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Maternal Figures or Aggressors: Controlling Images in Newspaper Constructions of Police Violence against Black Women and Men

Published onMay 24, 2022
Maternal Figures or Aggressors: Controlling Images in Newspaper Constructions of Police Violence against Black Women and Men


In the last decade, media coverage of state-sanctioned police violence against Black women and men re-emerged. Despite campaigns that expose how Black women and men become victims of police violence, Black men’s fatalities gain more traction, garnering national outrage and calls for police reform, policy reform, and criminal justice reform (Crenshaw & Ritchie, 2015). I conduct a content analysis of 76 newspaper articles covering 24 cases of Black women and men from 2016 to determine how newspapers construct narratives of Black women and state-sanctioned violence in comparison to Black men. Newspaper articles reflect and construct differing narratives on Black women’s and men’s experiences with aggressive policing, relying on a combination of racialized and gendered stereotypes, witness accounts, police reports, and city responses to create those perspectives. This project leans on Hill-Collins’ concept of controlling images to argue controlling images on motherhood and aggression obscures the institutional failures that lead to fatal force. Controlling images are presented in what I refer to as “secondary narratives,” newspaper narratives of police violence that include police statements, community reactions, and family responses disseminated after an initial reporting of their deaths. On the other hand, the narratives on Black men illustrate their roles as fathers and caretakers alongside issues of racial injustice, institutional failures, and state-sanctioned victimization. Ultimately, centering controlling images prevents a collective resonance with Black women’s state-sanctioned victimization.


Since enslavement, policing remains a central feature of American society (Muhammad, 2010; Hinton & Cook, 2021). The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown at the hands of police officers have sparked national outrage and reignited conversations from scholars, organizations, and campaigns on aggressive policing against Black Americans in the United States. Scholarship frequently underscores both Black women and men disproportionately face aggressive policing in communities of color and across institutions (Muhammad, 2010; Boyles, 2019; Ritchie, 2017). However, national conversations and outrage on police aggression and violence are largely limited to the experiences of Black men and boys. Existing scholarship marks the efforts of Black feminists and criminologists to consider Black women’s and girls’ interactions and experiences with policing (Ritchie, 2017; Richie, 2012; Crenshaw et al., 2015; Kwate & Threadcraft, 2015; Brunson & Miller, 2006). National movements and campaigns like the Movement for Black Lives and #SayHerName follow suit to reveal the pathways to criminalization and victimization for Black women and men for wider audiences, yet the stories of Black men continue to garner the most attention (Crenshaw et al., 2015).

Scholars denote the current rhetoric on race, gender, and state-sanctioned violence limits the comprehension of state-sanctioned police violence against Black women (Richie, 2012; Ritchie, 2017). By analyzing newspaper coverage of state-sanctioned police violence, this article illuminates the unequal representation of police violence against Black women compared to Black men. Why does the death of Black men at the hands of the police garner more traction compared to their Black women counterparts? How does the media represent Black women in comparison to Black men as victims of state-sanctioned violence? I conduct a content analysis of newspaper articles in the United States to determine how newspapers construct narratives of Black women’s experiences with police violence in comparison to Black men. I argue newspaper articles construct differing narratives of aggressive policing against Black women, relying on a combination of racialized and gendered stereotypes, witness accounts, and police reports to prevent resonance with Black women’s victimization. Newspapers organize their coverage into what I refer to as primary narratives, the first depictions of the victim and police officers within 24 hours of the incident, and secondary narratives, narratives incorporating family and police statements. Each narrative provides divergent racialized and gendered narratives to set up impressions of victims of fatal police force.

Borrowing Patricia Hill-Collins’ concept of controlling images to explain Black women’s subordination, I find that Black women are portrayed as maternal figures, caretakers, highly sweet, kind, or at the other end mentally unstable, aggressive, and criminally threatening. Controlling images are presented in secondary narratives, stripping Black women of their state victimhood. The particular kind of contradictory controlling images and stereotypes of Black women hide the institutional and structural conditions that create increased policing in Black communities, centering instead individualistic characteristics to justify the use of aggressive policing against them. In concert, these contradictory “controlling images,” focusing on individual standards of behavior, shift conversations of police violence away from Black women’s structural victimization. The multitude of narratives on the criminalization of Black men from scholars and activists connects Black men to their state-sanctioned victimization while the controlling images and rhetoric on Black women reinforce their criminality, and limit conversations on Black women and their experiences with state-sanctioned police violence.

Non-victim Black womanhood

Despite the recognition of Black women as victims of police aggression and violence, controlling images of Black women play a powerful role in constructing how Black women are perceived as criminals, but not as victims of structural violence. Controlling images manipulate existing characteristics or symbols “to make racism, sexism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts of everyday life (Hill-Collins, 2002).” Black women contend with a range of controlling images, simultaneously criminalizing Black women, and preventing their victimization in the process. Current scholarship centers on the relationship between controlling imagery and police violence, illuminating how controlling images of Black women are utilized as a justification for police violence (Amuchie, 2015; Ritchie, 2017; Hitchens 2017). In particular, controlling images lean on portraying Black women as criminals to justify a series of encounters from verbal harassment to fatal force (Richie, 2012; Amuchie, 2015; Hitchens, 2017; Ritchie, 2017). While controlling imagery may render Black women as criminals, controlling images of Black women use symbolism around motherhood to justify their criminalization.

