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Race and Ethnicity

Policing And Minorities

Relations between minorities and police organizations have always been controversial in U.S. history. Accusations of police brutality and harassment were recurrent. Many consider slave patrols prior to the American Civil War as the first form of organized policing in the United States. Following the war local police were charged with enforcing the Black Codes followed by Jim Crow laws instituting racial segregation in public places. Police often failed to respond to the lynchings of black Americans through the early decades of the twentieth century. In these cases, there were rarely arrests or prosecutions by the white-dominated criminal justice systems of the South.

Similarly, race riots of the early twentieth century were usually assaults by crowds of whites on blacks with little reaction from police. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought open violent conflict between police and black Americans using civil disobedience tactics to protest racial discrimination. Once again police stood by on numerous occasions while blacks were assaulted by angry whites. The FBI even monitored the activities of black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968).

By 1978 police departments began hiring black Americans, and by the 1990s some of the larger cities had black police chiefs. Overall, police treatment of minorities improved as accusations of racial harassment declined. Nonetheless, major incidents continued. The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers during a routine traffic stop, captured on videotape, shocked the nation. Acquittal of the police officers who assaulted King led to rioting in Los Angeles and an outpouring of anger against the criminal justice system by blacks.

Police chief of Los Angeles, Bernard Parks. By the 1990s, some of the larger cities in the United States had hired black police chiefs. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Other incidents followed with the torture of Abner Louima in a New York City police station and the shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson of murder in 1995 revealed great differences in perceptions of the criminal justice system between blacks and whites.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRace and Ethnicity - Race In U.s. Legal History, Native Americans, Black Americans And Crime, Policing And Minorities