Police officers are supposed to protect and serve the public. Because police departments are governmental entities, there are certain constitutional protections from their actions to which all citizens are entitled. America’s dirty little secret, which is actually not so secret, is that police force is often used disproportionately depending on the race of the suspect.
This fact is part of the reason why the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) was asked to review the policies of the North Charleston police department (NCPD), initially at the request of North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is a component within the United States Department of Justice and was established through a provision of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Although COPS conducted a review and drafted a 600 page report detailing its findings on the NCPD, the Justice Department is now refusing to release that report at the behest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It’s highly problematic that such a report would not be released to the public, essentially for political reasons.
The COPS investigation was requested on the heels of the Walter Slager shooting, which is not the most recent instance of questionable, excessive force being employed by a police officer in South Carolina. I read with disgust the news article detailing a recent encounter between an unarmed, 86-year old unarmed black motorist in Kingstree, S.C. and the police. The motorist, Albert Chatfield, is now being hospitalized in intensive care after the police officer shot him with a Taser, causing him to fall on his face. The officer claims that he was worried that Chatfield would get hit by a car, hence his decision to deploy his weapon. The motorist’s family believes the incident was another example of unnecessary excessive force used by the police to subdue a black male.
It’s not entirely clear if there has been a recent uptick of police brutality against African-Americans, but the increasing frequency of news stories detailing such incidents gives a clear impression that we have reached a crisis point in this country. And while multiple instances stand out in recent memory with regard to these encounters when they go awry, those anecdotes barely scratch the surface of the mass incarceration issues now plaguing the African-American community.
African-American males are overly represented within the penal system but they are incarcerated at a rate of over five times their white counterparts, according to a recent study conducted by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC based non-profit. And while people of color generally make up 30 percent of the United States population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. South Carolina is one of 12 states in which more than half of the prison population is black. (The South Carolina Department of Corrections has a population that is 64.7 percent black, while blacks represent only 27.4 percent of the state’s population). Much of this imbalance comes as a result of the war on drugs, which has been most vigorously waged in lower income minority communities. Statistics show that one in three black males living in the United States will spend at least some time in prison during the course of their lives.
Race should not determine the type of treatment one receives from municipal or state law enforcement officials, and reports such as the one compiled by the COPS office will shed light on how police departments can improve their policies to be more race-neutral. That report should be released as U.S. Senator Tim Scott has requested so that institutional issues which may have led to the Slager shooting can be addressed.