is based on news articles, government reports, and historical documentation including primary sources.
Multiple methods that encourage racial division within the system have been enforced and continue to show up in statistics over the years. Police killed 1,114 people in 2020 alone, according to Mapping Police Violence (MPV), and despite making up only 13% of the American population, Black people make up 28% of people killed by law enforcement. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by a policeman, despite being 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed. Black lives are being taken in stark numbers, but 99% of policemen have not been charged with related crimes, according to MPV. The day before anti-democracy insurgents stormed the Capitol by force, the prosecutor in Kenosha, Wisconsin declined to charge Rusten Sheskey, the police officer who shot and partially paralyzed Jacob Blake, a Black man. Cell phone video shows Sheskey shooting Blake in the back seven times as Blake tried to move away from the officer.
From the beginning, discrimination was institutionalized in political and economic spaces. The need to inflict forced labor on Black lives after slavery was the main objective for the original police force in the South. This is where force was ingrained into police tactics, as hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan merged with the system. Generation after generation, new rules are put into place specifically to target the Black population including segregation, incarceration, voter suppression, redlining and lack of government assistance, and economic infrastructure. Statistically, in reported incidents alone, Black people’s experiences with the criminal justice system have always been vastly different from those of other groups.
Keep reading to learn more about the history of police violence in America, from 18th-century slave patrols in South Carolina to 2020's calls for defunding the police.
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AEsquibel23 // Wikimedia Commons
In an effort to mandate their power over African slaves, government leaders in Charleston, South Carolina, created the first slave patrol, birthing law enforcement as we know it. Not shy to commit acts of terror or violence, the “patrollers,” as these slave patrols were called, took on the responsibilities of chasing down slaves on horseback and returning them to slavery, embedding racism into the system.
[Pictured: Depiction of a slave patrol.]
Corbis // Getty Images
The first official American police department was established in Boston in 1838 after lighter methods of policing failed. While policing systems in the South centered on the slave system, the North policed labor unions targeting Eastern European immigrants. As Black people fled the horrors of the Jim Crow South, they too became the victims of brutal and punitive policing in the Northern cities where they sought refuge.
[Pictured: The mayor of Boston and police marshal Francis Tukey lead the procession of fugitive slave Thomas Sims as they move him to the docks for extradition to Georgia.]
Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Slavery was officially abolished in America by law after the Civil War, but former slaves were far from free. African Americans were heavily policed following emancipation by both law enforcement and government officials who institutionalized racism with slavery by a new name: Black codes. These were a set of laws designated for Black people and newly freed slaves that restricted property ownership, forced cheap labor, and perpetuated other racist behaviors. The Black codes were precursors to Jim Crow laws, which lasted late into the 20th century.
[Pictured: Fugitive slaves who were emancipated upon reaching the North, circa 1865.]
Universal History Archive // Getty Images
Threatened by the newly earned liberation of freed slaves, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups were formed as acts of power by white citizens—and often former slave traders. Using white supremacy as motivation, these groups regularly terrorized Black communities, carrying out lynchings and destroying Black property. Soon, KKK members began joining law enforcement and other government positions, especially in the South.
[Pictured: "Visit of the Ku-Klux," wood engraving, Harper's Weekly, Feb. 24, 1872.]
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Railroad workers dismayed by pay cuts and unfair working conditions went on strike in the summer of 1877. Weeks of violence and chaos between protesters and police wreaked havoc in the North, causing looting and fires, and hundreds of people lost their lives. Eventually, the protests were struck down by the National Guard, and though not much came from the event, it was the first of many flashpoints involving labor rights.
[Pictured: The first meat train to leave the Chicago stockyards during the great railway stikes is escorted by the United States Cavalry.]
Chicago History Museum // Getty Images
What began as a peaceful rally in Chicago, Illinois, over the right to eight-hour work days turned into a violent clash between police and protesters. After a display of callousness towards workers’ rights from police officers, protesters shifted their attention toward police brutality. A bomb was thrown to dismantle the protests, and officers fired into the crowd, killing eight people and leaving even more wounded.