Black women and their womanhood in the United States were established by placing them outside of the bounds of protection. Enslavement in the United States was formative for the development of Black identity and state subject making by not granting Black women or men their status as fully human subjects, subjecting them to state-sanctioned violence delineated by race. Outside the bounds of statehood, enslaved women’s subjecthood was tied intimately to childrearing practices and sexual exploitation, producing a racialized and gendered subject intimately linked to violence and domestication (Hartman, 1997; Hill-Collins, 2000; Omolade, 1994). Furthermore, Black women during enslavement and post-enslavement were often positioned in juxtaposition to white women, who were considered “pure, submissive, and domestic,” and in need of familial and legal protections (Hill-Collins 2000). This juxtaposition to white women left Black women’s subjecthood not only bound to motherhood, but to their perceived lack of domestication. Ultimately, these structures effectively placed Black women outside of state-sanctioned protections.

Contemporary and historical controlling images of Black women around ideals of “inappropriate Black motherhood” are exploited to limit Black women’s protection from structural violence. Controlling imagery around motherhood leans on racialized, gendered, and classed symbolism to deny Black women and Black families’ necessary institutional resources and protection to navigate impoverished Black communities. Cultural images of Black women include the welfare queen, mammy, and sapphire, stereotypes that originated from various depictions of Black motherhood and partnership (Hill-Collins, 2002; West, 1995). Those stereotypes are employed to leave Black women outside the bounds of protection, leaving Black women vulnerable to various forms of violence (Roberts, 1999; Richie, 2012). Historical cultural images centering on good and bad mothering characteristics, including the “mammy” and “sapphire,” were promoted as the justification for the criminalization and poverty that is present in impoverished Black communities (Frazier, 1947; Moynihan, 1965). Rather than observe the structural impediments that created impoverished Black neighborhoods, Black women’s standing as mothers and wives were studied to examine the state of Black families and communities (Frazier, 1947; Moynihan, 1965). Contemporary stereotypes, most prominently the “welfare queen,” is used to portray Black women as criminal to deny necessary institutional protections and financial resources (Roberts, 1999). As a result, Black women’s experiences with structural violence are rationalized because of their character.

Black women’s position as outside the bounds of protection ultimately prevents resonance with their state-sanctioned victimization. State-sanctioned violence against women is defined as, “the abuse that women experience while they are in the custody of institutions like prisons, hospitals, drug treatment centers, or schools as well as abuse by people who are in positions of authority in social agencies that women are required to engage with or depend on (Richie, 2012),” revealing a haunting reality for Black women. Richie’s (2012) violence matrix provides an overview of how a combination of “structural disadvantages, institutionalized racism, gender domination, class exploitation, and other forms of oppression” leaves Black women in frequent contact with state-sanctioned violence (p. 68). Black women who live in low-income Black communities are particularly vulnerable, as harmful interactions with authority figures and institutions are increased for Black women and men (Lawrence, 2000; Richie, 2012). Yet, the dominant narrative of Black women as mothers and caretakers generates beliefs of their criminalization or victimization only with agencies that deal with motherhood, including welfare and school agencies (Roberts, 1999; Cammett, 2016). Those associations effectively limit conversations of Black women’s experiences with multiple state agencies, including what leads to increased interactions with police enforcement. Unlike Black women, Black men’s stereotypes and cultural images on Black criminality provide entryways to discuss the full extent of their victimization with state agencies.

Dominant presence of men in criminalizing Blackness

The relationship between modern policing and race has a long history in the United States (Alexander, 2012; Jones-Brown, 2007). The development of policing as an institution, including its policies and practices, was informed by emancipation, the rise of Jim Crow, and the development of urban neighborhoods (Bass, 2001; Jones-Brown, 2007). Race has been a central feature in the regulation of space, namely who does and who does not have access to certain spaces. As a result, policing as an institution was constructed and maintained by the desire to control and regulate racialized subjects, including Black women and men. The consequences on Black women and men are wide-ranging, as Black men and women are more likely to report negative experiences with policing (Weitzer, 2010; Kochel et al., 2011). As policing maintains its presence in American society, the development of anti-Black punitive practices has repercussions on how Black women and men are perceived and treated.

