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34 Georgia State University Law Review 513 (2018)


The well-publicized deaths of several African-Americans—Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling among others—at the hands of police stem from tragic interactions predicated upon well-understood practices analyzed by police scholars since the 1950s. The symbolic assailant, a construct created by police scholar Jerome Skolnick in the mid-1960s to identify persons whose behavior and characteristics the police view as threatening, is especially relevant to contemporary policing. This Article explores the societal roots of the creation of a Black symbolic assailant in contemporary American policing.

The construction of African-American men as symbolic assailants is one of the most important factors characterizing police interaction with African-American males. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach to Blackness. As the Article discusses, police officers’ treatment of African-American women is also fraught, and in some cases police treat Black women in a way that, while still disparaging, is markedly different from the way that Black men are treated. I argue that current strategies for ending police violence do not sufficiently address the prominence of the symbolic assailant in proactive policing strategies. This Article suggests an unusual solution to commonly understood mechanisms of addressing police violence. Based on my experience with police who had productive relationships with crime victims of color, I suggest a reorientation of policing practices predicated on a more reactive model of policing.