By Dr. Elsie L. Scott – The recent shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year old African American male by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 focused the country’s attention on relations between African Americans and law enforcement agents once again. In the 1960s, a number of cities experienced violent uprisings that resulted in property loss and damage, and loss of lives. Since that time, incidents involving the police and black civilians have resulted in uprisings in a number of urban areas. After each of these incidents, public officials, media representatives and citizens have assessed the causes and suggested improvements.
The reaction to the 1960s riots that started with the Watts riot of 1965 was unlike the reactions to the other uprisings in that national attention was placed on the incidents. The President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed an 11-member commission (the Kerner Commission) to review the causes, the effects and preventive measures. The Kerner Commission found that police action was a major precipitating factor for all of the uprisings they studied. Federal and local resources were invested in actualizing some of the Kerner Report’s recommendations. Some of the reforms implemented were changes in police policies related to police misconduct, changes in citizen complaint process, recruitment and promotion of black police officers, and the implementation of programs designed to increase positive police-citizen interaction.
Despite the positive changes in police-community relations that were implemented in the 1970s, another major uprising took place in Miami, Florida in 1980. The not-guilty verdict of four police officers charged in the killing of a black motorcyclist led to three days of rioting that resulted in deaths, injury and property destruction. Reacting to the riot, a citizens’ review board was created, but there are questions about its effectiveness. More black and female officers were hired and promoted, but the culture did not immediately change.
The police case that personified problems with the police in the 1990s was the Rodney King case in Los Angeles. A tape of police officers beating a black man captured the nation’s attention, and when the police officers charged in the beating were acquitted, rioting started. Over one billion dollars in property damage resulted, and 53 people were killed. The chief of police who helped to create a culture of suppression and confrontational policing was forced out, but it took time and a federally-mandated consent decree to change the culture to one that was more community focused.