When Black Becomes a Death Sentence, Part 2: Born in the USA

There is a brutal reality that comes with being Black in the United States of America. Not only do Black people in the USA suffer far worse health outcomes than the rest of the population, but interactions with the police are also fraught with danger, and can have deadly consequences (Caraballo et al., 2023; Collins, 2018; French, 2016; Hassett-Walker, 2020; HRW, n.d.; IACHR, 2018; Lofstrom et al., 2021; Schwartz, 2020; Szabo, 2023).

Firstly, a reminder on institutional or systemic racism. Those who perpetuate this type of discrimination often aren’t even aware that it exists, or actively deny that it does. It is typically engaged in by people who believe they are “just doing their job” and following the rules which are considered to be equal and fair to all. But if the outcome of universal rules are that a particular minority is consistently discriminated against, then that’s institutional racism. The intent of the person “just doing their job” is not a necessary criterion for inclusion. Even if it’s due to ignorance or a lack of critical analysis of how policies and actions contribute to discrimination, it’s still discriminatory (Blagg et al., 2015).

The protagonist of my upcoming debut supernatural thriller, Ethereal Malignance, is Black. His ethnicity is unspecified because he doesn’t actually know it, but society (especially the police) treat him like he’s Black, so Black is how he sees himself. There are situations in the story where approaching the police could be a logical solution for a White Australian like me but could be a dangerous or lethal situation for him, so he doesn’t. If you aren’t someone who is mistreated by the police, this reality can be difficult to understand (Collins, 2018). We can start by looking at history to get a better understanding of why this is the case.



In 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in a park in Ohio when a passer-by reported him to 911. Police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback arrived on the scene and within seconds, Loehmann shot the child. Neither Loehmann nor Garmback provided first aid or medical care to Tamir, who died the next day. Despite the circumstances, neither officer was charged. However, the city of Cleveland paid out a $6 million settlement to Tamir’s family. In 2022, the Federal Department of Justice confirmed it would not reopen the investigation (Atassi, 2019; BBC, 2015; BBC, 2020; Berman & Lowery, 2016; Long, 2022; MPR, 2017; Swaine & McGraw, 2015; Williams & Smith, 2015).


Modern American police forces were formed with the philosophy that non-white people were threats to the established order, norms and authority, and treated them accordingly. Prior to the abolition of slavery, the ancestral forms of what would later become the police were “slave patrols, city constables, and state militias” which were given wide legal authority to apprehend real or perceived threats to the status quo, typically immigrants and non-white people. After the abolition of slavery in the United States, attempts at Reconstruction were undermined, sabotaged and allowed to fail. This led to the passage and existence of racist and discriminatory laws that specifically sought to criminalise Black people and their behaviour, as slavery was largely replaced with mass incarceration and directly led to farces like the ‘War on Crime’ and the ‘War on Drugs’ (Hinton & Cooke, 2021; USDHS, 2020; Walsh, 2021).

Even from the beginning of the 20th Century, Black neighbourhoods and people were overly patrolled and policed, overly arrested and prosecuted, overly found guilty and overly given long and harsh sentences. And this isn’t opinion, research has borne out that Black people are no more criminal than other groups but are under more scrutiny and expected by authorities to be more criminal, leading into a feedback loop as these biased “crime statistics” are used to justify this hyperfocus on Black people, along with the racial profiling and inevitable violence by police being ‘tough on crime’. And after fighting for and achieving civil rights in the middle of the 20th Century, civil rights activists were increasingly targeted by law enforcement of all levels as “domestic insurgents”, rather than addressing the more serious threats posed by white supremacy movements, police violence, and the over-militarisation of police (Hinton & Cooke, 2021; HRW, n.d.; IACHR, 2018; USDHS, 2020; Walsh, 2021).



In 2018, 22-year-old Stephon Clark was on the phone in California when he was chased and shot dead by police. Sacramento Police Department officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet were responding to reports of vandalism in the area. They pursued Mr Clark into the backyard where they shot him seven to eight times, with between three to six of those times in the back. Instead of providing medical assistance, the officers yelled at Mr Clark repeatedly as he bled out, demanding to know if he was armed. The officers claimed Mr Clark had pointed a gun at them, but he was only armed with a phone. In 2019, the Sacramento County district attorney stated that the officers would not be charged and were justified, leading to protests (Robles & Del Real, 2018).


