Police Distrust: The sentiment that has spawned a movement

By Noah Pappas, Albion College

Police Force in History

The police forces of the United States have long been used to target, hassle, and oppress the African American population. Large cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit have for decades been guilty of this kind of injustice against black people. This problem is an endemic problem all over the United States and has been perpetrated against black people since African Americans were first given freedom post Civil War. To say the least, the relationship between African Americans in this country and the police has long been fraught and tense. There were police interactions in New York where an officer would detain a black person, fabricate a crime that they committed, send them to a judge, and the judge would give them a fine they couldn’t pay off, forcing the black people to stay in jail. Documented police misconduct has shaped a general distrust of the police force. In order to understand the Black Lives Matter movement we need to understand this important dynamic.

New York City offers a valuable case study of the history of police abuse. The police force was notorious for as harassment as Malcolm X demonstrated here when he said in his autobiography, “Every other day or so they would flash a badge, usually in a public place, to search me.” [1] This demonstrates that, deserved or not, if the New York Policement thought you were guilty of something, they would harass you until they caught you or lost you. Malcolm X also mentions that, “The Narcotics Policement had been shown to rush up and get their hands on you and plant evidence while “Searching””. [2] which demonstrates how the Policemen would create crimes so they could arrest someone.

A powerful example of the injustices a black person faced in the judicial system is an all too common one where a black person is thrown in jail, given a huge fine which he couldn’t pay off, as well as a prison sentence which was as long as possible without a trial. John Place was given a punishment that was in his words, “Punishment was to excessive” for the crime that was committed. His crime earned him 11 months and 29 days in jail, the maximum the court could give without taking him to trial. In order to keep him in jail he was also given a hefty fine of five hundred dollars. All of this information comes from the letter he wrote to Miss Campbell. The unfortunate reality is that these types of cases were rampant all across the country. [3]

Recent Incidents

The oppression and harassment by police of people has led a long history of black distrust of the police force to and relates to modern day policing controversies in cases such as those of Tamir Rice’s and Michael Brown’s deaths. Many police forces have policies for arresting and fining people that are specifically designed to target blacks. According to a Department of Justice brief, “Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause and using unreasonable force against them.” [4] This directly led to exacerbating black distrust of the police. We can also look at Tamir Rice, who was shot, according to The Guardian, “one and a half to two seconds” after officers had arrived on the scene. [5] Tamir Rice was profiled to be older and more dangerous than he actually was. The issue that kicked off all of the controversy, the Michael Brown incident, also serves to provide us with a lesson.

Tamir Rice

Michael Brown, Ferguson MO

The language afterwards used by those who defended the police actions were to dehumanize and degrade the victims by calling them, according to The Slatest blog, “Thugs” who had it coming. [6] By demonizing and dehumanizing the victims we serve to undermine the actual problem of police brutality. All of this serves to remind us of how far we still have to go in this country in our attempts, or lack thereof, at racial reconciliation. The hurtful rhetoric, dehumanizing comments, misconception of black people as dangerous, and the repeated harassment of blacks has served to provoke the distrust of police. This is how the Black Lives Matter movement was arose, and from here it will move towards attempting to force real progress from a fairly complicated issue. In order for real progress to be made as a country the targeting and harassing of black people by the police needs to stop, and the conversation needs to shift from blaming the victim to empowering black people to succeed in American society.





[1] Alex Haley and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told By Alex Haley (Random House Publishing Group, 1964), 104

[2] Alex Haley and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told By Alex Haley (Random House Publishing Group, 1964), 104

[3] Various documents in possession of Marcy Sacks

[4] “Justice Department Announces Findings Of Two Civil Rights Investigations In Ferguson, Missouri” (March 4, 2015). Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Missouri. https://www.justice.gov/usao-edmo/pr/justice-department-announces-findings-two-civil-rights-investigations-ferguson-missouri (Accessed 4/20/2016)

[5] “Tamir Rice: video shows boy, 12, shot ‘seconds’ after police confronted child” (November 26, 2014). Tom McCarthy, The Guardian.http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/26/tamir-rice-video-shows-boy-shot-police-cleveland (Accessed 4/20/2016)

[6] “Does the New York Times’ Michael Brown Profile Really Demonstrate Racial Bias?” (August 25, 2014). Ben Mathis-Lilley, The Slatest. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/08/25/new_york_times_michael_brown_profile_racially_unfair_or_just_thorough.html (Accessed 4/20/2016)