[Pictured: The events at Haymarket Square, published in Harper's Weekly, Chicago, May 15, 1886.]
Unknown // Wikimedia Commons
The Lattimer massacre was one of the bloodiest clashes in American labor history. Unarmed strikers were peacefully protesting labor conditions in the mining industry when police officers opened fire on the line of strikers, killing 19 miners. The massacre quickly caught media attention, and as people learned of this latest instance of police brutality, a new sense of unity toward immigrant miners was born.
[Pictured: The Lattimer massacre.]
Mississippi Department of Archives and History // Wikimedia Commons
Parchman Farm is a former plantation turned prison by the state of Mississippi. After the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, “except as a punishment for crime,” government officials established Black codes in an effort to exploit the continuum of Black suffering. Black people were often harshly punished and incarcerated for breaking fragile rules white people did not have to follow, causing mass incarceration in disproportionate numbers. Prisoners sent to the Parchman Farm experienced harsh labor described as “the closest thing to slavery that survived the Civil War,” having to work sun-up to sundown performing slave duties under the control of armed guards.
[Pictured: Male prisoners on the porch at Parchman Penitentiary.]
Chicago History Museum // Getty Images
Millions of African Americans found new life in the North in an effort to escape harsh Jim Crow laws and extreme racial violence, as well as take advantage of job opportunities in what is now known at the Great Migration. This was new to white communities and police departments who were not accustomed to the presence of Black people. They reacted to the staggering increase in numbers with fear and hostility, attitudes that were exacerbated by racist stereotypes.
[Pictured: African American men, women, and children who participated in the Great Migration to the north in Chicago, 1918.]
Tthrail // Wikimedia Commons
Ell Persons, a Black man in his 50s, was lynched in 1917 after being accused of raping a white teenage girl. After being beaten into a confession, he was doused with gasoline, burned alive, and dismembered in front of thousands of spectators. As it was normal for lynchings to be displayed in front of the white public, sandwiches and snacks were sold at the lynching.
[Pictured: The Ell Persons historical marker in Memphis, Tennessee.]
The West Virginian // Wikimedia Commons
A Black teenager drowned in Lake Michigan in Chicago after being stoned by a group of young white people for crossing a segregated barrier of the lake. After law officials refused to arrest the white man who eyewitnesses said caused the murder, a race riot broke out and lasted for weeks on Chicago’s South Side. Many died, and Black homes were destroyed.
[Pictured: A victim is stoned and bludgeoned under a corner of a house during the 1919 race riots in Chicago.]
Harris & Ewing // Wikimedia Commons
The NCLOE or “Wickersham Commission” was designed to investigate crime related to prohibition, in addition to policing tactics. Between 1931 and 1932, the commission published the findings of its investigation in 14 volumes, one of which was titled “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement” and said that police frequently used torture methods to enforce the law. Instead of reform, officials declared a “war on crime” and aimed to militarize the police.
[Pictured: President Hoover meets with his newly created enforcement commission.]
NARA // Wikimedia Commons
Laborers continued to fight for their rights well into the early 20th century, and when the Republic Steel Plant’s leaders refused to sign a labor contract for their workers, protests ensued. The Chicago Police Department demanded protesters to disperse, and when they didn’t, the department used tear gas on demonstrators and shot and killed 10 people.
[Pictured: Photograph titled "The Chicago Memorial Day Incident."]
Anthony Potter Collection // Getty Images
A clash between Mexican Americans and white servicemen broke out, resulting in the death of a U.S sailor. In response, mobs of U.S servicemen carrying weapons brutally attacked anyone wearing a zoot suit, an outfit popular among some Mexican Americans that became a racist stereotype. The attackers went into Latino communities in Los Angeles, stripped people of their clothes and beat them as LAPD often looked on from the sidelines, arresting the victims after the fact.