In the USA, Black people have measurably worse health outcomes and die younger than white people. This difference in mortality rate has led to 1.63 million excess deaths when compared to white Americans in a twenty-year period (Caraballo et al., 2023; Szabo, 2023). This is directly related to the deliberate and racist discriminatory actions that have “undermined educational, housing, and job opportunities for generations of Black people”. One example is of the ‘redlining’ of Black neighbourhoods in the 1930s, deemed too risky for “mortgages and other investments”. The people who live in these formerly redlined neighbourhoods “remain poorer and sicker today”, and also suffered from higher cases of COVID-19 and deaths (IACHR, 2018; Szabo, 2023).

And even, to the surprise of researchers, higher education and incomes don’t remove these worse health outcomes for people from these neighbourhoods: the pregnancy mortality rate of college-educated Black women remains higher than that of white women who did not complete high school. It has been suggested that stress, including stress from experiencing racism, impacts the health of Black people, who experience much greater levels of death in their communities than any other in the US. And economic matters are exacerbated further as the over-criminalisation of Black people results in criminal records which hamper their ability to find gainful employment and improve their financial situation (IACHR, 2018; Szabo, 2023).

In the United States, Black people are more likely to be followed, questioned and searched by the police because they seem “suspicious”, and they are more likely to be presumed guilty of a crime. A prime example was New York City’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ program which primarily targeted Black and Latino people, and despite them using illegal drugs at a similar rate to white people, there was a greater chance of them being arrested. And it’s not a uniquely American problem: an Australian study had people of different ethnicities attempt to board public buses and explain to the driver that they didn’t have enough money for a fare: 72% of the white people were allowed to stay on the bus, whereas only 36% of people with darker skin were given the benefit of the doubt (Collins, 2018; IACHR, 2018).

Capital punishment has also been used as a weapon against Black people in the USA. “[T]he modern death penalty is the direct descendant of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow-segregation”. It was used to control slave populations and to put down rebellions, especially in the South of the country where Black men were executed for crimes against white victims, but not so much when the perpetrators were white and the victims were Black. Even today, criminal cases with white victims have a higher probability of being investigated and resulting in capital charges, non-white jurors are systemically excluded from death-penalty trials and capital punishment is used against non-white defendants a much higher percentage of the time than against white defendants. Executed Black people who are later exonerated of the crimes they didn’t commit have a one-fifth higher likelihood of the case against them being “linked to police misconduct”. 80% of Americans who face the death sentence at a federal level are non-white (DPIC, 2020; HRW, n.d.; IACHR, 2018).

Even more blatantly than capital punishment, police killing Black men unnecessarily and largely because they can, has been shown in the entire history of American policing. The legal system in the United States largely allows the police to act with impunity and without legal consequence for violence against racial minorities. In 2019, like in most years, American police fatally shot approximately one thousand people, with Black victims largely overrepresented in the numbers. Compare this with Norway, another nation with high firearm ownership rates, where in 2019 the police only equipped themselves with firearms 42 times, fired two guns and killed no one. In many countries (including the UK, Ireland and Norway) the police do not even carry guns on a daily basis (Hassett-Walker, 2020; HRW, n.d.; IACHR, 2018; Schwartz, 2020).

Black drivers in the United States are racially targeted by police for stops: they are much more likely to be pulled over during the daytime than in the night because the police can’t as easily determine their ethnicity in the dark. This bias can also be seen in the number of searches that result in no evidence of a crime: the percentage of Black drivers found with illegal items is less than for white drivers because Black drivers are considered by the police to be suspect by default, whereas white drivers have to act suspiciously in order to be stopped by the police. A study in Maryland found that while four in five drivers “stopped and searched” on a particular highway were Black, they only accounted for 17.5% of traffic violations (Hassett-Walker, 2020; HRW, n.d.; IACHR, 2018; Lofstrom et al., 2021; Schwartz, 2020).

