Nearly six years after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the fate of George Floyd, another black man who died while being arrested, has sparked outrage against police brutality across the country. As confrontations between protesters and the police play out on the street, tear gas, mass arrests and curfews follow.
At The Marshall Project, we have written many stories about the police, from the challenges of reforming misconduct to the militarization of police departments. The stories we have covered since our founding in 2014 remain all too relevant and provide context for many of the issues the country is still wrestling with today.
What happens when a police officer is accused of misconduct or brutality? That depends on where you live. In more than a dozen states, police enjoy their own Bill of Rights, which could mean if an officer is investigated, he or she does not have to answer any questions for up to 10 days, and the department still has to pay salary and benefits. The rules blur when it comes to joint task forces, where federal agencies like the U.S. Marshals recruit local police departments to track down fugitives or fight terrorism. Often, the local officers assigned to joint task forces don’t have to follow their own department’s rules, such as wearing a body camera.
When it comes to reforming troubled police departments, we reached back decades for a deep dive into the Kerner Commission Report aimed at prescribing solutions after the race riots of the 1960s—and showed the shortcomings of federal attempts at police reform. More recently, we explored one type of reform deployed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which can sue local police to change through consent decrees—a tactic largely set aside under recent Republican administrations. Or a local department can voluntarily adopt federally recommended reforms. The results, however, often fall short. In Cincinnati, where the police department was celebrated nationally for being an example of successful federal intervention, people who live in the city’s low-income and middle-class neighborhoods said they saw few changes. And it’s even harder for individual officers to change how their department operates. One officer was fired for trying to help de-escalate a fraught encounter and not reaching for his gun first.
To better plumb the root causes of police violence, The Marshall Project has talked to a range of people who’ve immersed themselves in the issue. David Simon, most famous for creating “The Wire”, pointed to the drug war’s role in changing policing in the city where Freddie Gray was killed in police custody, sparking mass protests. In the wake of the Charleston church shootings that killed nine black parishioners, Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, explored the historic role of the police in enforcing white supremacy in America. We also talked to those with searing personal encounters, such as Erica Garner, whose father, Eric Garner, died in Staten Island after a New York Police Department officer put him in a chokehold. His final words— “I can’t breathe”—were echoed by George Floyd as he died.
A contributing factor to excessive use of force by police is the increasing militarization of many police departments. For decades, the Defense Department has been passing surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies—for free and with little scrutiny. Think grenade launchers, machetes and bayonets. Many of the military-grade weapons were deployed in Ferguson, where police used weapons of war against protesters.The Obama administration banned the program after the waves of protest following police tactics in Ferguson; President Donald Trump reinstated it.
Over the years, many police departments have explored options for crowd control during protests, weapons that have been labeled “nonlethal” like bean bags and pepper balls, though they can inflict grievous harm. Militarization of police is not just a matter of equipment; in fact, as a Marshall Project story showed, nearly one-fifth of police officers have served in the military, where their training and experience can distort relations with the communities they serve.
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