Race Relations and Law Enforcement in the United States of America

“Race relations and Law Enforcement in the United States of America”


Osasumwen Osaghae

January, 2009


The spate of deadly shootings by the police in the process of apprehending suspects has led many commentators to suggest a racial undercurrent in the attitude of the police officers. In fact, there is the racial current in law enforcement attitudes when it comes to minorities like blacks and Latinos. There are different aspects of the racial current discuss. First, there is the white officer versus black victim scenario; black officer versus white victim scenario; black officer versus black victim scenario and black officer versus white victim scenario, (Peruche & Plant, 2006). It has been suggested citing the danger perception theory that the police are more likely to use deadly force in areas or situations where they encounter greater levels of violence or perceive their jobs to be particularly dangerous, (Best & Quigley, 2003). The place of racial sentiments in police deadly shootings is not entirely clear as there are competing theories seeking to explain police deadly shootings. There is the perceived danger perspective which attributes police shootings to the threat posed by the suspect sought to be apprehended. Even so, a study found that preconceived notions of violence associated with certain races plays a significant role in how the police officers react to threats posed by suspects, (Alpert 2007). Not all the theories share the sentiments of the minorities in the attitude of the police in apprehending black suspects. There are those who support the law enforcement community arguing that minorities should be profiled as criminals or as potential criminals because they are more likely to commit crimes. Profiling and stopping individuals for investigative procedures was therefore thought to be a rational response to the drug and crime problem among some law enforcement officers, notwithstanding the obvious ecological fallacy of targeting individuals based on group behavior, (Alpert 2007). The major question is to what extent does race impact the way law enforcement officers deal with black suspects in relation to how white suspects are treated?

The writer contends that race may be a factor in the attitude of the police in apprehending black suspects. But it is only relevant to the extent that blacks are associated with more aggression and violence than other ethnic groups. It is the fact of the association more than the race itself that triggers more aggressive policing strategies in typically black neighborhoods.


There is a growing concern that police officers may be more aggressive in their responses to minority compared to White suspects, (Peruche & Plant). Such responses may be influenced by stereotypic expectations. For example, it is possible that the stereotype that Black men are more likely to be violent and hostile may create expectations that Black people, particularly Black men, are more likely to be violent criminals than are. This may have led to a series of deadly police shootings which will be reviewed in this paper

Culture appears to have an impact on interpersonal relationships in the society. If there is racial prejudice in a given society, the police force where dominated by the oppressive race as in white race in relation to the oppressed race (black) cannot be free from such prejudice. Consequently, a corrupt society would produce a corrupt police force even though; a different picture may be painted. The definition of culture by Linton (1945) supports the argument that police force can only be as good as the society it operates. For him, the culture of society is the way of life of its members; the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation. There is another aspect of culture that is relevant to racial prejudice in policing, cultural sensitivity on the part of the police officers. Given the multi-ethnic constitution of most societies in the United States of America today, it is very possible that a police may find himself among a people, whose culture he knows little or nothing about. It is imperative therefore that police officers be trained in cultural diversity and sensitivity from time to time. In this respect, is aggression violence? Being loud or always defensive may be annoying to a law enforcement officer. But is it enough to provoke a forceful apprehension to the extent of fatally shooting a suspect?

The paper will review several incidents of deadly police shootings with a view to identifying a pattern if any and the place of race in the actions of the police officers in the shooting incidents. The crux of the matter appears to be attributing primacy to race as a determinant of police reactions or reactions to perceived danger with race as a concomitant variable in the police officers’ reactions. Among others, the paper will review the Amadou Diallo case in New York, Kathryn Jones in Atlanta and Jason Gomez in Denver.

Amadou Diallo

Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant with no criminal record, was 22 years old when he was killed on Feb. 5, 1999, by four New York City police officers. The officers — Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy — acknowledged firing 41 shots that night, but said they thought that Mr. Diallo was carrying a gun. Mr. Diallo, who came to America more than two years before from Guinea and worked as a street peddler in Manhattan, was hit by 19 bullets while standing in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building. The case set off massive protests across the city, and became a flashpoint for heightened frictions between minority leaders and the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. All four officers, who were in plainclothes, said they approached Mr. Diallo because they thought he fit the description of a man wanted in a rape case. They contended that when he pulled out his wallet to show identification they mistook it for a gun.