Being killed by police is one of the main causes of death for young Black men, as Black men (not just young ones) are “[two and a half] times more likely than White men to be killed by police”. When looking just at who the police shoot and kill, Black people make up more than one-quarter of all victims, despite only making up 13% of the population. Being “a young Black man [in] America is like living in an occupied country where any interaction with the police is to be avoided” as you could be sent “to prison for a trivial offense at the very least” or killed at worst (IACHR, 2018; Schwartz, 2020).



In 2016, 32-year-old Philando Castile was driving with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter in Minnesota. He was pulled over by Jeronimo Yanez of the St. Anthony police department. When Yanez asked for Mr Castile’s licence and registration, he informed the officer that he had a gun in the car that he was licensed to carry. The police officer yelled at Mr Castile not to reach for his gun, and despite repeated assurances from Mr Castile that he was not reaching for his gun the officer shot him five times. Mr Castile died in medical care twenty minutes later (Smith, 2017; Xiong, 2017).

This case garnered widespread attention and sparked protests because Mr Castile’s girlfriend live streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook from inside the car. Although Yanez was charged with manslaughter, he was found not guilty. He was, however, fired and the city paid out a wrongful death settlement of $3.8 million. Mr Castile had been pulled over by police around fifty times in a 13-year period for minor infringements, most of which were dismissed. The officer’s reason for stopping Mr Castile in the first place was widely questioned, in the sense that it was a clear case of racial profiling. Mr Castile was an upstanding citizen who worked for the local school district until he was killed (Smith, 2017; Xiong, 2017).


Criminalization of Minor Drug Offences

A Republican policy chief in 1994 admitted the War on Drugs was a war against President Nixon’s political enemies, anti-war protesters and Black people: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did” (History.com Editors, n.d.; LoBianco, 2016; Lockie, 2019).

And this anti-Black policy worked amazingly effectively, locking up many voters unlikely to vote Republican in the first place: jailed felons can’t vote in many states, and in some states lose the right to vote even when their sentences are concluded. In the past fifty years, the number of prisoners in the United States has greatly outpaced population growth or growth in crime rates, up 500% and resulting in two million Americans behind bars. The USA today houses one-fifth of the world’s population of prisoners, despite the country only accounting for one-twentieth of the world population, at a cost of $80 billion per year. One-third of all Black boys can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives, compared to one-seventeenth of white boys, despite no real racial disparity in criminal activity (ACLU, n.d.b.; ACLU, n.d.c.; Alexander et al., 2011; Ghandnoosh, 2014; Pew Research Center, 2016; Steffensmeier et al., 1998).


Infiltration of White Supremacists in Police Departments

The FBI has long warned of the dangers of white supremacist groups infiltrating local and state law enforcement and emphasised that this was a serious threat to national security. This infiltration has been partly carried out to disrupt investigations against fellow members of other white supremacist groups. Some examples of publicly known issues are a neo-Nazi gang formed by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who harassed Black and Latino communities, as well as examples of individual officers and even entire agencies with hate group ties in Illinois, Ohio and Texas (Downs, 2016).


Oversaturation of Firearms and Trigger-Happy Police

Each year, American police kill one thousand people per year. This is much, much higher a rate than any other developed nation. Most people killed by the police are shot to death, and this is a much, much higher rate than any other developed nation. Research bears out that Black Americans are shot and killed by police at a much higher rate than any other group. One explanation for the ‘trigger-happy’ culture of American police is the prevalence of guns and gun culture in the USA; there are more guns in the nation than there are people, and US gun owners possess half of the entire world’s number of civilian-held guns. American police are therefore paranoid, often correctly, about the chance of a member of the public being armed with a deadly weapon that they could use against the police (Berger & Noack, 2020; Calamur, 2017; Horon, 2021).

In the first 24 days of 2015, US police fatally shot more people than English and Welsh police did in the previous 24-year period. Iceland has only had one fatal police shooting in its entire history. This might seem an unreasonable comparison, given the small population, but compare it to the city of Stockton in California, which has 24,000 fewer residents than the entire population of Iceland, and which had police kill three people in the first five months of 2015 alone (Lartey, 2015).

