When a Trump administration official said he doesn’t think systemic racism exists in policing, many were stunned — especially after studies have shown different races are often treated differently.
“No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told CNN. “I think 99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans. Many of them are African American, Hispanic, Asian.”
“There is no doubt that there are some racist police,” O’Brien added. “I think they’re the minority. I think they’re the few bad apples, and we need to root them out.”
The comments struck a nerve with those mourning the killing of George Floyd including police officers themselves.
“Of course there is” systemic racism, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said. “It’s not just in police departments across this country. My goodness, there’s systemic racism within pretty much everything in this country.”
And studies suggest discrepancies in how different races are treated by police:
— African-Americans are at greater risk of being killed by police, even though they are less likely to pose an objective threat to law enforcement, according to research by Northeastern University Professor Matt Miller. The research found Hispanics are also more likely to be victims of police shootings.
— Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard University analyzed fatal shootings by police in 27 states from 2014-15. Among those who were “unarmed and appeared to show no objective threat to police, nearly two-thirds of the victims were Hispanic or Black,” the researchers found.
— When it comes to misdemeanors, “there is profound racial disparity in the misdemeanor arrest rate for most — but not all — offense types,” according to a 2018 report from researchers from George Mason University and the University of Georgia.
— The NAACP Legal Defense Fund analyzed complaints against police in North Charleston, South Carolina. (That’s where former officer Michael Slager shot an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, five times in the back as Scott was running away from a traffic stop.) The 2017 study found that black residents were more likely to file complaints than white residents — but “NCPD sustained complaints filed by Black residents only 31 percent of the time compared to sustaining complaints filed by White residents 50 percent of the time,” the study says. “NCPD defines ‘sustained’ as ‘the allegation is supported by sufficient evidence to justify a reasonable conclusion that the allegation is factual.”
— Latino youth are 65% more likely to be detained or committed than their white peers, according to a 2017 report from The Sentencing Project.
— In the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 17 million white respondents and 4 million black respondents reported having used an illicit drug within the last month. African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites, the NAACP said.
— Researchers analyzed traffic safety stops in Kansas City and found no major racial disparities in ticketing for speeding. But they found that “blacks were 2.7 times more likely to be pulled over in an investigatory stop,” NPR station KCUR reported. “Blacks were also subject to searches five times more often than white drivers.”
— That same study, by three University of Kansas professors, found stark differences in how white and black drivers were treated when they were pulled over. Many white drivers who were surveyed described brief interactions with police. But black drivers who had an infraction like a burnt out light were more often “questioned about what they were doing in a particular neighborhood, where they were heading, and whether they were carrying drugs,” the report said. “Many were subject to vehicle searches.”
Tim Wise, author of the book “White Like Me,” took issue with O’Brien’s belief that systemic racism doesn’t exist in police forces.
“When you have the national security adviser saying he doesn’t see systemic racism, well you know what? White folks also didn’t see systemic racism even in the 1960s,” Wise said.
He said polls prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 showed two-thirds of white respondents said they believed black people were already being treated fairly in America.
“White folks looked around and basically said ‘Eh, what’s the problem?'” Wise said.
“If white America didn’t get it even when it was obvious in retrospect to everyone, what in the world would make the national security adviser believe that he or anyone else knows what they’re talking about now? I think it probably stands to reason that black and brown folks know their reality better than we do.”
Officers also want to see change. Some have marched alongside protesters to denounce excessive police force.
The country’s largest law enforcement labor group, the Fraternal Order of Police, expressed condolences to Floyd’s family and said it is committed to helping improve the profession as a whole.
“We know what happens in communities when police officers lose the respect and trust of the public they protect,” FOP President Patrick Yoes said.
“Especially after a tragedy like we saw in Minneapolis, we need to do two things — take a hard look at our own actions and conduct, correct them where necessary, and to regain that trust by continuing to hold ourselves to the highest possible standard in a transparent way.”