Anti-Black punitive practices have also shaped policing and their relationship to African Americans since enslavement (Muhammad, 2015; Boyles, 2019). Studies denote the experiences Black Americans face with policing and surveillance, chiefly the accounts of police violence and mass incarceration in the United States (Muhammad, 2015; Boyles, 2019). In particular, the perception of criminality became synonymous with Black men and boys (Welch, 2007). Consequently, the “Black male criminal” stereotype results in the racial profiling of Black men and boys, and their disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system (Welch, 2007; Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). The sheer number of Black men in the criminal justice system prompted further discussions on the connections between Black men and criminality. Researchers largely explore how structural issues, including neighborhood segregation, impoverished neighborhoods, lack of economic access, pressures of masculinity, and cultural pressures can influence crime for Black men and boys (Wilson, 1987; Anderson, 1999; Wilson, 2009; Peterson & Krivo, 2010; Rios, 2011). Researchers also examine aggressive policing against Black men, as they have the largest share of negative interactions with police officers (Fagan et al, 2010; Brunson & Miller, 2006; Brunson, 2007; Geller, 2014). Extensive research on the criminalization of Black men emphasizes the structural and micro conditions that lead to crime and interactions with state authorities, shifting away from stereotypes of Black men that automatically assume their criminality.

The criminalization of Black women is also extensively investigated to examine the connections between Black women, criminality, and victimization. Black women, while not represented in the criminal justice system to the same degree as Black men, are still disproportionately represented (Crenshaw et al., 2015). Scholars have primarily studied Black women’s unique pathways to crime and victimization, examining the role of race and gender. For instance, scholars denote how intimate partner violence and “survival crimes,” nonviolent crimes that provide money, lead to crime (Richie, 1996; Arnold, 1990). Richie’s (1996) gender entrapment theory argues that battered Black women, who face a combination of economic disadvantage, racial discrimination, and pressure to remain with their partners, are more forgiving of their partner’s criminality. Their vulnerability leaves Black women more prone to committing survival crimes.

Aggressive policing against Black women is also examined, exposing Black women’s unique experiences with physical and sexual violence at the hands of police enforcement, or as victims of sexual abuse (Kraska & Kappeler, 1995; Brunson & Miller, 2006; Jacobs, 2017; Ritchie, 2017). Black women and Black girls are cognizant of the physical and sexual violence they can face during police interactions in the home, in the community, and in institutional settings (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Richie, 2012; Ritchie, 2017). Scholars further denote families of police officers have higher levels of domestic abuse (Jacobs, 2017). Scholars also increasingly denote mental health issues as prevalent among Black women’s interactions with police officers in disadvantaged communities (Mengo et al., 2017; Jacobs, 2017; Richie, 2012; Ritchie, 2017). However, despite extensive research from scholars, criminalized and victimized Black women are not heavily depicted in the media, leaving little opportunity to examine pathways to their victimization (Neely, 2015; Richie, 2012).

Newspaper constructions of state-sanctioned violence

Newspapers reflect the media’s role in constructing our understandings of Black women’s and men’s experiences with aggressive policing. Newspapers as one site of legitimacy are still influential, even as social media shifts the approach journalists and newspapers employ to frame the experiences of Black women and men. Social media are an important source for people to gain information from news sites and other platforms (Shearer & Mitchell, 2021). However, newspapers are still known to establish legitimacy for the local public and a wider audience (Entman & Rojecki 2000; Neely, 2015; Ju et al., 2014). Journalists write stories that reflect already held understandings by other journalists and similarly socially situated audiences, creating stories that make sense to their targeted audience (MacDonald, 2003; Gamson et al., 1992; Ju et al., 2014). Therefore, Newspaper coverage can allow scholars to pinpoint existing dominant views on race and state-sanctioned violence, highlighting how raced subjects are perceived when they encounter aggressive policing. As such, newspaper coverage can pinpoint how raced and gendered subjects, in this case, Black women, are perceived when they experience aggressive policing.

When reporting police violence in communities of color, numerous academic studies show journalists traditionally favor institutional officials when reporting on police violence, sidelining narratives from citizens and grassroots organizations (Entman & Rojecki, 1993; Lawrence, 2000; Lee & McGovern, 2013). Centering the narrative of police officers and other institutional officials frames police violence in multiple ways. For one, police and institutional officials’ accounts frame police violence as a behavioral issue, rather than a public problem or policy issue (Lawrence, 2000). Likewise, police accounts frame victims of police violence as criminals or deviants, arguing police officers did their jobs (Lawrence, 2000). Journalists’ framing of police violence sustains the need for police presence in Black communities, without pressuring police reform. However, standard framings of police violence have been challenged, resulting in journalists reporting multiple narratives in their framing. When citizen activism and organizations gain momentum, journalists adapt and usher in multiple voices, exposing police violence as a societal issue (Lawrence, 2000). However, narratives of state-sanctioned police violence are coupled with stereotypes, creating differing narratives for women and men.

This project continues the current explorations between the criminalization of Black women, Black women’s victimization, structural violence, and the media. Media and newspaper coverage increasingly covers police violence against Black women and men. In the digital age, newspaper coverage has more reach than ever before, reinforcing existing dominant views. As the media increases its coverage, newspaper coverage can highlight whether Black women are portrayed either as victims or criminals of police violence, even as they face fatal force. Those portrayals can help determine why cases of fatal police force against Black women gain little traction, even as their cases are increasingly receiving coverage.