[Pictured: Gangs of American sailors and marines armed with sticks during the Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles, June 1943.]
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There were 5,000 documented accounts of Black people being lynched across the U.S. South during the Jim Crow era, and it's been more than 100 years since the first anti-lynching bill was proposed and continues to be debated today. While many Black advocates brought gruesome evidence of the lynchings to the attention of government officials, nothing was done to designate the brutality as a hate crime. And while lynching by definition decreased in numbers in the ‘60s, modern-day lynching continues.
[Pictured: Protesters marched on the streets of Washington carrying signs urging control and halting of the lynching of blacks in Washington, 1922.]
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FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover encouraged COINTELPRO, a group founded to discredit organizations disruptive to U.S politics, to focus on tools that taught about Black power and warned of a “Black messiah,” or leader of Black nationalism. As a result, the FBI infiltrated Black organizations like the Black Panther Party. Hoover even targeted Black-owned bookstores and their products, as the movement was seen as a threat.
[Pictrued: John Edgar Hoover, FBI director.]
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In the civil rights era, police departments around the country started to become more and more militarized. The first SWAT team emerged in Los Angeles during this time after a series of high-profile raids against groups like the Black Panther Party. Soon, SWAT teams spread across the country, and the federal government began to blur the lines between soldiers and policemen.
[Pictrued: Civil rights marchers stay close to the ground as Mississippi Highway Patrolmen use tear gas on the protestors, Canton, Mississippi, 1960s.]
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One of the most well-known moments in civil rights history, the March on Washington was a nationwide outcry from Black Americans who marched to stop racial discrimination and police brutality and gain job equality. The emotional event is where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream'' speech.
[Pictured: Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington.]
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A young Black motorist named Marquette Frye was pulled over by police for suspicion of being intoxicated. Onlookers gathered as racial tensions between the Black community and law enforcement ran high. As things grew more contentious between the two groups, more police officers rushed to the scene, and violence ensued, leading to a six-day riot.
[Pictured: Armed National Guardsmen force a line of Black men to stand against the wall of a building during the Watts race riots, Los Angeles, August 1965.]
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LAPD established the "Special Weapons and Tactics," or SWAT teams, in response to the Watts uprisings that year, militarizing police tactics. The program expanded across the country and was used heavily to quash riots and enforce military order over any uprisings.
[Pictured: Armed police patrolling the streets of Los Angeles during the Watts race riots.]
New York Times Co. // Getty Images
The Newark race riot began when white police officers severely beat a Black cab driver named John Smith during a traffic stop. The protest against the police brutality turned violent, and 26 people died, with many others injured during the four-day clash.
[Pictured: A man gestures with his thumb down to an armed National Guardman, during a protest in the Newark race riots, Newark, New Jersey, July 14, 1967.]
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The Detroit Riots are considered among the most destructive in American history. After incidents of “white flight,” where white people fled to suburban areas after Black people integrated Detroit’s urban areas, the area was densely populated with African Americans and heavily policed. Police conducted a bar raid, and while they were making arrests, a riot broke out that lasted for days.
[Pictured: A federal soldier stands guard in a Detroit street on July 25, 1967, as buildings are burning.]
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In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson organized the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also called the Kerner Commission) to investigate the causes of recent major riots. The commission found common denominators at the heart of many protests/rebellions of the ‘60s: white racism and police brutality. However, conservative Americans and Johnson did not eagerly accept these findings.
[Pictured: The Kerner Commission in session, Washington D.C., 1967.]
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On the night of June 27, 1969, members of the LGBTQ+ community were visiting the Stonewall Inn, one of the few openly LGBTQ-friendly bars in New York City when the police raided it. Fed up with being marginalized, members and allies of the community gathered by the hundreds to riot in protest of police harassment, galvanizing the gay rights movement.
[Pictured: Police force people back outside the Stonewall Inn as tensions escalate the morning of June 28, 1969.]
