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Takeaways: AP investigation reveals Black people bear disproportionate impact of police force

PATERSON, N.J. (AP) — Black people accounted for a disproportionate number of people who died after being restrained, beaten or shocked with stun guns by police officers in the United States, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.

The investigation, led by AP with FRONTLINE (PBS) and the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism, found that Black people of non-Hispanic descent represented about a third of the 1,036 deaths in such police encounters that AP catalogued over a decade, despite representing just 12% of the population.

Here are some takeaways from AP's reporting:

The numbers

The AP found more than 330 Black people died after encounters with police who used force that was not supposed to be deadly. The AP examined such deaths over a 10-year period ending in 2021 and compiled those incidents in a database.

The U.S. Department of Justice has documented racial disparities after probes of multiple police departments in recent years. Several of those have found that Black people accounted for high rates of unjustified stops for minor offenses like jaywalking, illegal searches and frisks that produced no contraband, unnecessary force, or arrests without probable cause.

Jameek Lowery

The 2019 death of Jameek Lowery in Paterson reflects some of the themes uncovered by AP.

Lowery, a lifelong resident of New Jersey's third-largest city, said he wanted to move to North Carolina with his three children to be closer to his mother and to get away from Paterson police he worried would arrest or hassle him.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he had been increasingly hallucinating and acting paranoid, his relatives said, when he showed up at city police headquarters early on a January Saturday in the midst of a mental breakdown. Barefoot and wearing only pajama pants and a sweatshirt, Lowery pulled out his cellphone and began a social media broadcast of an anti-police rant.

“Why y’all trying to kill me?” Lowery asked several Paterson police officers on his Facebook Live video feed. “If I’m dead in the next hour or two, they did it.”

Police summoned an ambulance, and Lowery was taken to St. Joseph's University Medical Center. What happened in the ambulance became another flashpoint in the Black community's deteriorating relationship with the city force.

Lowery arrived unconscious at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center handcuffed to a gurney and died two days later. Officials would later say that officers forcefully restrained and punched Lowery when he kicked and struck them. His sister and activists believe that police acted with excessive force because of his race.

Questions about death

Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes reported in August 2019 that Lowery died as a result of a “medical event,” citing an autopsy that concluded he had suffered a cardiac arrest while under the influence of bath salts. She said police force wasn’t a factor in the death.

The mother of one of Lowery’s children sued the Paterson Police Department, three of its officers and St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, where he had been seen and released in the hours before he went to police headquarters. Her attorneys hired an expert, a former medical examiner for New York City, to conduct a second autopsy and review police reports, interviews of the officers, and hospital records.

That expert, Dr. Michael Baden, wrote a 10-page report that found Lowery suffered “traumatic blunt force” injuries to his face, jaw, arm and chest and found evidence of “compressive choking.”

Paterson's problems

Lowery’s death triggered protests, particularly by Black residents who have long complained that the police have mistreated them.

In the mid-1960s, Paterson was the site of street battles between police and Black residents that coincided with the passage of federal civil rights legislation. Paterson was also the inspiration for the 1975 Bob Dylan song “Hurricane,” about the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was convicted by an all-white jury in 1967 of killing three white people at a city bar. A federal judge later threw out the conviction, writing that it had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason.”

Tensions between the city’s Black residents and police flared again and again. In the mid-1990s, white police officers fatally shot an unarmed Black teenager and a 28-year-old man in separate incidents, sparking widespread outrage.

A few years ago, the force came under fire for allowing a rogue group of officers to form a “robbery squad” that for three years beat residents and stole their money. Since the start of 2019, city police have fatally shot four people; two others, including Lowery, have died after being restrained.

Audit and takeover

Lowery’s death led the city to hire an outside group, the Police Executive Research Forum, to conduct an audit of the police department. The nonprofit released its findings in 2022 and found at least 602 use-of-force incidents from 2018 to 2020. Black people accounted for 57% of the incidents, while making up just about a quarter of the city’s population.

In March 2023, police fatally shot Najee Seabrooks, a 31-year-old violence intervention worker who had barricaded himself inside the bathroom of an apartment. HIs death sparked an outcry from residents and advocates. Within weeks, State Attorney General Matt Platkin ordered the takeover of the police department. In an interview with AP, Platkin said he took control, in part, because Black residents have long complained about police discrimination.

“I don’t blame anyone who has lived in Paterson for a long period of time for being distrustful,” Platkin said.

Platkin said reforming the troubled police force will not be easy or quick.

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This story is part of an ongoing investigation led by The Associated Press in collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism programs and FRONTLINE (PBS). The investigation includes the Lethal Restraint interactive story, database and the documentary, “Documenting Police Use Of Force,” premiering April 30 on PBS.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/