In many developed nations, particularly those in Europe, police practices that are commonplace in the United States are either outright prohibited or subject to stricter regulations. The European Convention on Human Rights stipulates that police can only use deadly force when it is “absolutely necessary”. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where police are authorised to use deadly force if they have a “reasonable belief” that their lives are under threat. This difference in principles means that a police shooting that is deemed lawful in the United States may not be considered so under European standards (Berger & Noack, 2020).

Within the framework of the European Union, individual countries can establish their own regulations, and some have implemented stricter rules than others. For instance, in Finland, police officers are generally required to obtain approval from a superior, if possible, before resorting to deadly force. In Spain, the regulations are even more stringent. Police officers are expected, if feasible, to first fire a warning shot and aim at a non-vital part of the body before they are permitted to shoot with lethal intent. In contrast, the escalation of force in the USA is at the discretion of the officer (Berger & Noack, 2020; Horton, 2021).


Inadequate training

The duration of police training in the United States is woefully inadequate, especially when compared to other developed nations. Police training periods can vary significantly from state to state, ranging from a mere 10 weeks to 36 weeks. This pales in comparison to countries like Germany and Norway, where the minimum training periods are 130 and 156 weeks, respectively (Horton, 2021).

Moreover, the focus of police training in the United States is often skewed towards fostering a ‘warrior’ mentality, with de-escalation techniques frequently taking a backseat. In some cases, de-escalation training may only constitute a single day of the entire training period (Berger & Noack, 2020). This is in stark contrast to the training programs in many European countries, where the emphasis is on using space and time to reduce threats and the use of less-lethal weapons such as Tasers. In Japan, the use of firearms by police officers is discouraged, with officers instead being trained in martial arts. In the United States, crisis intervention and de-escalation training are often an afterthought, but with the right training and organisational attitudes, they could use non-lethal ways to subdue people with low risk of harm (Berger & Noack, 2020).

A 2013 report by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that US police academies spend an average of 71 hours on firearms training, compared to just 21 hours on de-escalation techniques. This disparity in training focus is alarming, particularly when considering the potential consequences (Horton, 2021). In Finland, for example, police training lasts three years and includes learning the law, social services, and scenario-based training. This comprehensive approach contrasts sharply with the shorter and often less comprehensive training programs in the United States (Berger & Noack, 2020).

The consequences of this inadequate and imbalanced training are all too often fatal. Situations that begin with minor infractions or non-violent incidents, such as selling loose cigarettes, attempting to use potentially counterfeit currency, sleeping intoxicated in cars, recreational drug use or sale, minor traffic violations, or even calling the police during a mental health crisis, can escalate rapidly and end in unnecessary death. This is particularly the case for Black Americans, who are disproportionately affected by a police force that is primed for violent encounters and ill-equipped for interventions that require mediation, de-escalation, and social work (Karma, 2020; Cheatham & Maizland, 2022).


Racial Bias Influencing Police Behaviour

The lack of comprehensive data on police shootings in the United States makes it challenging to fully understand the scope of racial disparities in police violence. The data that is available, albeit incomplete, indicates significant racial disparities in police killings. Complications arise from the variability in data collection methods across different states and police departments. For instance, some states, like Florida, opt out of voluntary reporting programs, resulting in gaps in the data. The absence of complete and accurate statistics hinders the evaluation of the true extent of racial disparities in police killings and the comparison of the US with other countries in terms of deaths by law enforcement. Critics view this incomplete data as another obstacle to holding the police accountable (Lopez, 2018a).

The Washington Post has been tracking police shootings in the United States since 2015, revealing more than 1,000 people are shot and killed by police each year. Their comprehensive database, which includes the names of the involved police agencies, underscores the disproportionate rate at which Black Americans are killed by police (Washington Post Staff, 2023).


