Why focus on police violence against African Americans rather than a high murder rate amongst African Americans?

This weekend, I heard a story on NPR about a police shooting of an African American man in Milwaukee in May 2014.  A bystander called the police, asking them to check on Dontre Hamilton, who was in a public park in Milwaukee. Two other officers had checked on Hamilton, and, deciding he did not pose a threat, left him alone.  A third police officer, Christopher Manney (a white man), responded to the call in the middle of the night.  He began by trying to rouse Hamilton – who, by all accounts, was asleep and upon waking, seemed disoriented and quite possibly in the middle of mental health episode – then tried to pat him down.  Hamilton resisted the pat-down, Manney responded by using his baton, Hamilton took his baton away and began hitting Manney. In the end, Manney drew his weapon, shot, and killed Hamilton.

The DA recently found Manney not guilty of a crime because he was defending himself.  And the Police Chief of Milwaukee, Edward Flynn, fired Manney for breaching department protocol by attempting to put his hands on a mentally-disturbed person.  So while Manney is not guilty of a crime, he lost his job for not following department protocol, which requires officers to refrain from making physical contact with mentally disturbed persons unless they are a clear danger to themselves or others.

There are two different community responses to this event.  One group – many African American community members, Hamilton’s family, activists involved with BlackLivesMatter – remain highly critical of police brutality and/or excessive use of force*, and are highly critical of the DA’s failure to indict Manney.  Another group – the police union, Manney’s family, many white citizens – are pleased with Manney’s acquittal, but highly critical of the police chief for firing Manney.  Just to see how the two sides address the issue, here are two media accounts of the December community meeting: one, here, is the NPR recounting of the events, and another, here, is a private blog post about the events (and clearly coming from a more libertarian point of view).

The events themselves display many of the challenges we find in the study of race and law.  It turns out that community members literally see and understand ‘what law is’ and ‘who it serves’ differently.  What’s fascinating in this case is that the outcome seems like a Solomon-esque solution: the DA doesn’t charge the officer but the officer loses his job.  No one is happy, but everyone got part of what they thought justice was.  The police chief, Ed Flynn, also sent a clear sign about following the regulations regarding police officer to citizen physical contact.

But the part of the story I found most heart-breaking was the police chief’s response after the community hearing in December.  Chief Flynn is asked why he was on the phone during this contentious hearing.  Flynn responds that he was keeping abreast of developments in a drive-by shooting of a 5 year old girl who was sitting on her father’s lap (see his response here: it’s worth watching – powerful and emotional).

Here’s a quote from his comments: “80% of my homicide victims every year are African American. 80% of our aggravated assault victims are African American. 80% of our shooting victims who survive their shootings are African American. Now they know all about the last three people killed by the Milwaukee Police Department over the course of the last several years. There’s not one of them can name one of the last three homicide victims we’ve had in this city.”

There’s a lot going on here.  It seems to me that Chief Flynn is pointing out something terrible and true – while police violence is often directed more frequently at African Americans, African Americans suffer far more harms from their fellow citizens than whites do, and that we don’t talk about that nearly enough.  The incredibly high murder rate or attempted murder rate of African Americans in Milwaukee is not that high because African Americans are being murdered by police officers.  So why are so many black people dying in inner cities?  Why is the death toll so disproportionate?

Charles Mills (we’ll be reading a brief excerpt by him next Monday, 2/16) suggests that the ‘racial contract’ (which he argues precedes and enables the social contract amongst white people) norms and races bodies and places.  The result is that phrases like ‘urban jungle’ or ‘black part of town’ basically signal wild spaces where ‘civilization’ and ‘order’ are absent.  As a result, white society aims not to eradicate the violence that occurs in those spaces, but simply to contain it: to ensure that it remains in black spaces and does not come into white spaces. I think his insight helps us make sense of the horror that Chief Edwards displays.

Why are we now seeing a focus on police shootings of African Americans rather than a focus on the generally high homicide rate of African Americans?  What does that tell us about law and about race in the United States?  I’m curious to hear your thoughts.  Please sound out in the comments!


* There is a difference between excessive use of force and brutality.  Skolnick and Fyfe’s Above the Law suggests that officers who use excessive force often do so in public, believe they are doing the right thing, and usually use excessive force due to a lack of training.  There is an escalating scale of force (from nice words to commanding words to violence to deadly force), and often excessive force results from jumping too high on the scale too quickly.  The solution to minimizing excessive force is to ensure officers receive adequate training and have strong ties to the communities they serve.