Kathryn Johnston

Members of a Georgia narcotics investigation team shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during a drug raid in her Atlanta home November 21, 2006.

A search warrant stating crack cocaine was being sold in her apartment allowed the officers to cut through the burglar bars protecting Johnston’s home and burst through her door without identifying themselves.

Johnston, who lived alone, apparently mistook the plainclothes officers for intruders and, according to the prosecutor trying the officers, fired one shot through the door and hit nothing. The police responded, firing 39 shots, killing Johnston and apparently wounding three of their own. Jason Gomez On December 19, Denver police officer Timothy Campbell was standing in the middle of the street in a west Denver neighborhood, his gun pointed at a man. The patrolman had been driving north on Irving Street when he’d passed a 1997 Saturn that seemed suspicious. When Campbell made a U-turn, the Saturn quickly sped down a side street and pulled into a driveway. As the officer drove up, a man — he looked to be in his early thirties, Hispanic, wearing a light, baggy jacket — jumped out of the car and ran. Campbell followed him on foot, through back yards and over fences. The man reached the 3200 block of West Ada Place, where he slipped on a patch of ice. He got up and continued down the street, falling twice more. By now Campbell had closed the gap, and when the man got up again, the two were facing each other, less than ten feet apart. Campbell had his service pistol drawn: a .45-caliber semi-automatic Glock. The man reached into his pants pocket, put his hand behind his back, and then started moving his hand forward. Campbell saw the glint of something metallic. He fired two rounds, paused, and then fired four more. The man fell onto a pile of dirty snow.

The Place of Race in Law Enforcement

For some inexplicable reasons or strange coincidence, it is the blacks and the Hispanics that are always caught committing some crimes, (Ruth & Reitz, 2003, P. 32). This is not to suggest that there is no merit in the claim of disproportionate prosecution for crimes involving certain races and ethnic groupings. The point is that, the races and ethnic groups involved tend to have an unusual criminal propensity. Some have argued that the way the society is structured economically places the concerned races and ethnic groups at a disadvantage. This may be a valid argument. It is also true that the African-Americans have a higher criminal propensity than any other single group in the United States of America. At this point, there cannot be any legal justification for resorting to crime and the reasons are obvious. A lot of African Americans suggest that survival is the sole reason for indulging in crime. For precisely the same reason, other persons are pursuing legitimate enterprises in a bid to survive. It is not strange that school drop outs are highest among the African Americans. It follows that if the basis is weak, the superstructure will as of necessity follow suit. There are many factors impacting the criminal propensity of African Americans. For example, the presence of several liquor stores in typically black populations is perceived as deliberate as it facilitates violent behavior and increases incidents of grievous bodily harm and homicide.

Winter (1980) contended citing other authors and quite rightly in my view that police shooting is the greatest triggering mechanism for racial violence in this United States of America today. Making the case for the racial content in police shootings, the writer noted that studies have shown that the ratio of black victims to white victims of police shootings is as high as 30-to-1 in Milwaukee and in Chicago which has the highest rate of civilian deaths, the ratio is 6-to-1. According to the writer, the solution may be in changing the attitude of the police officers themselves. Some of the officers think that controlling their power of deadly force is handcuffing them. The problem with this way of thinking is that they appear to want uncontrolled power in dealing with blacks as opposed to whites. What is probably required is a re-orientation and some form diversity tolerance training with the hope that the police officers would use deadly force less frequently on black people