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George Jackson was a Black activist and author who was imprisoned in 1959 for stealing $70 from a gas station and killed in an alleged escape attempt. He organized sit-ins against the segregated cafeterias and taught martial arts to fight back against abusive prison guards. A member and leader of the Black Panther Party, Jackson had achieved worldwide fame for writing “Soledad Brother” while in prison.
[Pictured: The funeral of Black Panther George Jackson at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, Oakland, California, 1971.]
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The War on Drugs was used as a justification for increased policing and arrests and harsher prison sentences, largely targeting Black communities. Former Nixon-era domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman later confirmed that the effort was designed to hurt Black families.
[Pictured: Suspect frisked after arrest in drug raid in Colorado in 1971.]
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With institutionalized racism in place, racially charged politics saw incarceration numbers and urban crime rates begin to rise in the 1970s and ‘80s, further perpetuating stereotypes. The “broken windows” theory was introduced during this time, which stated that small crimes would lead to bigger crimes if not punished. Police took license to enforce punishments on small “offenses” like jaywalking or unauthorized barbeques.
[Pictured: Police officer holds a "suspect" on a car in New York City, 1980.]
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Video evidence of three policemen brutally beating 25-year-old Rodney King made its way around the country. The acquittal of all four officers involved (three of them white) sparked riots and protests across Los Angeles due to widespread anger and frustration with LAPD violence toward the city’s Black community.
[Pictured: Nationally televised footage of the Rodney King beating.]
Donaldson Collection // Getty Images
Along with the acquittal of the officers in the Rodney King case, another incident is thought to have helped fuel the L.A. Riots. In March 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was fatally shot in the back of the head by a Korean store owner after she was accused of stealing juice. Harlins had money in her hand at the time of the shooting. The store owner received probation and a $500 fine.
[Pictured: LAPD officers arrest rioters on April 29, 1992.]
Richard Baker // Getty Images Images
This crime bill called for the Department of Justice “to review the practices of law enforcement agencies that may be violating people's federal rights.” While the bill was intended to signal an effort to reform police departments, it ultimately caused more harm than good for low-income Black families by enforcing “tough on crime” provisions.
[Pictured: A 1990s Atlanta police officer shines his torchlight into the face of a man lying on the ground.]
Andrew Lichtenstein // Getty Images
The Clinton administration's 1994 crime bill encouraged strict law enforcement and caused the system to target more Black and Latinx Americans who would ultimately fall victim to mass incarceration. An entire portion of the bill highlighted “tough punishment” like the bill’s “three strike” rule, which implemented life sentences for people who already had two other offenses under their belt.
[Pictured: People under arrest by narcotics police in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1994.]
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The 1033 program was a military equipment loan program that incorporated military weapons like grenade launchers in police departments in almost every state in America. This further heightened the use of military assault rifles during public calls to action such as protests or riots.
[Pictured: An armed NYPD officer guards the New York Stock Exchange, Aug. 2, 2004.]
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Amadou Diallo was a 23-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by policemen. Police shot at Diallo 41 times and hit him with 19, claiming to have seen a gun—which turned out to be his wallet. All policemen involved were acquitted, after which thousands of protestors participated in a mostly peaceful march.
[Pictured: Protestors hold up signs in front of a New York City judicial building, Feb. 9, 1999.]
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DOJ statistics show that about 1.39 million people were incarcerated in the year 2000, as opposed to about 774,000 in 1990. By 2018, Black men were over fives times more likely to be imprisoned than white men, and Black women were imprisoned 1.8 more times than white women.
Benedek Alpar // Shutterstock
Racial punishment merged with public education with the “School to Prison Pipeline” system, in which students are pushed out of schools and into the hands of law enforcement. The increased use of juvenile detentions came as a result of the new disciplinary reaction to students, predominantly of color, and often used harsh punishment tactics.
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White police officer Stephen Roach shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, who was unarmed, in a dark alley. He was acquitted after the judge ruled that Roach’s response was “reasonable.” Protesters took to the streets in response to the killing, and demonstrators warned, “No justice, no peace.” It was one of the greatest fights against racial discrimination and police brutality since the civil rights movement.
