Is police brutality more common today than in the past?

Image: Jamelle Bouie

Fact Box

  • ‘Police brutality’ is defined as “unwarranted or excessive and often illegal use of force against civilians by US police officers.”
  • Examples of police brutality have occured since the 19th century and have led to tensions between law enforcement and minority groups such as immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Recent media coverage of police brutality has raised awareness about the issue, encouraging the Black Lives Matter movement and associated protests.
  • The number of deaths from police officers in the US per year has remained relatively steady since 2013.
  • A 2020 Pew Research survey revealed that 67% of adults believe that African Americans are “treated less fairly than whites by police.”

Ethan (Yes)

While anyone can argue back and forth about whether police brutality is more common today, it's impossible to argue with the facts. Data shows that in all but 1 of the 100 largest US cities, police departments killed at least one person from 2013 to 2020, and out of the 1,126 individuals killed by police in 2020 alone, 740 of these encounters were for suspected non-violent offenses or traffic violations--yet they cost someone their life. That's over 100 more people than the 990 that were killed by police in 2017. It's hard to ignore what the statistics mean: we have targets on our backs. 

The Blue Lives Matter movement has allowed police brutality to increase. With more enthusiastic supporters composed of both civilians and other cops, racially prejudiced police officers are being protected by those who believe cops can do no wrong. Sadly, people are willing to bend the truth in order to protect the quickly-deteriorating reputation of police officers in America. 

Finally, former President Donald Trump--who was in office during the nation-shattering murder of George Floyd that sparked a revival of the Black Lives Matter movement--focused all of his efforts on crushing the protests that followed the innocent Black man's murder, rather than trying to bring justice down on the officers who actually committed the crime. This attitude of tolerance for unconscionable police brutality contributed to an uptick in incidence of such behavior, as a recent poll of Black Americans revealed that 68% feel that police brutality against Black and Brown youths has actually increased since Floyd's murder. 

Law and order in this country come at too steep of a price. 

Veronica (No)

The number of people killed by police in the US has remained relatively stable since 2013. During that time, the number of African Americans killed has also been trending down. While each individual death or instance of brutality is likely to be more high-profile now than in the past, statistically, police are not killing civilians at a higher rate than before. Police violence tends to attract a lot of attention and outcry even though it is becoming less common. As with 'missing White girl syndrome,' media reporting can distort our perception of what is actually occurring. 

If you look further back, the rate of police killings has dropped significantly since the 1960s. While today's riots are bad, the race riots of the 1960s and issues surrounding Jim Crow and Civil Rights combined with Vietnam War protests created a much worse police situation than we see today. The 1960s and 1970s saw very high levels of civil unrest, crime, police brutality, and violence--which have been declining ever since. At the same time, America's tolerance for police use of force may have decreased, along with our idea of what is appropriate behavior for law enforcement. 

Americans should look at the data on police brutality in the context of our history. This could help lessen tensions on both sides, increase community trust in police, and lessen police brutality. Obviously, any level of police violence is undesirable, but we should be optimistic that the US is moving in the right direction. 

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