Lack of Accountability and Transparency

Since 2006, the nation’s largest police departments have fired around two thousand officers for misconduct that betrayed the public’s trust, from cheating on overtime to unjustified shootings. But The Washington Post found that departments had been forced to reinstate more than 450 officers after appeals required by union contracts. Most of the officers regained their jobs when police chiefs were overruled by arbitrators, typically lawyers hired to review the process. In many cases, the underlying misconduct was undisputed, but arbitrators often concluded that the firings were unjustified because departments had been too harsh, missed deadlines, lacked sufficient evidence or failed to interview witnesses (The Washington Post, 2017).

The decentralised structure of American policing, comprising approximately 18,000 police departments and over 3,000 sheriff’s offices, each with its unique training and selection methods, contributes to a lack of accountability and transparency. This fragmented system has been criticised for fostering an environment where misconduct can go unchecked, a problem further exacerbated by the protections often provided to officers by police union contracts (Levinson, 2017; Walsh, 2021).

The phenomenon of ‘wandering officers’—those who find employment in another police department after being dismissed for misconduct—is a significant issue in the US policing system. For example, in Florida, around 3% of the police force consists of officers who were previously dismissed from another agency. This isn’t a random occurrence, but a symptom of systemic issues within the policing system. These officers, shielded by the protections often provided by police union contracts, can easily find employment in another jurisdiction, perpetuating a cycle of misconduct. This revolving door of employment not only undermines the integrity of the police force but also erodes the safety and trust of the communities they are supposed to protect (Lalwani & Johnston, 2020).


Small Towns

Racial bias, both at the individual and community level, can significantly influence police behaviour, leading to racial disparities in police violence. However, the lack of comprehensive data on police shootings in the US obscures the full extent of these disparities. The data that does exist, albeit incomplete, indicates significant racial disparities in police killings. The inconsistency in data collection methods across states and police departments further complicates efforts to understand and address the issue. Some states, like Florida, do not participate in voluntary reporting programs, leading to gaps in the data. Without complete and accurate statistics, it’s impossible to evaluate the extent of racial disparities in police killings, and how the US truly compares with other countries in deaths by law enforcement. The incomplete data is seen by critics as another way it’s difficult to hold police accountable (Lopez, 2018b).

In addition to these systemic issues, the existence of ‘sundown towns’ further perpetuates racial discrimination. These are communities that, for decades, were intentionally ‘all white’’ other than servants and other ‘acceptable’ individuals from undesired groups. Some sundown towns even kept out other minority groups as well. While some of those towns no longer practise these exclusionary policies, the legacy of such practices can still be felt today, with some former sundown towns fielding overwhelmingly white police forces that still engage in discriminatory policing (Andrews, 2019; History and Social Justice, 2023; Railton, 2023; Shuler, 2017).


Media bias

The media’s portrayal of Black victims of violence, particularly those who have suffered at the hands of the police, is often skewed and biased. This bias is not only evident in the disproportionate coverage of certain incidents but also in the way these victims are posthumously criminalised. For instance, Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, was described by The New York Times as “no angel”, with an undue focus on his past behaviours such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol, occasional fights, and secret rap lyrics. This posthumous criminalisation was irrelevant to his death and served to deflect from the circumstances of his killing (Eligon, 2014).

Similarly, the media’s portrayal of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, was criticised for focusing on aspects of his life that were used to justify his killing, such as his school suspension (Madison, 2015). The media’s initial description of George Floyd’s death, caused by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes, as a “medical incident during police interaction” was another instance of media bias that downplayed the role of the police in Mr Floyd’s death (Almasy et al., 2020).

A study conducted by doctors who regularly treat gunshot victims found that media coverage of shootings disproportionately emphasises fatal and multiple shootings, while also focusing on uncommon victims, such as women. The study found that of the 1,801 victims of intentional shootings in three different cities, only half were covered in the news. Despite approximately 83% of these victims being Black, only 49% of them made the news. Furthermore, if the victim was a man, he was about 40% less likely to be covered on the news than a woman (Penn Medicine, 2020).

This media bias not only paints an unrealistic picture of gun violence, but it also perpetuates harmful stereotypes and narratives about Black victims. The outrage over police killing Black people is typically deflected by the special place of honour society grants police officers. There’s a sense that Black victims ‘deserved it’ on some level, an example of victim blaming (Coates, 2014).