Police brutality, on the other hand, often happens out of the public’s view, is calculated to intimidate or silence, and usually requires collusion and cooperation by other officers who are not involved.   Officers who engage in brutality frequently believe that they are above the law – that regardless of what the law says, they are what prevents society from falling into chaos by ‘keeping the streets clean.’

This is not to say that excessive force is always excusable. It is just to note that in cases like this one (or perhaps even in the case of Michael Brown’s death), that the shootings happened in public suggests that these were excessive force problems rather than police brutality problems, according to Skolnick and Fyfe’s categorization.


5 thoughts on “Why focus on police violence against African Americans rather than a high murder rate amongst African Americans?

  1. I think you make a good point about the very thing I believe fuels backlash from the white community. Where whites are frustrated, I would argue, is the known high rate of violence found in the black community. I have read many stats ensuing the number one cause of black deaths is not police brutality, rather blacks are killed by other blacks. Unfortunately, signs point to poverty and geography as the cause of this disparity. The difference in social structures, education and opportunity allows one race to “dominate” the other. It becomes the social norm to stratify communities into two groups and the African American community is isolated and “stuck” in their own community. What I, and others, argue is that the difference between the two communities is the law enforcement. In rural communities the law enforcement attempts to contain rather than prevent crime. However, in white communities crime is approached in a different way. Because the black community law enforcement is approached at a different angle tension is created within the community producing the animosity towards police. This in the end causes police and the community to be drawn in an us v. them battle.

    I would love to get into a discussion on this topic. Please leave any thoughts!


    1. I definitely agree with your argument about the difference in education, social structure, and opportunity creating an unbalanced racial society. In my opinion, these are the key factors playing into the police enforcement in our communities. As mentioned in the Milwaukee police officers account, 80% of homicides are blacks killing other blacks. To me, this exhibits firsthand the notions of social structure and lack of opportunity. I recently saw the cover of the Indianapolis Monthly depicting the rise in violence in the community and the continuation of gun violence and Mike Epps’ reaction to this. (For those you who do not know, Mike Epps grew up in inner city Indianapolis and is most well known for his role as black Doug in The Hangover.) He shared his insight into this setback linking the violence to the struggle with ‘boredom’ faced by young men who have ‘no jobs’ and ‘nothing better to do.’ Therefore, the issue of a dominating white race in a society where other races struggle persists in numerous aspects of society. In order for homicides rates to decrease, the opportunity must be equal for everyone in order to rise above the cards one was dealt.


    2. Do you really think that whites are frustrated with the known high rate of violence in the black community? My sense is that many white people perceive blacks as ‘more violent,’ but attribute that to culture, or biology, or any number of other things that aren’t actually related to poverty, education, or opportunity. I think what I’m trying to say is that there is a whole series of interrelated things that contribute to white’s perceiving blacks as ‘more violent,’ all of which redound to most white peoples’ inability to see race as a *structural* problem from which they themselves (whites) benefit. And so until the crime in black neighborhoods spills out into white neighborhoods, whites aren’t terribly concerned.

      That ties into your point about policing and law enforcement. For example, should a black man wander into my rural and almost entirely white hometown and do the things that many young white men do regularly, he would go to jail and the young white men would not: ‘boys will be boys’ and all.

      This also makes me think of Engel’s article – while it is about insiders and outsiders, these categories are often laid over racial categories very tightly.


      1. I guess what I was trying to ensue when I claimed that whites were “frustrated” was less along the lines of frustration and disappointment that violence was happening in the black community, but more along the lines of frustration that black on white crime is a big deal when, in their eyes, black on black crime seems to be an even bigger issue. Now, this is obviously not factual, and is completely based on observing friends and families reactions to recent crimes such as Ferguson and this event in Milwaukee.
        So basically, I agree with you. I don’t think whites are concerned with what is going on within the black community. However, the moment the white community is threatened by the black community (Ferguson protests, etc.) the white community retaliates by arguing that crime within the black community seems to be a bigger issue. I think this could be, like you said, a variation of insiders and outsiders; the white communities own way of ostracizing the African American community.


  2. And your comment, Kelsey, points to the fascinating connection between labor and policing that Wacquant raises: what do we do with this army of surplus labor in neighborhoods without good jobs? Wacquant’s answer is that we incarcerate them rather than train them for different jobs. The question is whether we can explain the general reluctance to provide a substantive education for people of color without referencing race as a fundamental part of the answer.


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