To examine how Black women and Black men are portrayed, I conducted a content analysis of newspaper reports of cases of state-sanctioned police violence against Black women and Black men in the United States. Newspapers provide a breath of information on cases of police violence, spanning from witness accounts to police accounts of each instance of police violence. Newspapers additionally establish legitimacy for the local public and a wider audience (Entman & Rojecki 2000; Neely, 2015).

A total of 24 cases of Black women and men were analyzed. The selected 24 cases come from The Washington Post’s “Police shootings 2016 database: Fatal Force.” To date, The Washington Post provides one the most comprehensive catalogs of fatalities due to police interaction in the United States. Newspaper tracking of police violence and police fatalities remains one of the most comprehensive tracking systems, despite efforts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to track police fatalities (Washington Post Editorial Board, 2018). The Washington Post gathers its database based on news reports, public records, social media, and independent databases. The Washington Post’s database additionally provides a range of information per fatality including state, gender, age, and race. The database also tracks whether the person was experiencing a mental health crisis during their interaction with police officers. Finally, each fatality reported is accompanied by a small list of newspaper articles providing details on each case.

The list includes a total of 233 Black women and men combined who were killed by the police in 2016. From the list, 13 cases of Black women’s interactions with the police were fatal. I analyzed the reporting of 12 Black women fatalities by police force, as the 13th case was a result of intimate partner violence. I also analyzed the reporting of 12 Black men fatalities, chosen based on the date of fatality closest to their Black women counterparts. 24 cases were chosen to reflect all Black women’s cases and a Black male counterpart. All of the fatal incidents tracked are of Black women and men aged 16 and up.

A total of 76 articles were chosen for analysis. I utilized LexisNexis to gather newspaper articles for each case. Excluding international newspapers, I selected every 3rd article for analysis. Newspaper articles of less than 250 words were also excluded since they provided little details on the case, the victims, and the officers. While newspaper articles with small word counts bring attention to a case longer newspaper articles allowed for an analysis of the coverage of the case. Furthermore, newspaper articles were sorted and analyzed in chronological order, allowing a representative sample that provides a timeline of each case. In addition to gathering a sample of newspaper articles from LexisNexis, I googled each newspaper article to analyze photographs not included in LexisNexis newspaper articles.

For data analysis, I began with an initial set of codes, including codes for aggression, subhuman qualities, superhuman qualities, irrationality, victim-blaming, police blaming, police motive, masculinity, community ties, and family ties. After the first round of analysis, additional codes were added and refined for further analyses. Furthermore, I took note of the location of each case, descriptive characteristics (race, gender), the inclusion of photographs, the motive for arrest or confrontation with police, types of violence displayed, the response from the police, the response from family members, and the response from community leaders. Coding facilitated the examination of the overall message of each article: the portrayal of police officers, the portrayal of Black women, the portrayal of Black men, the portrayal of the incident, and the portrayal of the community. Furthermore, coding helped explore the trajectory of each case. Coding helped analyze whether initial themes shifted throughout the case or remained the same.

Table 1. Black women and men’s fatalities codes






Crim Act

The individual was actively involved in criminal activity.



Men. Health Check

Police called to check in on individuals with mental health issues.



Per. Crime

Perceived active criminal activity.



Dom. Violence

Domestic Violence Dispute.




Police serve a warrant for one's arrest.




Police serving an eviction notice.




The individual was armed with a gun, weapon, or vehicle.



Not Armed

The individual was not armed with any form of weapon.



Crim Past

The criminal record was presented.




The individual displayed violent, hostile, or threatening behavior.




Any mention of an individual's physicality.




The individual displayed abnormal or erratic behavior.



Threat Self

The individual was a threat to themselves.



Threat Police

The individual was a threat to police officers.



Threat Others

The individual was a threat to community members.



Just Force

Use and amount of force in the encounter are justified.



Unjust Force

Use and amount of force in the encounter are not justified.



Police Mis

Case a product of police misconduct.



Comm Issues

Case representative of larger community issues and institutional failures.




The individual was depicted as a mother or a mother figure.




The individual was depicted as a father or a father figure.



Love Kin

The individual was depicted as loving, kind, and caring.



Not Violent

Individuals are characterized as not violent or not aggressive.




The individual was depicted as a son, daughter, son-like figure, or daughter-like figure.



Men Health Issues

The family expressed that the individual was struggling with mental health issues.



As aforementioned, this project aims to explore the multiple methods and narratives newspapers employ to depict state-sanctioned police violence. As cases of Black women and men and police violence remain in the spotlight, a thorough analysis of newspapers exposes how Black women are narrated in traditional media outlets. Furthermore, as state-sanctioned violence against Black women is increasingly in the spotlight, an exploration of those narratives exposes how Black women are portrayed to wider audiences. Those portrayals may ultimately impact the resources and support Black women receive against state-sanctioned violence.

