By Shuyan Yan (PO ’23)
On August 9th, 2014, an 18-year-old Black man, Micheal Brown, was fatally shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Protests and riots quickly erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, lasting for several weeks. Micheal Brown’s death drew massive public attention to police violence and the use of police force.
Now it’s 2020. Again, an unarmed Black man and a white police officer. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was asphyxiated by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, after repeatedly saying “I can’t breath” before losing consciousness. Mr. Floyd’s death aroused unprecedented national furor and seething protests in support of Black Live Matter (BLM) movements across and beyond the US.
Six years have passed, but a similar tragedy occurred, which led to a valuable question: has anything changed since the Ferguson protests?
There were several policy reforms after Ferguson. For example, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on purchasing body-worn cameras for police officers. According to a national survey conducted in the summer of 2015, 95% of agencies were moving forward with the implementation of body-worn cameras by intending or choosing to proceed with BWC programs. However, these were not as effective as people initially expected. As stated in a Washington study, the effects of these expensive body-worn cameras in reducing police brutality were very limited. Also, in some real cases, reporters found that some officers tend not to put on the body-worn cameras before initiating shootings and body-worn cameras did not prevent police officers from lying about the events.
In response to Ferguson protests and multiple cases of police killings of black people, the US former president Barack Obama commissioned the president’s task force, releasing 153 recommendations and action items for local government, law enforcement, and communities, to promote crime reduction as well as establish community trust. However, the task force had little sway on police departments and the recommendations it suggested were never fully carried out. As shown in the data updated by the task force one year later after it was released, only nine states and municipalities have taken important steps, and in 2016, only 15 police departments signed the Initiative, Advancing 21st Century Policing to implement recommendations and action items listed in the task force.
Between 2014 and 2019, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has enforced 14 agreements with some troubled law enforcement agencies, including 7 consent decrees, 6 memorandums of agreement, and 1 settlement agreement. These consent decrees and agreements required police departments to implement comprehensive training programs, reform use-of-force policies, and improve institutional accountability, to abate police brutality and scale down unlawful practices. However, among 18000 police departments in the US, these numbers were very meager and the majority of the police departments lacked critical reforms.
Regarding the cases of police shootings, it seems like nothing has been changed. Some non-federal databases like Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence, and The Washington Post’s Fatal Force have been continuously tracking the deaths and all of the three databases suggest that up till today, the total number of people killed during interactions with law enforcement has not been reduced since 2014. While the police departments under consent decrees in some populous cities reported sustained decreases in cases, some suburban areas and rural areas where no important steps had been made saw a ramp-up in police shootings, which accounts for the steady trend in the overall tally. In addition to that, among the deaths, Black Americans were always disproportionately being killed the most compared to other ethnicities. Since Michael Brown died in 2014, the US has still seen countless cases of unarmed black people being unwarrantedly killed by police officers year after year including Tamir Rice and Eric Garner in 2014, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tyrone Harris, Jamar Clark in 2015, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016, … and Goerg Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in 2020 along with numerous others during the six years.
In terms of the public opinions of police forces, overall, there haven’t been any big shifts. American citizen’s confidence in police instantly dropped after several protests happened in 2014 and 2015, while the rate of confidence rebounded in recent years. Nonetheless, the overall rise in confidence overshadows the sharper rift among Americans in their views of police forces. White people show burgeoning confidence in the police, whereas black and other minorities like Hispanic individuals demonstrate decreasing rates of confidence.
All of the above implies one fact: regardless of how Ferguson protests aroused nationwide attention and called for social changes, we still frustratedly found that nothing much has changed within six years, despite some marginal improvements.
Regarding recent protests in response to Goerge Floyd’s death, it’s hopeful to see that protests are unprecedentedly larger and receive wider attention than any of the previous protests. Some big corporations publicly show their support for BLM movements as well and more white people participate in the protests. There is increasing awareness about racial disparity and police brutality from all around the world. Nevertheless, the key question remains: will it last, and what’s next? The Ferguson protests left us with a caveat: exhortations and recommendations are not enough. The absence of nationwide reforms and implementations will only make protestors find themselves in the same situation again afterward. The US needs a drastic change that comes from every corner of the country, not only constrained to the police departments. To change the racial bias and the status quo, I urge reforms from all kinds of systems and agencies including federal governments and states, education systems, health care systems, businesses, and organizations, etc. Fortunately, the protests are gaining more momentum as time passes, with more people showing concern for racial inequalities. However, in order to avoid repeating history and facing the same dilemma in the future, concerted efforts are needed in tackling racism that is historically, culturally, and systemically ingrained in this country.