It’s been nearly five years since several high-profile incidents of police violence spurred racial justice protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and chants of “black lives matter!” began to echo across the country.
The deaths of several black men and women, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, drew national attention to issues of race and policing and spurred on demands for police reform.
But recent developments in two high-profile cases raise questions about whether police violence is still a flashpoint issue — or if national attention to the problem has faded.
In early May, a previously unreleased video recorded by Sandra Bland, the black woman whose 2015 death in a Texas jail cell sparked protests, emerged. The video showed Bland’s perspective of the traffic stop that led to her arrest, and it contradicted police claims that she posed a threat to the officer who pulled her over. Bland’s family and others have since demanded that the investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death be reopened.
About a week later, the disciplinary hearing for Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer accused of recklessly using a department-prohibited chokehold on Eric Garner, kicked off in New York City. Garner, an unarmed black man, died in 2014 shortly after being restrained by Pantaleo, and officers failed to immediately render first aid. Video of his arrest, and his gasps of “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for activists.
Pantaleo, who is still employed by the NYPD, was not indicted by a grand jury in 2014, but he’s now facing a department trial that could result in him losing his job as an officer. Several new details about the case have been revealed to the public, including the fact that a police lieutenant texted a different NYPD officer that Garner’s death was “not a big deal,” and that another officer inflated charges against Garner when filling out an arrest form after the man died.
The new revelations in both the Bland and Garner cases are striking — yet they arrive at a time where national anger over police violence doesn’t seem to be as strong as it was when their deaths occurred.
More recent police shootings and incidents of police brutality still draw local attention and activist outrage, but they often fail to attract the same level of public attention they did from 2014 to 2016. At the federal level, the Trump administration has halted efforts to enact police accountability measures. And years into racial justice activists’ fight for structural reform, many of the systems that shield officers from accountability remain in place. In short, it appears that public interest in these problems is waning, along with the momentum to push for police reform — even as the need for these changes remain.
Black and brown Americans still suffer from police violence
The Washington Post has been tracking fatal police encounters since 2015, and for the past four years, the database has found that roughly 1,000 people have died in police shootings each year. So far, 363 people have been killed by police in 2019 alone, according to the Post database.
Even now, these shootings continue to disproportionately affect black Americans. A 2018 article in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found that while roughly half of police shooting victims are white, young black Americans and Native Americans are disproportionately likely to be killed in a police shooting.
And as Vox’s Dara Lind and German Lopez have previously reported, significant racial disparities have also been seen in federal data and other media-compiled databases of shootings, like the Guardian’s Counted project, which ran from 2015 to 2016.
But recent police violence incidents and shootings haven’t dominated headlines or spurred calls for federal investigations and demands for national police reform efforts in the same way they did three or four years ago. And while some stories that center on the deaths of unarmed black men — such as the fatal 2018 shooting of 22-year old Stephon Clark in his family’s Sacramento, California, backyard — continue to go viral, they tend to fade from public view more quickly, even as activists on the ground continue their protests.
“Police violence — beatings, Taserings, killings — and criminal justice reform more broadly were arguably the leading domestic news storyline during the final two years of the Obama administration,” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery wrote last year. In 2018, he added, “the issue has all but vanished from the national political conversation.”
That trend has been noticed by other writers, like the Week’s Bonnie Kristian, who recently wrote that part of the problem may be that public opinion of police has improved among some groups:
Indignation about police misconduct and calls for reform were fading among the white majority by early 2016, as I wrote here at The Week at the time. Polling in late 2015 showed white Americans found police more trustworthy after 18 months of notorious police custody deaths and resultant protests. Already it was becoming evident that cases which once would (and should) have provoked national controversy were increasingly met with desensitization and indifference outside of local protests.
In 2017, a Gallup poll showed that public confidence in police was back to its historical average, with 57 percent of those polled saying they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in police compared to 52 percent in 2015. This was largely driven by shifts among white Americans, with more people expressing confidence in police in the 2015-17 period than from 2012 to 2014 (61 percent to 58 percent). During that same time confidence in police fell among black Americans, going from 35 precent in 2012-14 to 30 percent in 2015-17.
Black Americans are also significantly less likely to view police “warmly” when compared to white Americans.
There could be several reasons for the change in the national discussion of policing, but one factor stands out in particular: the election of President Donald Trump. Trump’s election and presidency has consumed a significant amount of media attention and public discussion, leaving little space for discussions of policy issues like police reform.
The Trump administration has also effectively halted federal momentum on policing reform. Under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration announced it would review old police reform agreements between the federal government and police departments and also stop entering into new ones.
In cities like Baltimore and Chicago, the Justice Department went so far as to attempt to intervene in ongoing reform efforts, arguing that reform agreements would hamper effectiveness and morale of police officers.
Lack of police accountability is still very much a problem
In recent years, several of the most high-profile cases of police violence have ended with officers not facing charges or not being convicted. This is largely due to longstanding legal standards giving officers wide latitude to use force.
It is possible the continued dismissal of police misconduct cases by police departments or the legal system — especially in incidents caught on video — has created a sense of futility, or discouragement, among some people who were first exposed to police violence incidents back in 2014.
While some officers involved in police violence are never indicted, in other cases, like the case of Michael Rosfeld, a former East Pittsburgh officer who fatally shot 17-year-old Antwon Rose in 2018, officers faced trial but were not convicted. Convictions remain very rare in police shooting cases, and officers who are given prison time for their involvement in shootings is rarer still.
In fact, the only acknowledgement of wrongdoing often comes in the form of settlements given to the families of police-shooting victims. But these settlements, which usually arrive after lawsuits (and in some cases aren’t given), are far from the systemic reform that activists and families of victims have demanded.
And because these protections largely hinge on if an officer had a “reasonable” belief that he or others were in danger rather than if a threat was actually expressed, the result is that some police misconduct or excessive force is shielded from prosecution. Efforts to change that standard have emerged in states like California, but no laws have yet to be passed.
There are other longstanding practices within police departments that make accountability for police misconduct, abuse, and fatal shootings a challenge. A 2016 New York Times report and 2017 Washington Post investigation found that officers who were fired from departments for misconduct or criminal behavior often go on to be hired by other departments or are rehired by the same agency that dismissed them. And tracking officer misconduct, or viewing body camera footage of a police shooting, remains difficult for the public.
Public attention has waned, but activists continue to push for reform
Though police violence and lack of accountability remains a very real problem, Americans in general simply seem less interested in hearing about it — which makes it more difficult for activists and politicians to push through tangible reforms.
However, that doesn’t mean people have given up. Instead, groups seem to be putting more of an emphasis on pushing for structural change from within.
The police reform-oriented Campaign Zero and the Movement for Black Lives have outlined detailed policy plans aimed at policing, but they have also demanded changes to education systems and the economy and joined a larger set of groups making up the anti-Trump “resistance.”
Other groups are seeking to boost black political engagement in the upcoming election and things like the 2020 census in an effort to force politicians to address black voters’ concerns about racism and police accountability.
Activists say their fight for justice is as urgent now as it was five years ago, and that while systemic policy change may still be a work in progress, their movement has had an impact. “Since we started using the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, since the jump start of this current iteration of the Black Liberation movement, I know the world has transformed,” Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network, wrote in a 2018 HuffPost op-ed. “I know the world is changing.”