Ultimately, I sought to determine the common and diverging themes between cases of Black women and men. I examined whether initial perceptions of Black women and men were based on Black women and men’s stereotypes. Furthermore, I examined whether cases utilized race and gendered labeling in their descriptions of Black women and men, including racial and/or gendered stereotypes. I also examined whether community concerns would become central to each case, and to what degree.

Findings: Primary and secondary narratives of racial and gendered reporting on state-sanctioned police violence

Newspaper coverage of state-sanctioned police violence reflects the distinct perceptions of state-sanctioned police violence against Black women and men. Newspaper coverage of police violence occurs through two distinct approaches, primary and secondary reporting of each case of police violence that led to a fatality. Primary narratives are the first details of the police encounter, providing the first introduction of the fatality and the deceased. Primary narratives are typically included in newspaper coverage approximately 24-48 hours after the incident. Those reports provide the first details of the incident, including initial details of what led to the police encounter as well as the details that lead to the shooting. Primary narratives also provide initial details of the police officers involved in the incident. Details of the encounter with the victim are central in the primary narrative, such as their behavior and attitude toward police officers upon the first encounter. Additional details of the victim are also provided, including their names, photos, and criminal history if available.

Secondary narratives are fully developed narratives that present a portrayal of the police encounter and the deceased. Secondary narratives are provided in newspaper coverage any time after 24 hours of coverage. Secondary narratives provide additional details, including family statements, police statements, and community statements. Secondary narratives also provide new details about the deceased, including information about the deceased from loved ones. Primary and secondary narratives in newspaper coverage reveal whether Black women and men are perceived as victims of state-sanctioned violence. Primary narratives set up the initial perception of whether Black women and men’s fatalities are a product of police violence or criminalization. Primary narratives in newspaper articles regularly criminalize Black women and men similarly. For Black men, their encounters with the police were often a result of crimes committed. In a few instances, Black men’s encounters were due to mental health issues. Black women’s encounters with the police were a result of an array of issues including criminal activity, mental health and disturbance, domestic violence, and neighborhood surveillance. Black women’s encounters with police are in line with research reporting on the multitude of experiences Black women have with police enforcement (Arnold, 1990; Richie, 1996; Richie, 2012; Ritchie, 2017). However, regardless of the reason for the encounter, the police’s decision to use fatal force against Black women and men was often justified by emphasizing aggressive behaviors created the opportunity of threat against police officers. Other details of the deceased, including their previous criminal history, are emphasized to portray one’s violent nature. Black criminality is central to the development of primary narratives.

Secondary narratives in newspaper coverage are the first introduction to gendered understandings of state-sanctioned violence, incorporating controlling images of Black women that prevent resonance of their victimization. The introduction of police statements and family reflections present Black women as maternal figures and caretakers, depicting Black women as kind, loving, and caring. Those depictions are frequently discussed as a response to their criminalization provided in primary narratives, emphasizing that as loving caretakers, they were not the Black women presented in those primary narratives. However, their deaths were not frequently connected to the possibility of excessive police force or structural issues that create the atmosphere for police violence against Black women. Black men’s secondary narratives also were utilized as a response to their victimization. Unlike Black women, secondary narratives connected the death of a Black man to larger structural issues, including police violence. Secondary narratives of Black women ultimately do not center on Black women’s victimization, by centering on controlling images to maintain their subordinate position.

Primary narratives: The criminalization of Black women and men

Primary narratives, the first details of police shootings leading to fatalities, revealed primary narratives depict both Black women and men as criminals. In the primary narratives after the death of Black women and men, aggressive and threatening behaviors were prominently discussed as a justification for police force. Furthermore, criminal records and discussions of their history were mentioned to denote the deceased’s propensity for violence. Physicality was also mentioned when it would reinforce one’s criminalization. Crayton West, a 52-year-old man was shot and killed in St. Louis after police were called in for an active robbery. In a St. Louis Dispatch article entitled, “Fast-Food Robber Killed by St. Louis Police Had History of Holdups in the Mid-80s,” Crayton West’s aggressive behavior, criminal record, and physical stature were discussed throughout the article. The article mentions West pointed his weapon at police officers before he was shot, but also denoted surveillance footage was available but not released. Furthermore, the article extensively emphasizes his prior criminal record and physicality.

Court records ... show that West was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a string of fast-food restaurant robberies in St. Louis. He used a cap pistol to rob seven restaurants over a 10-day stretch in October 1986. The suspect was dubbed “the fat robber” based on his description. When West was arrested, he was 6-foot-3 and weighed about 225 pounds, but police said he appeared to be heavier. (Bell & Byers, 2016)

Connecting West’s previous criminal record and large physical presence signify how newspaper reports initially frame Black men. West's moniker, “the fat robber” made his physical presence noteworthy to police officers. While police officers were aware of his weight and height, official documents indicate a larger appearance. Stating his weight, height, and moniker reinforces beliefs that Black men are heavier and taller than White men, and therefore, more threatening (Alexander, 2010; Muhammad, 2010). Furthermore, reporting on West’s criminal record, particularly on a string of robberies that occurred over thirty years ago, is telling of the connection between Black men and criminality. Despite the significant gap between his prison sentence and his last encounter with the police, his record was used to suggest past actions motivated present ones.

