Police Brutality in the United States Notes (Eva)


  • Forms of police brutality range from assault and battery to mayhem, torture, and murder
  • Broader definitions also include harassment, intimidation, and verbal abuse

African Americans and Police Brutality

  • All races, ethnicities, ages, classes, and genders have been subjected to police brutality
    • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, poor and working-class whites, Jewish people, and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe complained of police brutality in their communities
    • In the 1920s, police brutality was used against Italian-Americans to crack down on organized crime
    • In 1943 in Los Angeles during the Zoot Suit Riots, police were complicit in attacks against Mexican-Americans
    • Gay and transgender people have faced police discrimination (particularly in New York City) which led to the Stonewall riots in 1969 (when the police raided a gay bar)
    • In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Muslim Americans voiced complaints about police brutality including harassment and racial profiling
  • While people from all groups have faced police discrimination, the majority of victims of police brutality have been African Americans
  • While racism is thought to be the main cause of police brutality against African Americans and other ethnic groups, it is far from the only one

The Great Migration

  • Interactions between black people and police departments were initially shaped by the Great Migration (1910-76), during which African Americans moved from the rural South to more urban areas in the North and the West
  • Most white communities, who were unaccustomed to the presence of African Americans, reacted with fear and hostility mostly caused by deeply ingrained prejudices and racist stereotypes
  • Many police departments (as well as private citizens) acted on the presumption that black people possessed an inherent tendency towards criminal behavior
    • Because of this belief, the goal of police departments became to “protect” white people from black people
  • The forms of police brutality that this situation gave rise to were including but not limited to physical assault, excessive force, unlawful arrests, verbal abuse (including racial slurs), threats, sexual violence against African American women, and police homicides
  • Police were also sometimes complicit in drug dealing, prostitution, burglaries, protection schemes, and gun-smuggling within black neighborhoods

Police Brutality After World War II

  • Police brutality against African Americans became more prevalent in the decades following World War II
  • The victory of the forces of democracy in the war led to greater expectations of freedom among African Americans
  • As a result, many became more assertive in demanding rights from federal agencies, and white police forces saw this as a threat
  • Police began to view their own violence against black people as control of mob hysteria
  • Effectively, police brutality replaced lynchings as a means of controlling black people
  • During this period, white supremacist and terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council operated openly in southern cities, where police brutality was abetted by government officials
  • In more Northern cities, whites fled to the suburbs, and the natural growth of the black population in cities made African Americans more visible and seemed more threatening to white police officers

Police Brutality and Race Riots

  • Beginning in the 1960s, police brutality acted as a catalyst for many of the race riots that took place
  • In 1980, riots in Miami erupted over the killing of an unarmed black man
    • Over a period of three days, 18 people were killed, some 1,000 were arrested, and more than $100 million of property damage was committed
  • In 1992, the beating of Rodney King triggered the Los Angeles Riots, which were considered the worst race riots in American history 
    • During a period of six days, more than 50 people were killed and 2,300 injured
    • Property damage was estimated at $1 billion
  •  Later race riots were caused by the murders of Freddie Gray in Baltimore (2015) and George Floyd in Minneapolis (2020), both of whom were killed in police custody


Moore, Leonard. “Police Brutality in the United States.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 July 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Police-Brutality-in-the-United-States-2064580.

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