George Floyd’s death in police custody brought a huge and a rapid increase in protests over police brutality—thousands of marches driven by the assumption that taking to the streets will bring change. Is it possible?
Critics claim that protest causes more violence than it does good. They point to protests against the Jacob Blake shooting, Kenosha (Wis.), that led to the Rittenhouse shootings. Can protest be a powerful force for progressive changes? Researcher, I was determined to discover the truth, and focused my efforts on demonstrations against police violence, which took place many years prior to Floyd’s murder.
The results were clear—at least where the issue was local. My study of America’s 170 largest cities between 2000 and 2019 found that street protests were followed by declines in officer-involved fatalities of Black and Latino individuals (though not for whites). An empirical analysis found that one street protest could reduce fatalities in Black cities by 11% and Latino fatalities in Latino areas by 7% in the year following.
Also, the study looked into civilian review boards’ impact. These citizen-run review boards were proposed by activists in 1960. They believed that they would ensure accountability and reforms. These boards had a wide range of authority. Some made recommendations to the chief police officer, while others could subpoena or fire officers. All of them, however, seemed to be a sign of progress. Many CRBs are the results of protests by communities against police brutality.
However, my research found that they did not lower fatalities. The fatalities of cities with review boards were no different from those without. Only half of the 170 cities included in the study had civilian review boards by 2018.
Is there anything that works? The preliminary evidence suggested that body camera use has an impact. Black and Latino police fatalities seem to have fallen significantly in areas where officers had to use body cameras, though this information is sometimes compiled at state levels so the connection isn’t as clear.
It is evident that protests have an impact. Protests organized locally significantly decrease the death rate of Black and Latino victims by police. Policy changes regarding new restrictions on force use might also be possible. A decline in fatalities was also seen in the cities that have a greater median household income. However, this trend is more pronounced for whites.
Taking the issue of police violence to the streets makes sense, in part because social movements—such as the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ movement, or the movement against police brutality—are commonly organized by underrepresented or marginalized groups who have relatively limited access to power. Protest is often the only way for those in need to vent their frustrations. The data show that American citizens care about creating policies to reduce inequalities in power, opportunity and resources.