[Pictured: A protester holds up a sign May 7, 2001, in Cincinnati, Ohio.]
Allison Joyce // Getty Images
Shortly after 9/11, New York City began implementing a new program called “stop and frisk.” The policy allowed officers to stop and question people they felt were suspicious of criminal activity, resulting in racial profiling and police violence. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of NYC at the time, apologized for promoting the policy during his recent presidential bid.
[Pictured: New York City Police officers watch over a demonstration against the city's "stop and frisk" searches in 2013.]
Allan Tannenbaum // Getty Images
Largely due to the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit had been criticized for singling out Blacks and Hispanics—all four of the police involved in the Diallo shooting were on the Street Crimes Unit. The police commissioner at the time, Raymond W. Kelly, claimed that the unit’s closing had little to do with changes in policy and more with a general restructuring of the force.
[Pictured: Shrine at the home of Amadou Diallo, Feb. 25, 2000.]
Spencer Platt // Getty Images
92-year-old Kathryn Johnston stood in her doorway with a revolver after police forced their way into her home with a “no-knock” warrant aiming to carry out a drug bust. Johnston shot three of the officers and was shot and killed. The neighborhood went into an uproar, as neighbors believed Johnston to be using self defense. In another incident, Sean Bell was shot at 50 times in Queens when he was killed; none of the officers were charged with the killing.
[Pictured: Police keep watch over demonstrators in the street after the verdict was announced in the Bell shooting trial April 25, 2008, in New York City.]
Michael Nagle // Getty Images
After being pushed to do so by advocates and officials, the NYPD released records that showed disparities in police shootings over the years. Records showed that more than half the people stopped by police were Black, and many believed it to be a result of the “stop and frisk” policy implemented in the years prior. The statistics showed that Black people were 23% more likely to be stopped by police than white people were, and for the Latinx community, it was even higher at 39%.
[Pictured: NYPD officers in the area around Times Square on June 29, 2007, in New York City.]
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24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith was shot and killed by a white police officer, Jason Stockley, after a car chase, an incident which sparked protest in 2017 when the officer was acquitted. In the police footage of the chase, Stockley is heard saying, “We're killing this motherf--ker, don't you know.” The St. Louis police settled a wrongful death lawsuit in 2013 with Smith’s family for $900,000, a sum which was later increased to $1.4 million.
[Pictured: Protests following the not guilty verdict in Jason Stockley's trial.]
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Aiyana Stanley-Jones was a 7-year-old Black girl who was shot in the head during a SWAT operation in the middle of the night. This incident sparked outrage over growing militarization of police forces in the country, as well as the racial disparities between the police and Black communities. Charges against the officer who shot her were dropped in 2015.
[Pictured: Memorial to Aiyana Jones.]
Michael B. Thomas // Getty Images
After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement drew national attention and highlighted the racial disctimination and police brutality that occurs often in Black communities. Furthermore, social media brought to light video evidence of multiple killings that summer, including Eric Garner in New York, who was killed by a chokehold, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot by police while playing with a toy gun. Protests erupted across the country amid calls for police reform.
[Pictured: Protest of the shooting death of Michael Brown outside Ferguson Police Department Headquarters, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.]
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The UN Committee Against Torture called for action against police brutality in Black communities in an effort to decrease the killing of unarmed Black people and stop the use of military weapons during protest. The committee claimed to have “numerous reports” on the use of excessive police brutality, specifically in minority groups, and encouraged investigations to be launched.
[Pictured: Teenagers protest during the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 13, 2014.]
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By this time, some members of the Black community were exhausted from being traumatized by filmed evidence of police violence. In the midst of this, Freddie Gray, a Black man who was being held in the back of a police van for possession of a knife, died from injuries to his spinal cord. Keith Childress Jr. was shot and killed after his cellphone was mistaken for a gun by police officers.