Qualified Immunity

In the United States, a doctrine known as qualified immunity is used to shield government officials, including police officers, from personal liability for discretionary actions performed within their official capacity, unless their actions violate “clearly established” federal law or constitutional rights. While intended to protect officials making “reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions”, it has been criticised for its role in cases where police officers have been accused of excessive force or rights violations (Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 1982; Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 2009).

The issue of police misconduct is further complicated by the phenomenon of the aforementioned ‘wandering officers’. A comprehensive investigation by USA Today revealed that over the past decade, at least 85,000 law enforcement officers across the US have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct. Despite the severity of these infractions, many officers manage to evade public scrutiny, their misconduct records often hidden away, unseen by anyone outside their departments (Kelly & Nichols, 2019).

Also, the USA Today investigation found that while fewer than 10% of officers in most police forces face investigations for misconduct, a small subset of officers are constantly under investigation. Nearly 2,500 have faced 10 or more charges, with twenty officers facing 100 or more allegations, yet they retained their badges for years (Kelly & Nichols, 2019).

Many police union contracts erase disciplinary records or allow police to forfeit sick leave for suspensions, making it difficult to fire officers with a history of abuses. In some cities, suspensions are erased in three years or less. Nearly half of the contracts allow officers accused of misconduct to access the entire investigative file before being interrogated. Some contracts even set time limits for citizens to file complaints about police officers, some as short as 30 days, and restrict anonymous complaints from being investigated (Levinson, 2017).



In 2020, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was lying in bed with her boyfriend in Kentucky when Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove of the Louisville Metro Police Department executed a no-knock warrant investigating illicit drugs. When the plainclothes officers broke down the door, Ms Taylor’s boyfriend, who was legally armed, shot Mr Mattingly in the leg. The officers retaliated with 32 shots, six of which hit Ms Taylor, killing her. Her boyfriend called 911 and told them someone had smashed the door down and shot Ms Taylor. The police claim they had announced themselves before entry, but Ms Taylor’s boyfriend and neighbours said this was not true. A grand jury sided with the police and only Hankison was charged, however he was not charged with killing Ms Taylor, but for the wanton endangerment of shooting into a neighbour’s apartment. Also, no drugs were found in Ms Taylor’s apartment. Hankison was fired and the other officers “were reassigned to administrative duties”. Ms Taylor’s family received a $12 million settlement from the city of Louisville. Before she was killed, Ms Taylor was an emergency room technician and had hoped to become a nurse (BBC News, 2020; Callimachi et al., 2020; Sanchez et al., 2020).


Decriminalising Drugs

In the face of a severe drug crisis in the early 2000s, Portugal took the radical step of decriminalising all drugs, treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal problem. The results have been promising, with a significant drop in drug-induced death rates and HIV infection rates, and a decline in drug use among the most at-risk population. Portugal’s approach also included harm reduction practices, such as providing clean needles and psychological support to drug users, while still imposing criminal penalties on drug dealers (Bajekal & Fonseca, 2018).

In the context of the United States, where Black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for non-violent drug offences, Portugal’s approach offers a compelling alternative. By decriminalising drugs and focusing on harm reduction and treatment, it could work towards reducing the overincarceration of Black people and address the systemic racism inherent in the War on Drugs. Furthermore, releasing those currently incarcerated on non-violent drug charges and expunging their records could be a crucial part of this reform, removing the long-term barriers to employment and housing that often come with a criminal record (Alexander, 2010; Bajekal & Fonseca, 2018).


Police Reform

Police reform, particularly in the United States, necessitates better training and stricter regulations on the use of force. The Norwegian model, where police are trained for three years at the Norwegian Police University College in areas such as ethics, human rights, and conflict management, serves as an ideal example (NPUC, n.d.). However, the issue of police reform in the United States is complicated by legal precedents that have ruled that police do not have a constitutional duty to protect individuals from harm. This would require legislation to fix (Greenhouse, 2005; McMaken, 2018).

