Mistrust and alienation between black men and the police have become so entrenched that we need radical, sweeping change. The collective experience of black men in the criminal justice system is sobering. African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites, and numerous studies have shown that black men are disproportionately targeted, stopped, frisked, and searched through the practice of racial profiling. Black men end up in prison more often, receive longer sentences than similarly situated white men, and are more likely to be killed during police encounters than white men – 21 times more likely.
But, as criminal defense attorneys, we can attest to the fact that as harshly and as unfairly as black men have been treated in the criminal justice system, the fate of black boys has been worse.
Decades of data show that the journey to racial disparity begins when black men are boys. Black boys are policed like no other demographic. They are policed on the street, in the mall, in school, in their homes, and on social media. Police stop black boys on the vaguest of descriptions – “black boys running,” “two black males in jeans, one in a gray hoodie,” “black male in athletic gear.” Young black males are treated as if they are “out of place” not only when they are in white, middle-class neighborhoods, but also when they are hanging out in public spaces or sitting on their own front porches.
Adolescence is a critical time during which young people come to understand and respect or resent the law and legal institutions. Negative attitudes about the police acquired during childhood and adolescence have a “lasting” effect as youth transition to adulthood. The long history of aggressive and biased interactions with the police — perceived or real — has socialized a generation of black boys to avoid contact with the police whenever possible and if not, to be hostile — sometimes outright confrontational — with police.
Black boys who congregate on the “corner” attract the attention of the police day or night. Even when they “dress nicely” or “drive nice cars” young black males cannot avoid police surveillance since such signs of wealth among black youth are presumed to be associated with drug dealing. Black boys describe their neighborhoods as over-policed and say officers stop them multiple times a day to pat them down and ask questions like “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going?”
These stories are significant not only for the debilitating and conditioning impact they have on these youth, but also for the message they send to black boys.
Videotaping, cursing, ignoring an officer’s orders and running away provoke even greater hostility, disrespect and often physical force from the police. Not surprisingly, black youth are more likely to experience a use of force than white youth.
Black boys are angered not only by the frequency with which they are stopped, but also by the treatment they experience during these stops. They describe police as belligerent and antagonistic and are especially outraged by the officers’ use of racial slurs, profanity and demeaning terms like “punk” and “sissy.” They complain about police stops that are too often initiated by physical contact such as grabbing, pushing, shoving, pulling or tackling the youth to the ground.
Once on the ground, black boys are sometimes held down by multiple officers who sit or lie on them while other officers kick, punch or mace them. More violent encounters include billy clubs or chokeholds like the one that killed Eric Garner in New York. Victims of police violence include black boys like LaQuan McDonald, Tyre King, and most recently Jordan Edwards. Fear of violence by police is now the norm for black boys.
In a recent study of police perceptions of childhood innocence, researchers showed police officers a series of photographs of young white, black and Latino males engaged in some purported criminal activity and asked them to estimate the age of each child. While the officers overestimated the age of adolescent black felony suspects by 4.59 years, they underestimated the age of adolescent white felony suspects by one year. Because of these types of distorted perceptions, black boys are more likely to be treated as adults much earlier than other youth, more likely to be arrested, harassed and assaulted for normal adolescent behavior, and more likely to be perceived as culpable and deserving of punishment or even death.
Consider the police encounter with Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was killed by police on November 22, 2014, after a witness called 911, reporting “a guy with a pistol” that was “probably fake.” When police officers arrived, they described a much “older” person, weighing 170 pounds, standing 5 feet 7 inches tall and wearing size 36 pants and a man’s extra-large jacket. The officers were doing what empirical research on implicit racial bias suggests that police do: routinely overestimate the age and the perceived threat of young black boys.
If we expect any meaningful change in the relationship between black men and the police, we have to start early. We have to help police resist the faulty perceptions of black youth as violent and aggressive and work to develop black boys’ faith in law enforcement. To aid this reform, we should revisit our extensive reliance on police in schools, mandate officer training on adolescent development and implicit bias, and require deep shifts in police policy and procedure to facilitate new opportunities for genuine, positive interactions between black youth and the police. Without these reforms, the unfair policing of black boys — and black men — will continue.
Angela J. Davis is a Professor of Law at American University and the Editor of Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution and Imprisonment (July 2017). Follow her @angelajdavis. Kristin Henning is the Agnes N. Williams Research Professor of Law at Georgetown University and a contributing author to Policing the Black Man. Follow her @ProfKrisHenning