6 Disturbing Aspects of American Policing

A re-examination of traditional policing is long overdue

On May 25, a white Minneapolis police officer strangled George Floyd to death by forcefully kneeling against his neck for more than eight minutes, despite Floyd insisting he could not breathe and despite numerous warnings from the crowd that had gathered. An independent autopsy concluded the death was “caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain." Floyd, a black male, met this tragic fate after simply being accused of using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill by a local merchant. It is no exaggeration to describe this horrific incident, which was filmed in its entirety, as a public lynching.

In the wake of this ongoing racist police violence, protests erupted in Minneapolis and nationwide. Police met demonstrators and passersby alike with a barrage of additional violence including rubber bullets, tear gas, and even ramming protesters with police vehicles. The officer who conducted the killing of George Floyd was later arrested, but only after extensive public pressure including all-out rebellions. In a heartening development, the University of Minnesota significantly cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department and Americans are now re-evaluating the role of policing in their communities. Here are six disturbing aspects of American policing that should be included in this long overdue public discourse.

1. Police are not legally obligated to protect you

Due to the ubiquitous “to serve and protect” slogan utilized by police stations nationwide, there exists a popular notion that protecting American citizens from harm is an official duty of the police. However, legally speaking, this isn’t quite true. The 1989 Supreme Court case DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services concluded that, in an instance in which government employees fail to protect someone from harm, it does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

In his comments regarding this case, Chief Justice Rehnquist said, “Nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors.” Furthermore, the DeShaney decision has been cited in subsequent cases, such as Castle Rock v. Gonzales (2005), affirming that — from a constitutional perspective — the police have no mandate to protect American citizens.

2. Police officers lie under oath on a regular basis

Based on the Mollen Commission report, a 1994 New York Times article observed that, “New York City police officers often make false arrests, tamper with evidence and commit perjury on the witness stand...” The practice of police perjury is so common that it has been given the nickname “testilying.” Although the scope of this phenomenon is impossible to fully document, more than two dozen instances of police lying in court have emerged since 2015. These cases “are almost certainly only a fraction” of the total.

Police officers have been caught lying about witnessing drug deals, about suspects carrying weapons, and have issued many other false allegations of criminal behavior. In addition to such blatant falsehoods, Baltimore police even “carried toy guns to plant on people they shot.” Furthermore, dishonest officers are seldom held accountable. “There’s no fear of being caught,” an NYPD officer told the New York Times. “You’re not going to go to trial and nobody is going to be cross-examined.”

3. There is an epidemic of domestic abuse among police families

Regardless of one’s personal views regarding American policing, the fact that our laws are regularly enforced through violent methods cannot be avoided. This “official” violence is unfortunately all too often supplemented with violence in the household. According to the National Center for Women and Policing:

“Two studies have found that at least 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10% of families in the general population. A third study of older and more experienced officers found a rate of 24%, indicating that domestic violence is 2–4 times more common among police families than American families in general. A police department that has domestic violence offenders among its ranks will not effectively serve and protect victims in the community.”

Just like the problem of police perjury, shockingly little is done to address this devastating reality. As a New York Times piece concisely explained, “In many departments, an officer will automatically be fired for a positive marijuana test, but can stay on the job after abusing or battering a spouse.” The victims in these cases are uniquely vulnerable because the perpetrators have access to firearms, know the locations of women’s shelters, and know how to manipulate the system to avoid penalty.

Journalist Conor Friedersdorf summarized this issue by observing, “There is no more damaging perpetrator of domestic violence than a police officer, who harms his partner as profoundly as any abuser, and is then particularly ill-suited to helping victims of abuse in a culture where they are often afraid of coming forward. The evidence of a domestic-abuse problem in police departments around the United States is overwhelming.”

4. Police kill far more people than mass shooters each year

We are still barely scratching the surface of understanding the prolific American tradition of deadly police force. Mapping Police Violence is a project that is trying to change that. The statistics this organization has compiled are shocking, especially when compared to those of other Western democracies. For instance, American police killed 1,099 people in the year 2019 alone. That same year, a mere three people were killed by police in the United Kingdom.

In terms of the scope of deadly encounters with the police, the year 2019 wasn’t an anomaly for the United States. Between 2013 and 2019, American police officers killed 7,666 people — averaging 1,095 per year. On top this already horrific reality, killer cops face criminal convictions in less than one percent of cases, and prosecutors often add insult to injury by blaming and vilifying the victims.

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5. Local police departments have become heavily militarized

Journalist Dexter Filkins once observed that, in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, “the police in Boston and its suburbs sent armored cars into the streets and deployed officers dressed like Storm Troopers, who carried assault rifles and fanned out across neighborhoods as though they were in an infantry division in Afghanistan.” Such surreal scenes exemplify a process that has been decades in the making. As sociology professor Alex Vitale explained in his book The End of Policing:

“U.S. police are armed with an amazing array of weapons from semiautomatic handguns and fully automatic AR15 rifles to grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns. Much of the militarized weaponry comes directly from the Pentagon through the 1033 Program, a weapons transfer program that began in 1997. This program has resulted in the distribution of $4 billion worth of equipment. Local police departments can get surplus armaments at no cost — with no questions asked about how they will be used. Small communities now have access to armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and a variety of ‘less lethal’ weaponry, such as rubber bullets and pepper-spray rounds. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has also given out $34 billion in ‘terrorism grants,’ a tremendous boon for military contractors trying to expand their reach into civilian policing markets.”

6. Slave patrols were one of the first forms of American policing

The racial element of American police violence is impossible to ignore. In recent years, the canonized, hashtagged names of various victims are painful reminders of the epidemic of state-sponsored terror against people of color. George Floyd, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor, however, are just the tip of this blood-drenched iceberg. For instance, Newsone has compiled a gut-wrenching list of 89 black men and boys who have recently been killed by American police officers. A ProPublica analysis found that young black males in recent years were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than their white counterparts. But this gruesome phenomenon of violent, racialized policing is far from a recent development. In fact, as professor Connie Hassett-Walker explained:

“Policing in southern slave-holding states had roots in slave patrols, squadrons made up of white volunteers empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws related to slavery. They located and returned enslaved people who had escaped, crushed uprisings led by enslaved people and punished enslaved workers found or believed to have violated plantation rules.

The first slave patrols arose in South Carolina in the early 1700s. As University of Georgia social work professor Michael A. Robinson has written, by the time John Adams became the second U.S. president, every state that had not yet abolished slavery had them.

Members of slave patrols could forcefully enter anyone’s home, regardless of their race or ethnicity, based on suspicions that they were sheltering people who had escaped bondage.”

From the time of the Reconstruction-era Black Codes through the ostensible end of Jim Crow laws, the police enthusiastically and violently enforced the state’s racial hierarchy. However, contrary to popular belief, this American iteration of apartheid didn’t end in the 1960s with the passage of historic civil rights legislation. In the wake of the civil rights era, a new Jim Crow emerged in the form of the (still ongoing) War on Drugs, which a Nixon advisor later admitted was aimed at further disrupting the black community.

During the terror of the War on Drugs and the resulting mass incarceration of black and brown Americans, the police continued in their traditional role as the state’s loyal foot soldiers in its pursuit of oppressive and racist objectives. The aforementioned systemic racism is compounded by the fact that “white supremacists and other domestic extremists maintain an active presence in U.S. police departments and other law enforcement agencies.” In short, throughout the entirety of American history, policing and white supremacy have been inextricably linked.

Written by

Socialist. Herbivore. Husband. I usually write about politics, current events, and history. My work has also been published by The Hampton Institute.

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