In addition to domestic law reform, it is crucial to align US law with international standards regarding the use of force and deadly force. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommends that the principles of legality, absolute necessity, and proportionality should guide the use of force (IACHR, 2018). These principles are also echoed in the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (OHCHR, 1990).


Accountability for Discriminatory Practices

Creating and maintaining accountability for discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system is essential. All institutions within the system should be subject to rigorous government review to identify patterns of discrimination, and necessary restructuring and corrective mechanisms should be introduced to address any discrimination that is found (HRW, n.d.). This extends to ensuring that all federal, state, and local government entities fully comply with relevant domestic laws mandating the monitoring, oversight, and investigation of possible human and civil rights violations by state actors, such as police departments, as well as private individuals (IACHR, 2018).

However, it’s worth noting that some people deny the existence of racism and other forms of bigotry. They believe that the world is either already fair and everyone has equal opportunity, or that the world is unfair, but that’s life and you just have to deal with it because social hierarchies are normal and desirable (Clifton, 2023). This denial of systemic racism is not just an individual belief but is reflected in societal structures, such as the job market where anti-Black hiring discrimination has remained unchanged since at least 1989 (Lopez, 2017).


Creation of Independent Oversight Bodies

The establishment of civilian oversight bodies, akin to an ombudsman, is crucial for scrutinising police behaviour, particularly in instances of racial bias or similar prejudice. It is recommended that these bodies operate at a national level, independent and specialised, with the authority to probe allegations of racial discrimination and related intolerance, all the while not undermining judicial remedies (HRW, n.d.).

The inception of independent ombudsman offices at both state and local levels is a potential solution to address complaints about discriminatory treatment. These offices would serve as a platform for receiving and acting upon such grievances (IACHR, 2018). However, it’s worth noting that the proposal of such bodies will face opposition from police unions and politicians who will campaign against their establishment.


Addressing Media Bias

News organisations should strive for more accurate and representative portrayals of crime and ethnicity. This could involve training for journalists on racial bias and its impact, as well as implementing guidelines for more balanced reporting. Additionally, news organizations could actively seek to diversify their staff, which could help bring a wider range of perspectives to their coverage. However, there will be resistance due to existing biases and practices, as well as the expense involved. It may well be that government will be required to regulate this, but that will predictably result in a backlash at what will be termed, correctly or incorrectly, as interference with the press (Dixon, 2000; Poindexter, et al., 2003).


Defunding the Police

The term ‘defunding the police’ has gained traction recently, but unlike what opponents claim it means, doesn’t suggest the abolition of police departments. Instead, it refers to reallocating funding from police departments to other government agencies or community support services that can better handle issues like mental health crises, addiction, and homelessness. Despite resistance from police unions and some political factions, several US municipalities have begun to reallocate funds in alignment with this movement. For example, Los Angeles has committed to reallocating at least $100 million from the LAPD to programs for minority communities, and Baltimore City Council has voted to redirect $22 million from the police department’s 2021 fiscal budget to recreational centres, trauma centres, and forgivable loans for Black-owned businesses. Despite the challenges, the ‘defund the police’ movement represents a significant shift in public attitudes towards a more equitable and effective approach to community safety (Ray, 2020; Walsh, 2021).


Abolition of the Death Penalty

The death penalty, a punishment that is inherently cruel, irreversible, and particularly susceptible to discrimination in its application, should be abolished. The death penalty process in America is fundamentally flawed, from start to finish. Death sentences are not predicted by the heinousness of the crime but by the poor quality of the defence lawyers, the race of the accused or the victim, and the county and state in which the crime occurred. From 1976 to 2015, 1,392 executions occurred in the United States, and 995 of them took place in the South. The criminal justice system often fails to protect the innocent and persons with serious mental disabilities and illnesses from execution. Every method of execution comes with an intolerably high risk of extreme pain and torture (ACLU, n.d.a.).

