Police Aggression and the Debasement of Black Citizen Experiences

By Andrea S. Boyles, author of Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort

This guest post is published in advance of the American Society of Criminology conference in New Orleans. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on November 19th. #ASC2016 

9780520282391-boyles-race,place,suburbanpolicingAs ASC’s theme this year is “The Many Colors of Crime and Justice,” advocates in Ferguson/St. Louis and beyond continue to push for criminal justice reform. They fight for justice and against racialized policing, exploitive court proceedings, and mass incarceration. Accordingly, my work lends attention to areas where advancing social change may be strengthened, while underscoring areas where it could be weakened. Likewise, proponents of reform must remain reflective, judiciously disallowing ideologies, discourse, and/or narratives to do the following:

  • place lone focus of black citizen-police conflict on the killing of unarmed black citizens. It is through a single approach that black deaths by police become challenged—treated as if atypical or separate from other forms of police aggression—then dismissed. Consequently, black citizen-police analysis and discussions must be holistic. Although the ambiguous deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement are more egregious, they alone do not fully account for the broad range of perceivably bias experiences faced by people of color in everyday police interactions. In fact, aggressive forms of policing (e.g., shoving, slamming, macing) experienced by blacks often escalate in a continuum of encounters (e.g., surveillance, pedestrian/vehicular stops, question, frisk/searches) and progressively worsen with each additional interaction. Therefore, the focus should be experience/evidence-driven, lending itself to everyday contentious exchanges that seemingly normalizes decreased police restraint and increased susceptibility to police misconduct and/or death for black citizens. So true examination must start at the beginning of encounters: what did Eric Garner specifically mean by “Every time you see me you want to mess with me” or what exactly made possible Philando Castile’s 40+ traffic stops, thousands of dollars in misdemeanor fines and so forth.
  • ignore the re-codifying/renewing of ciphers/concepts regarding “black threat”, racialized behavioral expectations, and subsequent punishment. Blacks continue to be stereotypically perceived and treated as if inherently dangerous, and therefore, face differential behavioral expectations and sanctions. Correspondingly, statements/explanations about assumed police fear and the need to “eliminate or stop the threat” are spontaneously and routinely given, following violent or deadly acts against black citizens. It is then in this subjective space—whereby officers are granted the benefit of the doubt—that differential instructions retrospectively emerge regarding black behavior. That is, suggestions for how blacks should behave when in the presence of police/dominant populations (e.g., watch tone of voice, say yes sir/m’am, say no sir/m’am, keep hands visible). However, when accounting for historically racialized institutional mandates, these commands become analogous to slave codes, black codes, Jim Crow laws and aggressive state responses when blacks are suspected of violation.

Andrea S. BoylesBoyles.Andrea is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Lindenwood University-Belleville. She has also taught inmates and correctional officers within the Missouri prison system.