Every two or three years it appears that we have to re-learn the same lesson. Some person who is completely innocent or may have committed some minor crime is killed by one or more policemen using excessive force (shooting, choking or beating the victim to death). The result is invariably inaction against the police perpetrators followed by protests followed by riots followed by police and sometimes National Guard units using unnecessary force to re-establish a “peace” that was disrupted by stupid and unwarranted police behavior. How many times do we have to re-learn this lesson – or, as a species, are we even intelligent enough to ever learn it?
People frequently complain about police brutality, or the use of excessive force, but just what is excessive force? Is it ever justified and, if so, when? Excessive force is defined as use of force exceeding the minimum amount necessary to diffuse an incident or to protect themselves or others from harm. A simple example of that is shooting a shoplifter who otherwise could be simply collared and handcuffed. An excellent example of that was the recent homicide of George Floyd by choking after being arrested for “allegedly” passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Excessive force is never justified, and we are protected against it by the 4th Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Lethal force, killing someone, is justified under circumstances where the life of a police officer or a civilian is being threatened by a perpetrator. (That certainly was not the case in George Floyd’s death.)
How does police brutality the U.S. compare with other countries? Based on the number of civilians killed by police as a measure of the use of excessive force, the U.S. has by far the worst record of all economically developed countries. On average, 1000 civilians are killed each year by police in the U.S. That amounts to 3 citizens killed per 1 million citizens per year. Compare that with the UK in which 3 civilians (out of a population of 46 million) were killed by police last year amounting to 0.065 victims per million citizens per year. In the U.S., victims of police use of lethal force is 46 times greater than the UK. Data from the other European countries are comparable with that of the UK.
Among the factors involved in police killings are racism, classism, police culture and systemic issues related to the criminal justice system, our laws and our political system. Racism has been studied extensively and there is substantial data showing police bias against blacks and other minorities. Data needed to analyze other factors simply don’t exist, making their quantitative analyses impossible, but intuitively, we know they are.
- The ruling elite clearly receive better police protection and service than the poor. This shows a distinct prejudice in favor of the ruling elite class in our society.
- Police culture, particularly the Blue code of silence which prevents officers from “ratting” on offenses committed by other officers is a major factor in the failure to suppress police brutality.
- Training is a factor where, on average, 123 hours of police training are devoted to weapons care and usage, and self defense whereas only 27 hours are dedicated to human relations, basic strategies and conflict management,1.
- Militarization of the police forces is a factor in both personnel and equipment. Police departments employ large numbers of military veterans, many of whom are basically trained killers, without adequate time or attention devoted to re-integration into civilian life. In addition, police forces are being equipped with heavy military weaponry provided by the Defense Department, most of which is incapable of anything less than lethal force.
- Systemic problems consist of
- Failure to punish offenders – instills confidence that an officer can act with impunity.
- Lack of oversight of police departments by civilian authorities
- Laws that are counterproductive and result in unnecessary arrests and incarcerations when there are better means of solving social problems. (Prohibition and the War on Drugs are textbook examples of such laws.)
- Public apathy is possibly the worst of all factors involved because people don’t pay attention, are distracted from the issues, don’t learn the lessons, don’t vote in local elections and don’t vet their elected officials when they do vote.
So what can be done? The public can always protest as they frequently do. They can sign petitions, write to, call or visit their public officials or stage rallies, marches and other demonstrations. These protests seldom yield direct results, but they do serve to bring issues to the attention of the public. Unfortunately, these protests are usually spontaneous and deflate after a few days. They would be far more effective if conducted a few days just prior to elections.
The average person has very little real power to change the system. Your vote is your only real weapon. When it comes to issues like police abuse, voting in local elections (which are frequently the least attended) is most important, especially for candidates for district attorneys and police commissioners. Before voting, it is essential to vet the candidates to ensure that they support the policies necessary to reform the system and stop police brutality. Failure to use your vote wisely has many adverse consequences among which are having to live with police brutality forever and even worse, the possibility of losing all of our freedoms.
Apathy is the greatest enemy of democracy.