Public support for the death penalty is falling; the numbers of new death sentences and executions are both rapidly decreasing. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that the time has come for America to end this failed experiment. Despite the fact that nearly eight-in-ten US adults (78%) acknowledge that there is some risk an innocent person will be put to death, and 63% believe that the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes, 60% of US adults still favour the death penalty for people convicted of murder. This paradoxical stance is often held by those who, in their pursuit of ‘tough on crime’ policies and Old Testament ‘eye for an eye’ justice, seem to believe that it’s better a hundred innocent people die than one guilty go free (ACLU, n.d.a.; Pew Research Center, 2021).


Federal Standards

The issue of police being rehired after being dismissed for misconduct is a significant problem that must be dealt with. The doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields government officials from being held personally liable for discretionary actions performed within their official capacity, is a significant contributor to this issue. It should be abolished or significantly modified to ensure that officers are held accountable for their actions (Chung, et al., 2020).

In contrast, other countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany do not have a doctrine equivalent to qualified immunity. In these countries, police officers can be held personally liable for misconduct, and there are clear processes for filing complaints and seeking redress. This approach, coupled with a strong emphasis on training and accountability, helps to prevent violations of rights in the course of police duties (IOPC, 2020; Surma, 2000).

In the United States, the introduction of federal policing standards and a federal registration approach could help prevent the rehiring of officers dismissed for misconduct. This approach would mirror the more centralised and accountable state-based system seen in Australia, where police services are divided into state and territory agencies, subject to government regulation and oversight. However, this proposal is likely to face significant opposition from police unions and would likely require federal intervention to be implemented effectively (Levinson, 2017).

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed by the US House of Representatives in 2021 included provisions for the creation of a national police misconduct registry to prevent problematic officers who are fired or leave one agency from moving to another jurisdiction without any accountability. This was a step in the right direction, but given that it didn’t pass the Senate, and that the Republicans now control the House, there remains little prospect of action on this front without a drastic change in the composition of the chambers of Congress (Weiner, 2021).



In 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a C4 plastic bomb on a Black residential neighbourhood which caused a fire that destroyed the entire block, including 65 houses and killed eleven people, five of them children. The target was the headquarters of MOVE, a Black liberation group that city authorities considered to be a radical organisation. The police commissioner Gregore Sambor made the callous decision to “let the fire burn”. The bombing was a clear case of excessive force and the perfect example of systemic racism in the American police and with what little regard Black lives were held by authorities (Pilkington, 2020).

To make matters worse, two of the child victims had their remains treated as objects of anthropological interest for decades instead of buried with respect (McGreevy, 2021).

Here is a list of the victims:
Tomaso Africa (9 years old)
Phil Africa (11 years old)
Netta Africa (12 years old)
Delisha Africa (12 years old)
Tree Africa (14 years old)
John Africa
Rhonda Africa
Theresa Africa
Frank Africa
Conrad Africa
Raymond Africa
(Goodin-Smith, 2021; McGreevy, 2021)





This has been a brief introduction to the systemic racism that Black Americans face, and how it leads to untimely death either through health disparities or dangerous police interactions. The issues aren’t new, the roots of racism go deep.

Until these problems are resolved, the USA cannot claim to be the land of the free. Systemic racism, particularly within the police force, kills people. It’s a problem that has been ignored, denied, and swept under the rug for far too long. This must change. Reform is needed and is many decades overdue.

In the interest of brevity, I’ve skipped over a lot of information. You could make an entire series of articles about the innocent victims of unwarranted police violence in the US. I barely went into detail about the militarisation of US police, and I didn’t even touch on the historical prevalence of lynching and the lack of police efforts to investigate those crimes.

Ultimately, do I believe there is the political will or pressure to change things for the better? If the past few decades, and especially the past decade are anything to go by: no, it won’t. Police unions are extremely potent, and they will fight any regulation or oversight of their members. Many politicians, including an entire political party, refuse to believe there are even problems to be fixed in the first place. Without even the barest acknowledgement that there’s a problem to be fixed, I don’t see how there can be wholesale reform of the systems causing these problems.

But of course, activists and pressure groups will continue to fight for change, and people will continue to protest, to fight for the rights of Black Americans and other minorities.

My question, however, is this: how much more blood from Black communities will be spilled before there is the political will to change things for the better? Based on historical precedent, the answer is certain to be far too much.


Photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash



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