Like Black men, aggressive and threatening behaviors in Black women were flaunted as a justification for police force. India Beaty, a 25-year-old woman, was shot after police officers found Beaty and a man in the middle of an argument. After police presumed Beaty was armed, she was shot and killed. After shooting Beaty, they realized Beaty was not carrying a real gun. Despite Beaty being unarmed, the narrative focused on her presumed threatening behavior.

“The officers – it is unclear how many – immediately got out of their van. The release said they identified themselves as police and ‘provided verbal commands.’ The woman refused to comply and made a threatening motion with the handgun,” the release said. “Investigators discharged their service weapons, striking the woman.” (Silverstein, 2016)

The narrative provided does not focus on the officers’ error, nor the fact police shot Beaty five times in the back as details were revealed in later reports. Rather, the narrative centers Beaty as threatening and non-compliant, matching depictions of Black women as irrational and aggressive (Hill-Collins, 2013). By centering Beaty’s presumed behavior, her criminalization is established.

Visual representations of Black women as aggressors

As aforementioned, primary narratives depict Black men and women similarly as criminals, either by displaying behaviors that promote criminality or elaborating on their criminal records. Black women were further criminalized through visual depictions. Initial reports typically include a photo of the scene of the shooting, or a mugshot of the deceased if they had a criminal record. For Black women, photos of them that portrayed commonly understood aggressive and criminal traits were also included in the primary narrative.

Of the 12 Black women represented, four cases include a photo of the victim portraying various understandings of aggressive and threatening traits. 32-year-old Sahlah Ridgeway, a victim of police violence in Syracuse, New York, is portrayed as aggressive in appearance. The initial story of Ridgeway’s case contends during a routine stop in a Syracuse neighborhood, Ridgeway approached officers with a sawed-off shotgun, leaving officers no choice but to shoot her (House, 2016). The primary photo circulating of Sahlah Ridgeway includes Ridgeway in basketball shorts with a short haircut, holding a shotgun, pointed at the camera. In subsequent newspaper articles, Ridgeway’s mother had to defend the portrayal of Ridgeway:

“They're trying to portray my daughter as some kind of gangster. She's never been a gangster,” Sahlah's mother Carsundra Ridgeway said. “Sahlah isn't anything but a bunch of excitement. A little kid at heart. She loved to be around kids.” The sawed-off shotgun was more of a prop she carried to bolster her image as a rapper, her mother said. The weapon, though functional, was never loaded, she said. (Lohmann, 2016)

The remaining three cases, India Beaty, Deresha Armstrong, and Kisha Arrone, all included photos which displayed notions of aggression. For instance, 35-year-old Kisha Arrone was killed after a domestic violence dispute with her partner. Arrone is depicted as the “man” in her relationship (Stephenson, 2016). Intimate partner violence, a common cause of interactions with police, often portrays men as the aggressor, and women as the victim (Richie, 1996; Neely, 2015; Richie, 2012). Presenting Arrone as a man indicates that Arrone was the aggressor in her relationship. In an article describing the altercation between Arrone and her partner, police accounts report:

“It was reported to officers that during this altercation Ms. Arrone held a gun to her domestic partner’s head and threatened to kill her,” Biehl (police superintendent) said. He said Arrone fired the gun during that struggle. (Stephenson, 2016)

Witness testimony disputes the police accounts. Witnesses did report Arrone was armed, but the gun was not pointed at her partner’s head. Some witnesses argue Arrone put her gun down several minutes before the police showed up at Arrone’s residence. (Stephenson, 2016)

Visuals become a powerful mechanism when constructing narratives of victims and their perpetrators (Neely, 2015; Lawrence, 2000). Providing photos only for Black women who can be represented as aggressive prevents resonance between state-sanctioned violence and gender legibility. Providing photos only of Black women who display aggressive features creates the illusion that only a certain type of Black woman, those who are presumed aggressive and physically threatening, will face fatal police force.

Secondary narratives: Black men’s victimization; Black women’s domestication

As newspaper articles report additional information on each fatality in subsequent articles, secondary narratives introduce gendered understandings of state-sanctioned violence, shifting the portrayals of Black women and men from criminalization. Introducing additional information on each fatality in subsequent articles, police reports, family accounts, and other official documents positions Black men as victims of state-sanctioned police violence. On the other hand, Black women described as loving, kind, caretakers, and maternal figures are provided by family accounts to debunk criminal stereotypes introduced in the primary narratives. However, centering Black women as maternal figures and caretakers reinforces controlling images of Black women, disconnecting their experiences as a product of state-sanctioned violence.

