Police brutality is not invisible

“I can’t breathe.” These were the last ones ever spoken by Eric Garner, and the first words shouted by every protestor who has been out on the streets in the wake of his untimely death at the hands of not only one, but several New York Police Department officers; never in his imagination could he have predicted how great of an impact those last words would have.

Over a year later, his daughter Erica Garner is now considering running for Congress in light of her belief that current New York Rep. Dan Donovan (R) failed to bring her father’s killers to justice when he served as Staten Island’s district attorney. Her cries for justice are bringing police brutality – and the conversations about police legitimacy that inevitably permeate it – back into the limelight. This gap between the crime-fighting role police officers are expected to fulfill and the criminal actions that some officers have ended up committing is an issue that has been shoved under the rug repeatedly, only to come back revealed as a festering wound that grows worse with each and every injury.

{mosads}It is clear that police brutality is not an invisible trend, so why does society keep treating it like it is? Garner’s death is part of a string of cases that has lengthened greatly over the past few years. From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown, new additions to the list of victims are constantly being made; these names have found themselves at the center of media attention before being forgotten by reporters who must move on to the next news story, and then remembered again once a new victim’s name is added to the list.

The epidemic of police brutality – primarily affecting black males – can be linked to the history of a technique called hot spot policing, which criminologists Anthony Braga and David Weisburd have described as a technique that stations many cops in areas with higher crime rates; these areas overlapped with areas inhabited by lower-class minorities. Police initially utilized this technique to prevent crimes from happening in hot spots, but the specific measures that would be taken to prevent crime were often left unclear; there were almost no boundaries to these officers’ powers as authority figures who could stop at nothing in their crime-fighting efforts, which ironically led to many officers committing brutal crimes themselves.

“Stop and frisk” was thus introduced and institutionalized as a method for physically confronting and aggressively apprehending potential criminals in hot spots. When this intersection between stop and frisk methods and hot spots proved to be statistically successful in lowering crime rates – a forty percent drop was reported in the decade following the crime wave, according to author Adam Gopnik –  police departments everywhere never looked back. 

These institutionalized policing techniques led police to focus on those generalized areas where crime was most likely to happen by using methods that would get rid of crime immediately rather than gradually. The two factors at play in most police brutality cases – race and violence – thus emerged out of the emphasis that these policing techniques initially placed on geography and methodology.

Community policing is one technique that is working to advance the repairing of broken bonds between police officers and citizens by using less hostile methods of intervention. Whereas hot spot policing relies on arresting offenders to temporarily keep them out of crime and keep crime rates low, community policing aims to improve relationships so that police officers can help get offenders out of crime permanently and keep crime rate reductions in place. While the technique is a noble effort to halt police brutality, it requires more attention before it can be implemented successfully nationwide. Both the police departments and the public need to stop putting off conversations about how to address brutality, keeping in mind that one, crime hot spots will require much more time and attention for their citizens to regain trust in police authority, and two, only then can police brutality be truly eradicated.

The Garner case is only now coming back because of Erica Garner’s potential bid for Congress. Let this serve as a reminder that we, as a society, should not have stopped talking about men like Eric Garner in the first place. We should not continue ignoring police brutality. We should not continue ignoring this festering wound that calls for a solution that is more healing than time. We should not wait around for another case like Eric Garner’s to call us to action.

Tso is a first-year student at Columbia University studying Political Science and History.


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