Police Brutality: Defining the Issue

Photo by ABC News

As protests erupted across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, it was clear millions of Americans no longer believed their voices alone would be able to effect change.

According to Killed By Police, an aggregator of police related fatality data, 852 police shooting related deaths have been reported across the United States in 2020. In 2019, 1,004 people were killed by police — 24 percent of whom were African Americans. This is a group that, according to the organization, constitutes only 13 percent of the United States population.

The question of how police violence can be addressed has been a controversial issue in recent years, but the killing of George Floyd has brought the issue back to the forefront of the national conversation. Many Americans’ perspectives and beliefs of what lies at the heart of the problem of police violence vary greatly and emotions are high across the nation.

What are the most practical solutions, according to experts? Ideas range from instituting expanded public safety departments in the nation’s communities to reducing and reallocating funding of police departments to other sectors of public safety, like social work and mental health care. Others believe a conversation centered on institutionalized racism should first be had.

Before solutions can be presented, however, we must look at what is currently happening. How has police recruitment been affected by what people view as a culture of police violence, and how could policing evolve into the future given the current political climate?

What is the future of recruitment and policing?

Police recruitment for law enforcement agencies nationwide is argued to be directly affected by growing tensions between police and minority communities — namely African American communities. According to Missouri Western State University police chief Jill Voltmer, prospective interest for police work in America is on the decline.

“Every single police department is short,” Voltmer said. “If you look at bigger cities — they’re looking at a 10 to 20 percent reduction in the number of officers they should have. Academy classes are smaller and smaller. The interest is smaller and smaller.”

A number of reports from different news agencies, such as those from the New York Post and ABC News have corroborated that police departments are hiring fewer officers and struggling to retain existing officers due to the stigma and scrutiny associated with police. Despite this hindrance, data from Statista suggests police recruitment in the United States is still gradually growing, topping respective years’ statistics since its lowest recorded number in 2013.

Dr. David Tushaus, a legal studies professor at Missouri Western, said officers are losing morale for their job as they feel they are part of a problem they cannot personally solve.

“It’s hard on most police officers to watch what is happening and it’s even harder for them to think there are a lot of people out there who think ‘I’m just like that guy who killed George Floyd,’” Tushaus said. “That’s not a fair assumption to make. There are very good police officers out there who do very good work. Does that mean we shouldn’t look at improving the system? Absolutely not.”

Changing the Stigma

Photo by ABC News.

Tushaus said the tension between police and their communities can be alleviated, in part, by getting involved in their communities on a more personal basis.

“I think some police professionals recognize that getting more involved in the community can help police-community relations and can avoid the animosity that some communities develop towards police,” Tushaus said.

Voltmer also said law enforcement agencies should get more involved in their communities.

“I think it needs to be a lot more centered on community involvement and partnerships and I think that would help heal some of the bad feelings that are out there,” Voltmer said. “If the only time you see a police officer or deal with a police officer is when they are arresting you, or your friend, or your neighbor, or your brother, what’s your impression going to be?”

Mental Health and Advanced Police Training

The mental health of police officers is a widely reported issue. In January 2020, ABC News reported on research from Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit which investigates mental health in law enforcement, that found 228 U.S. police officers committed suicide in 2019, an increase from the 2018’s number — 172.

Police suicide and mental health issues are prevalent issues facing police officers today. According to Dr. Tushaus, PTSD is a factor that should be considered when investigating police violence.

“There have been studies that have indicated some of the excessive force cases may have been a result of PTSD,” Tushaus said. “There are police officers who maybe need to receive some counseling and support that they’re not getting right now.”

Voltmer said Missouri Western’s Police Department already institutes advanced training pertaining to mental health.

“It takes a little while for education to catch up with trends,” Voltmer said. “At our police department everybody goes through a 40-hour critical incident training — this is after the academy and everything else — which deals with mental health crisis and mental health breakdown.”

What does “Defund the Police” actually mean?

An argument commonly echoed by proponents of the “Defund the Police” movement is that the phrase does not mean there should be an elimination of funding for police departments, but that funds should be reallocated to other departments concerned with public safety.

In Eugene, Oregon, the community has already instituted an advanced public safety network in hopes of involving police officers with fewer cases such as domestic violence and mental health related incidents. Instead, they are sending social workers and mental health professionals.

Dr. Grey Endres, a social work professor at Missouri Western, said social workers are already heavily involved in collaborating with the police in other communities. The Kansas City Police Department cooperates with social workers, though Endres said the numbers of social workers are limited.

“The question is what exactly is their role?” Endres said. “Would somebody who is more skilled in deescalation and less equipped to go to a gun save someone’s life? There’s no definitive answer. Not all social workers are trained in crisis intervention so it would be, in essence, a speciality. It would take quite a bit of training.”

Leo Grantham, a student at Missouri Western, takes social work classes at the university. They said social workers are effective in handling certain non-life threatening situations.

“I think that with the training I have in social work, social workers are pretty well equipped to handle those situations,” Grantham said. “I think it would be a pretty effective means of handling non-life threatening situations.

Dr. Smith said because there is no way of judging when a situation can become violent or fatal, sending social workers and mental health professionals to handle calls is too dangerous for someone without police training.

“This idea that we’re going to send someone other than the police to deal with a violent or mentally ill person, I have news for them — mentally ill people can kill you,” Smith said. “The reason police have a firearm and other weapon systems available to them is because they deal with dangerous people.”

Opponents of defunding the police also argue the quality, and essentially efficacy, of officers cannot be guaranteed if funding for police is taken away, even just for redistribution. Dr. Smith said taking funds away from police agencies will have an adverse effect on police violence in America.

“I think what ‘Defund the Police’ says is ‘we’re going to force change by taking away money,’” Smith said. “But then they complain we don’t have quality police officers. You’re not going to get quality applicants if you pay the officers nothing.”

Racism as a focal point

Photo by ABC News.

As an activist for social justice movements including Black Lives Matter, Grantham said the path to building good relationships between minority communities and police will be a challenging journey.

“We want to build relationships between police and communities but we don’t want it to be police-centered,” Grantham said. “We want outreach and conversations to happen centered around the people that police typically victimize.”

Focusing on educating oneself with what Grantham describes as anti-racist literature, they believe a racially-charged culture within police departments needs addressed.

“White Fragility is a really good text white folks can read to educate themselves in terms of how to effect change,” Grantham said. “The first step is going to be education.”

The heat of the debate lies in the disagreements surrounding the foundations upon which police violence is built and enabled. According to Dr. Smith, cases of police violence are not as much a racial issue as they are a result of posed threats to officers.

“It’s an emotional issue,” Smith said. “Emotions cloud your logic. Maybe they have been harassed by the police or the relationship is bad. As a result they don’t trust anything.”

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I am a journalism major at Missouri Western State University aiming to become a photographer for a travel or entertainment publication.

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Chase Merwin

Chase Merwin

I am a journalism major at Missouri Western State University aiming to become a photographer for a travel or entertainment publication.

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