The Black women represented in the sample were approached by police officers for a range of reasons, including active criminal activity, domestic violence, mental health checks, serving eviction notices, and random encounters with officers. In secondary narratives, the cause of the encounters was secondary, instead of focusing on family and friend accounts of the deceased. Police accounts, when provided, were centered on protecting community members and police officers on the scene. In those accounts, the need for institutional and structural protection was not considered. Laronda Sweatt was shot and killed after an altercation with police officers over an eviction notice. After Sweatt’s death, her daughter spoke on behalf of her mother:

“She was the best mother,” Alainna, 22, said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better mother. And being a mother was her life. She told me if she could have me again, she would. She loved being a mother. The Lord was the light of her life as was I ... (my grandmother) wants people to know that (my mother) was a great daughter and that (my grandmother) has a big hole in her heart,” Alainna Sweatt said. (Yankova, 2016)

In another case, 40-year-old Kisha Arrone was shot and killed by police officers after being called for a domestic violence dispute. According to police reports, Arrone was armed and threatening, leading to fatal force. Arrone’s cousin attempted to debunk the criminal label attached to Arrone, by centering her caretaking:

“She had the biggest smile. She took care of all of us. She always protected us. Beautiful laugh,” Spears said. “The only thing she ever did was joke around and have fun ... she had a lot of life to live and a lot of love.” (Stephenson, 2016)

Centering attributes of good maternal figures and caretakers reinforce controlling images are still prevalent when discussing Black women’s victimization. Rather than center family accounts, community accounts, and police accounts that center victimhood and possible institutional failures are not primarily included in the narrative. Without those considerations, fatal force against Black women can appear as a case-by-case issue, centering attitudes and behaviors of Black women, even in death. In secondary narratives, gendered and racial understandings, namely the disconnection between Black women and victimhood are maintained.

Eight of the twelve Black men represented were in the middle of criminal activity when approached by police officers, including robbery, domestic violence, car thief, and a car chase. Newspaper articles often included statements from the police department, including dashcam videos and other evidence. Police departments were also cognizant of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the implications of police violence in their communities. Family accounts of Black men would argue their family members were community members, and their deaths were a product of police violence.

For instance, 18-year-old Paul O’Neal was killed by police officers in Chicago after stealing a luxury car. Within two days, the badges of the police officers involved in the shooting were pulled. In a Chicago Tribune article, the first sentence states:

Eight months after Chicago was rocked by the Laquan McDonald scandal and its allegations that city officials tried to bury troubling details, the Chicago Police Department moved quickly against three officers involved in the latest shooting death of an African-American teen. (Gorner et al., 2016)

The article proceeds to state:

Late on Friday, Johnson (the superintendent) sent out a department-wide memo explaining his decision — one sure to be unpopular with the rank and file ... But the top cop is trying to restore public trust amid a U.S. Justice Department probe of policing practices. (Gorner et al., 2016)

Despite the reasoning for O’Neal’s interaction with the police, the relationship between Black men and police violence is made clear. Articulating the superintendent’s desire to gain trust with the community explicitly recognizes the police’s relationship to state-sanctioned violence and the death of Black men. That recognition portrays the superintendent siding with the community, placing O’Neal’s death in a larger conversation on police violence. O’Neal’s case eventually sparked protests across Chicago, even as the officers’ suspension remained.

In Indianapolis, 44-year-old Kevin Hicks was killed by police officers after a domestic dispute with his wife. Like other narratives of Black men, Hicks’ arrest record was included in narratives of his death, including past convictions for resisting law enforcement, battery, auto theft, robbery, trespassing, and residential entry (Adams & Disis, 2016). Yet, a majority of the articles on Hicks spoke about the need for police body cameras:

Rev. Charles Harrison, of the faith-based, anti-crime group the Ten Point Coalition, said he’s been pushing for police body cameras. Such equipment is seen as a way to provide objective evidence in situations where police use deadly force. “It will protect the police officers who are lawfully carrying out their duties,” Harrison said, “and it will give the community confidence that the true facts are going to be brought out when there is a police-action shooting. If the officer has acted unlawfully, then the camera will show that, too.” (Adams & Disis, 2016)

In secondary narratives, criminalizing Black men is met with pushback from police accounts and community responses that center institutional failures and alternative methods to fatal force. While attempting to debunk criminal stereotypes of Black men is not always successful, police and individual accounts arguing for institutional changes enforce Black men are victims of institutional failings.

Police encounters with Black women in distress

Distress and mental illnesses are a central feature of Black women and men’s encounters with police officers (Richie, 2012; Geller et al., 2014; Sewell et al., 2016, Jacobs, 2017; Mengo et al., 2017; Ritchie, 2017). Even when Black men exhibited signs of distress or mental illness, their narratives remain connected to larger public issues. Mental health issues and distress was not part of the narrative for Black men. For Black women, signs of distress or mental illness are considered on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, police accounts of Black women’s fatal encounters justify violent force against those in distress as a safety issue. Family accounts counter police accounts by bringing up their identities as mothers, daughters, and aunts. Primarily focusing on the individualized nature of police accounts, narratives on distress ignore mental health as a larger public health issue. Furthermore, police accounts ignore the lack of training a police department may have in dealing with community members with mental health issues or distress.