[Pictured: Riot police stand guard after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland.]
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Sandra Bland was a 28-year-old Black woman who was taken into custody after being pulled over for a traffic stop in 2015. The stop turned confrontational, and Bland was tackled to the ground and put in cuffs, all of which was captured on police cameras and by Bland herself on her phone. She was found dead soon after the incident in her cell, and her death was deemed a suicide. Her death came during trying times for Black Lives Matter as outrage intensified over unfair treatment, racial biases, and disregard for safety during arrests by law enforcement.
[Pictured: A woman holds a poster of Sandra Bland during a Michael Brown memorial rally on Union Square, Aug. 9, 2015, in New York.]
Stephen Maturen // Getty Images
In 2016, Castile and Sterling were two of 233 African Americans shot and killed by police. These numbers startled many, considering African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population but account for 24% of people fatally shot by police that year. Just days apart from each other, two Black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, were shot under police custody.
[Pictured: Demonstrators march in honor of Philando Castile on July 6, 2020, in St. Anthony, Minnesota.]
BENOIT DOPPAGNE // Getty Images
After seeing multiple recordings of Black lives taken away by the hands of law enforcement, activists and officials began to demand acknowledgement, reparations, and consequences for past and present acts of “enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality.” In a statement, the UN group compared the trauma of police killings to the horror of lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
[Pictured: Press conference, in Brussels on Feb. 11, 2019, on the preliminary findings of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent's delegation.]
BING GUAN // Getty Images
During the Obama administration, police reform programs were underway to find solutions to the racial tension involving law enforcement. The Department of Justice essentially limited their efforts on behalf of this reform model when the Trump administration took over. Due to this, many people criticized the new administration for abandoning the reform efforts, accusing them of taking police brutality lightly.
[Pictured: Officers separate right-wing counter-protestors from Black Lives Matter demonstrators in La Mesa, California, on Aug. 1, 2020.
Ira L. Black/Corbis // Getty Images
The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more Black people at the hands of police brought worldwide protests and calls for change. Simply put, Black people were tired and outraged by the lack of care for Black lives and the continued display of racial violence by police with little to no reform or consequences. In the midst of a global pandemic, protests continue to take place to this day along with calls to defund the police. Defunding would mean reallocating funds for things like social services, crisis mediation, and other means of community assistance.
[Pictured: Crowds pass the New York Police Department office in Times Square in New York City on July 26, 2020.]
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Law enforcement agencies across the country experienced a wave of retirements and departures and are struggling to recruit the next generation of police officers in the year since George Floyd was killed by a cop.
And amid the national reckoning on policing, communities are questioning who should become a police officer today.
Mass protests and calls for reforming or defunding the police, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, took their toll on officer morale. The rate of retirements at some departments rose 45% compared with the previous year, according to new research on nearly 200 law enforcement agencies conducted by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum and provided to The Associated Press. At the same time, hiring slowed by 5%, the group found.
The wave comes as local lawmakers have pledged to enact reforms — such as ending the policies that give officers immunity for their actions while on-duty — and say they’re committed to reshaping policing in the 21st century. And recruiters are increasingly looking for a different kind of recruit to join embattled departments.
Years ago, a candidate’s qualifications might be centered around his — yes, his — brawn. Now, police departments say they are seeking recruits who can use their brain. And they want those future officers to represent their communities.
“Days of old, you wanted someone who actually had the strength to be more physical,” Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said. “Today’s police officers, that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for someone who can actually relate to the community but also think like the community thinks.”
But the climate today, coupled with increases in crime in some cities, is creating what Chuck Wexler, the head of the Police Executive Research Forum, called a “combustible mixture.”
It’s creating “a crisis on the horizon for police chiefs when they look at the resources they need, especially during a period when we’re seeing an increase in murders and shootings,” Wexler said. “It’s a wake-up call.”