Apart from the case of Kathryn Johnston, the other victims of the deadly police shooting reviewed in this paper were unarmed and curiously ethnic minorities. The reviewed cases and others like them have given rise to negative sentiments on the part of the ethnic minorities, to wit the blacks and Latinos. There has been the attitude that Police hate blacks. The sentiment is predicated on a vast history of large and small events that African Americans face from police attitudes and actions. According to this school of thought, (Brunson, 2007), blacks do not only draw from their own experiences, but also from a consistent pattern of events they are exposed to in their communities. This perception that the police do not like black people is not helped by the aggressive policing strategies employed by the police in disadvantaged African American neighborhoods, (the hood, ghetto etc). Indirect experiences have the potential to amplify or validate individuals’ interpretations of personal experiences and merit in-depth examination Based on research finding on attitudes of African Americans towards the police, there is the contention that citizens’ distrust is more widespread among African Americans than among white folks. Brunson examines in-depth interviews of 40 African-American adolescent males who resided in a disadvantaged urban neighborhood in St. Louis to better understand their experiences with the police. A major focus of the study was to develop a “detailed understanding” of how these African-American adolescent males interpret their interactions with the police, as well as the interactions of family members, friends, and neighbors, and to assess how these experiences shape their perceptions of the police. The findings suggest that either direct or indirect mistreatment by the police led to negative evaluations by the participants. A lot of the distrust emanates from media reporting of police handling of African American cases. The cases are sensationally reported highlighting the racial contents over and above the dynamics leading to the shootings as in perceived threats and dangers encountered by the police officers involved. The case of Kathryn Johnston, the 92 year old woman shot in Atlanta by the police. She had shot into the ceiling before the officers opened fire. This is not an attempt to defend the actions of the police officers. But when a gun is fired, can it reasonably said that one would not feel endangered so as to provoke a certain reaction such as to shoot with two purposes in mind: self defense and apprehension of the suspect who is armed and dangerous? Given the background of the case which was supposed to be a drug bust, should the officers have left their guards down? I think not. There is some reason in the contention that some neighborhoods are more dangerous than others. Where a neighborhood is notorious for criminal propensity, violence and drug trafficking, the policing strategies cannot be any thing but aggressive. The various cases highlighted above only served to increase citizens’ distrust of the police among blacks in the communities where the fatalities happened. Brunson (2007) recommended that a consideration should be given to the cumulative properties of police/citizen interactions in order to fully comprehend the nature of conflicts between minority communities and police.

The Brunson view is supported by a later article titled Either they don’t know or they don’t care: black males and negative police experiences by Stewart (2007). In addition, he identified race as one of the most salient predictors of perceptions and attitudes towards the police and may be a function of neighborhood context. Owing to social limitations, imagined or real, many residents of structurally disadvantaged neighborhoods feel estranged from formal institutions; they may lack the social and/or political capital to engage law enforcement in order to address various problems within their neighborhood. Often, the police may view these structurally depressed neighborhoods as crime-prone ecological units.

Some instances of police shootings tend to be indefensible. While people are prepared to accept a single officer may resort to deadly shooting based on his judgment, the people resent the use of deadly force by multiple officers involved in the shooting. This suggestion is validated by the outcry which followed the shooting of a 92 year old woman (Kathryn Johnston) in Atlanta by more than four officers under the guise of the belief that the woman was a drug trafficker. What made it worse was the discovery later that there was an attempt to cover up the events leading up to the shooting of the black woman. Curiously enough, it was another racially tainted police fatality. The position of the police officers is that they need to defend themselves against perceived dangers from the suspects and that any attempt to control their use of deadly force is a way of handcuffing them and making them defenseless. For the citizens, particularly the black population, the use of deadly force is not justifiable in most circumstances and is viewed as excessive in most cases. In the article under reference, two separate studies were conducted to investigate perceptions of Police use or misuse of deadly force. The first study found that as number of officers decreased and number of shots increased, perceptions of misuse of force were augmented. Number of shots per officer significantly predicted perceptions of misuse of force.  The second study showed a significant interaction between number of officers, number of shots fired, and social dominance orientation. This personality variable was an especially strong predictor of misuse of force in situations involving the largest number of shots fired per officer. This finding is in consonance with the racial element inherent the deadly shootings of the police. One way of testing the validity of the racial sentiment would have been to examine the rate of deadly shootings among black police officers and to see who were shot in terms of racial composition, (Perkins & Bourgeois, 2006).

The issue of police shootings took a different dimension with the suggestion that particular races are being targeted for such fatal assaults. Unfortunately, several studies seem to support the racial undertone in the shootings, according to Tennebaum (1994). Prior to the Garner case, police shooting was governed by one of four legal excuses for shooting a suspect. They are The Any-Felony Rule; the Defense-of Life Rule; The Model Penal Code; The Forcible Felony Rule. The any felony rule excused a police officer who shot at a suspect getting away running away after committing a felony. The problem with virtually all of the four rules was them they called for a judgment on the part of the officer even before the suspect has a day in court. In the Garner case, Garner brought an action against the police officer and the police department for fatally shooting his son while leaving the scene of a burglary. The suspect was unarmed. The court ruled that such shooting may not be used unless it is to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others. 