39-year-old Michelle Lee-Shirley was killed by police officers in Torrance, California after witnesses called police to tend to a car accident Lee-Shirley was involved in. Witness accounts suggest Lee-Shirley was acting irrationally. Family accounts revealed that Lee-Shirley was bipolar. Her family argued her erratic episode could have been prompted by her car accident (Rocha, 2016). Despite her distress post-car accident, police accounts were prioritized.

Kranke (police superintendent) said he understands the parents' grief, but that police had no way of knowing that Shirley was experiencing a mental episode when they encountered her. “There is nothing to alert us that someone is going through a mental episode,” he said. “She didn't want to be stopped.” Kranke said officers were faced with limited options at the time. It was a busy Halloween afternoon and children had just been released from nearby elementary and high schools, he said. “We would have had a major tragedy.” (Rocha, 2016)

Like other cases, Lee-Shirley’s mental health was portrayed as deviant behavior, suggesting her behavior would cause harm to others. Subsequent articles also focus on her “erratic” behavior, indicating her death prevented harm to others near her car accident.

As aforementioned in the previous section, Laronda Sweatt was approached by police officers after she was served with an eviction notice and approached police officers with an ax. Family accounts reveal Sweatt, like Lee-Shirley, also suffered from bipolar disorder (Yankova, 2016). Her family believes the eviction notice left her distressed, leading to her violent interaction with the police.

Sweatt, who graduated from Gallatin High School in 1994, suffered from bipolar disorder and was on medication, according to her daughter. She was unemployed and living on disability payments. Bandy and Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford said they were unaware of any mental health issues Sweatt had before April 6. (Yankova, 2016)

Other Black women victims of state-sanctioned violence often show signs of distress or mental illness. Rather than connecting the lack of training police officers receives for dealing with distress or mental illness, fatal force is used to justify community safety. Considering Black women are portrayed as mothers and caretakers of families and communities, portraying Black women in distress as unsafe can prevent outrage. The portrayals of Black women as their cases develop prevent connecting fatal force against Black women as a product of institutional failure. Black women’s experiences are reduced to isolated incidences, impacting a small group of people involved in the incident.

Implications and conclusion

There are several significant findings in this study that illuminates the connections between the media, Black women’s victimhood, and their relationship to state-sanctioned violence. This study uncovers two distinct strategies, primary and secondary narratives. Secondary narratives, developed narratives that incorporate police accounts and family accounts, provided the opportunity for cultural arguments of Black women to appear, exhibiting divergent narratives for Black women and men. For Black women, racialized and gendered controlling images, such as mother figures and caretakers, were presented in family accounts to debunk their family member’s criminality. Narratives of Black men, on the other hand, narrated the tensions between criminality and institutional and structural failures. While Black men were frequently involved in criminal activity, police accounts and community responses alike centered on the possibility of police violence and excessive force. Furthermore, fatal force against Black men was discussed as part of a larger trend of police violence, discussed by both police officers and community members.

It is in secondary narratives where the development of a victimized subject occurs. For Black men, their victimhood is developed through discussions of police institutional failures and police violence, providing narratives that shift from criminality to victimhood. For Black women, the power of controlling images and Black women’s domestication is revealed. Individual family members centered maternal images and caretaking in their discussions of Black women’s fatal encounters, centering on cultural representations of Black women as a marker of subjecthood and victimization. However, without illuminating excessive police force or any form of institutional failure, Black women’s fatalities are not connected to structural failures. Furthermore, police accounts maintain Black women are criminals and provide little discussion on their status as maternal figures or caretakers. Police accounts provide little to no opportunities for Black women’s victimization.

While the implications of this study are essential to understanding how state-sanctioned violence against Black women and men is depicted, there are important limitations to note. To date, there is still no official tracking system of fatal force by police officers in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation vowed to track cases of fatal force, but newspaper tracking remains the most comprehensive dataset in the United States. The sample presented of Black women and men may not represent all cases of fatal encounters in the United States. However, the results of this project still provide valuable insight into newspaper narratives of state-sanctioned violence.

The results of this study reveal how newspaper narratives of state-sanctioned police violence prevent and encourage the resonance of state-sanctioned victimization of Black women and men. Newspaper accounts invalidate Black women’s status as victims of police violence by reinforcing controlling images that deny Black women equal protection by law. Not granting Black women’s experiences due diligence obscures the necessity for a thorough and nuanced examination of Black women’s experiences in disadvantaged Black neighborhoods. These narratives also prevent understanding from those who fight for resources and reform, including community activists, policymakers, and community members. Further research on Black women’s interactions with policing and police violence can illuminate what resources and reform are necessary. It is taken for granted that Black men are the primary victims of police violence. The full inclusion of Black women in the discourse on policing in disadvantaged communities is necessary, as Black women continue to have fatal encounters with the police.


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Ashley Hollingshead is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University. Her research engages theoretical themes and methodological insights from urban and cultural sociology, criminology, gender theory, and African American studies to explore how urban development informs race and gender inequity for Black women.

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