The data from Wexler’s organization represents a fraction of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide and is not representative of all departments. But it’s one of the few efforts to examine police hiring and retention and compare it with the time before Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Former officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while Floyd was handcuffed behind his back, was convicted of murder and is awaiting sentencing.
Researchers heard from 194 police departments last month about their hires, resignations and retirements between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, and the same categories from April 1, 2019, to March 31, 2020.
By comparison, the changing public attitude on policing is well documented. In the past year, as many as half of American adults believed police violence against the public is a “very” or “extremely” serious problem, according to one poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“It’s hard to recruit the very people who see police as an opposition,” said Lynda R. Williams, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, who previously worked on recruitment efforts for the Secret Service.
Bryant knows firsthand. In the weeks after Floyd’s death, a white officer, Garrett Rolfe, shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, a Black man, in the parking lot of a Wendy’s.
In quick succession, Rolfe was fired, the chief resigned and the local district attorney announced charges, including felony murder, against Rolfe — a rare step in police shootings. Some cops left the force, which currently has about 1,560 officers — about 63% of the force is Black, 29% white and 5% Latino.
Then came the “Blue Flu” — when a high number of police officers called out sick in protest. Bryant, then the department’s interim chief, acknowledged that it had occurred in Atlanta after Rolfe was charged.
“Some are angry. Some are fearful. Some are confused on what we do in this space. Some may feel a bit abandoned,” Bryant said last summer in an interview at the height of the crisis.
But it hasn’t shaken the resolve of some, like Kaley Garced, a hairdresser-turned-police officer in Baltimore who graduated from the academy last August. Despite the protests and attitudes toward law enforcement, she stayed with her career choice with a plan to interact with residents.
“Earning their trust” leads to better policing, she said. Citizens who trust officers will not be afraid to “call upon you on their worst day” and ask for help.
Williams said she believes the next generation of law enforcement will bring a new outlook and move the profession forward by making departments more diverse and inclusive.
“They are the change that they want to see,” Williams said.
Recruitment is still a challenge. In some cities like Philadelphia, departments are spending more time scouring a candidate’s social media to hunt for possible biases. In others, pay disparities — a longtime problem — still exist, making it difficult to attract would-be officers and keep newly trained recruits when a neighboring jurisdiction offers more money and benefits.
In Dallas, city leaders spent much of the last decade struggling to draw candidates and stem the outflow of officers frustrated by low pay and the near collapse of their pension fund.
Despite those efforts, the force now stands at about 3,100 officers — down from more than 3,300 in 2015 — a loss at a time when the city’s population has grown to more than 1.3 million. The force is about 44% white, 26% Black and 26% Latino. This means officers handle more calls and detectives more cases, all amid increased racial tension.
In 2016, five officers were killed in Dallas by a sniper who was seeking revenge for police shootings elsewhere that killed or wounded Black men. Two years later, an off-duty officer fatally shot her neighbor in his home. She was fired and later was sentenced to a decade in prison for murder.
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, said the national political climate and local pay and pension issues have been compounding challenges to hiring in Dallas.
In 2019, however, a consulting firm Dallas hired to review its department found that it needed not simply more officers but also a “realignment of strategy, goals, mission, and tactics.” That finding rings true to Changa Higgins, a longtime community organizer.
“You don’t need to focus on hiring more officers,” Higgins said. “You need to focus on how you got these guys allocated.”
In Los Angeles, the department is fighting against a decadelong image of scandal and racial strife from the Watts riots in 1965 to the bloodshed in 1992 after a Simi Valley jury’s acquittal of officers who brutally beat motorist Rodney King.
Capt. Aaron McCraney, head of the Recruitment and Employment Division, and Chief Michel Moore ticked off the issues facing the 48 new recruits — more than half of whom were women — last year, noting that the pandemic, civil unrest and economic uncertainty were just some of the challenges the new officers would face.
“Even though these are tough times, these are difficult times, these are interesting times,” McCraney said, “these times will pass, and we’ll get on to things better.”
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