There is a variant of deadly police shooting which cannot be blamed on the police because it is induced by the victims themselves. Victim induced shooting has been defined in several ways and Mckenzie considered some of the definitions describing them as confusing: killing in which the victim is the precipitator of the killing, incidents in which people bent on self destruction engage in life threatening and criminal activities to force the police to shoot them. All the definitions considered indicate a conscious act on the part of the victim. But the writer points out that not all shooting inducing act are conscious.  In this area of police shooting, race does not appear to be a factor.

On the side of the police, it must be stated that there are confusing terminologies in the race discussion. Minorities can be contextual. Blacks may be minorities in the United States of America as a whole. But not so in some communities that are predominantly black. For example, in most metropolitan Atlanta in the state of Georgia, it would be incorrect to refer to blacks as the minority because they are in majority. The fact of the racial composition of the community is significant because of claims of racial profiling. Where three of four citizens are blacks, it follows that blacks are going to form majority of those apprehended by the police in that community. It is quite possible, for example, to have all the people pulled over in a routine police check to be black because not very many whites are present in the community. It would also be possible for the police to be very active and engage in aggressive policing strategies if the people in the black community have a huge criminal propensity. One fact must be stated. Blacks tend to be more violent than other races. Moreover, how reasonable is the allegation of racial bias where the apprehending officers are blacks? It must mean that the association with aggression and violence emanates from the people and not from the police. The perception of black as violent and aggressive people appears to be the same with black police officers as it is with white police officers.


There appears to be statistics to support the accusation of racial bias in the law enforcement procedures involving black people. According to the Federal Household Survey, “most current illicit drug users are white. There were an estimated 9.9 million whites (72 percent of all users), 2.0 million blacks (15 percent), and 1.4 million Hispanics (10 percent) who were current illicit drug users in 1998. “And yet, blacks constitute 36.8% of those arrested for drug violations, over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations. African-Americans comprise almost 58% of those in state prisons for drug felonies; Hispanics account for 20.7%, (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Summary Report 1998, cited in Race Law Enforcement & Prison, 2008). The picture painted after reading the above statistics is that more white people commit crimes than blacks, but there are more black people caught for the crimes. It is either that the white criminals are too clever for the law enforcement officers or the law enforcement officers know who the criminals are among white people, but choose not to apprehend them. It is doubtful if the latter is the case.

 In an interview conducted by the writer with Assistant Police in Dekalb, Kennis Harrell on 11/20/2008, the racial profiling assumption was flawed. The Assistant chief does not agree with claim of racial profiling. His argument was that in a predominantly black populated County like Dekalb, it is to be expected that most of the apprehended suspects would reflect the racial composition of the County. He would also not agree that blacks have a higher criminal propensity than whites. It comes down to the same argument that blacks would commit crimes in a black populated community. The same thing goes for the Latino populated areas. This argument when stretched further seems to dispel the racial content in the spate of deadly police shootings. It would appear that each case of deadly police shootings would have to be analyzed on a case by case basis. Consequently, the only theory that would apply generally to all cases would be the “danger perception” theory, (Best & Quigley, 2003). According to this theory, police officers react to the level of danger they imagine they are in. It then appears to be pure coincidence that more ethnic minorities are involved in deadly police shootings. It is definitely an issue deserving of further inquiry as the trend is disturbing. There is much truth in the suggestion made by Stewart (2007) that there should be further inquiry on what the impact of the presence of minorities in the various police departments would have on the minorities’ perception of the law enforcement agencies. Would the minorities in the police force see their kith and kin as more aggressive and more violent than others? The answer appears to be that perceptions would hardly change. The reason is that even in neighborhoods which are predominantly black both in population and in the composition of the police departments, racial profiling (so called) is not absent and feelings of unfairness and police brutality remain strong.

There is the need for African Americans to have a re-orientation; one that emphasizes industry as opposed cutting corners; one that symbolizes hard work and not seeking to reap where they have not sown; a comprehensive program for all round development as opposed to the get rich syndrome and a genuine effort at abandoning ghetto life.


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Osasumwen Osaghae is a doctoral student at Walden University in Public Administartion with a bias for criminal justice. He holds a masters degree of laws (LLM) of the University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria. He was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1987 after obtaining a bachelor of laws (LLB) of the University of Benin, Benin City, NIgeria in 1986.