Fixing policing in the USA is a wicked problem
Four overlapping systemic drivers have turned police forces into armed escalators of violence, disproportionately against people of color
Fixing policing in the USA is a wicked problem, because multiple well-intentioned and ill-intentioned actors have created a monster. It’s not just a few bad apples. It’s not just the thin blue line. It’s systemic. I see four major overlapping factors which make police forces part of the problem far too often, and disproportionately at the expense of the lives of people of color.
I’ll start by saying I have a lot of respect for the vast majority of police officers. They are trying to do a difficult and necessary job. I don’t think that the majority are evil or have ill intent. But I do think that, especially in the USA, they are embedded in a system that makes it very hard for them to do the right thing enough of the time, and very easy for them to end up doing the wrong thing.
There are four overlapping problems, each of which is incredibly difficult to solve by itself, but the combination is malignant.
Pretextual traffic stops
Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers, is essential reading right now. He spends a lot of time working through why Sandra Bland ended up dead in a Texas jail cell after a bogus traffic stop.
A big part of his thesis is that an innovative police department took a different path a few decades ago. They looked at the data and saw that there were a few blocks where 95% of crimes were happening. So they upped policing explicitly in those areas, stopping cars on any pretext that they could, then finding further pretexts to search for drugs and weapons. It worked. Crime went down in the entire city. So far, so good.
Then they exported the lessons learned and all hell broke loose, mostly for people of color. Pretextual traffic stops with programmed escalation and suspicion by the police officers spread everywhere, and far out of the areas where crime was high. And the vast majority are on people of color.
Focused policing using pretextual traffic stops is a good tool for a few small high crime areas, but it’s become a major part of law enforcement tactics in the USA. And it’s spread like a disease to other countries.
Militarization of police forces
Especially in the USA, but also in other parts of the world, police forces are no longer a friendly beat cop, but heavily armed and armored men and women wearing helmets and gas masks.
In the USA, the military defense industry lobbied hard for the 1033 program of 1997. That program enables surplus military equipment to police departments. Precedents had existed before then, but it’s a Bill Clinton-era law, so it’s on his legacy. And it’s a bad program. There are innumerable flaws, but the biggest one is that it makes it incredibly hard for humans to empathize with one another and not escalate to violence. The cops inside the gear are trained and equipped for violence, not de-escalation. The people they confront are looking at heavily armed and armored tactical assault teams that are incredibly scary. The evidence is crystal clear that where the police are geared up, more violence occurs. We’re seeing that clearly in the protests.
The evidence is clear that sending mental health professionals, for example, to mental health callouts leads to a lot less dead people.
Should cops be safe? Absolutely. Should most cops have military equipment most of the time? Not a chance.
It’s taken a couple of decades for absurd amounts of military equipment (and its often lucrative maintenance contracts) to flow into often poorly trained police departments. It’s going to take decades for it to flow out, if it does, and it will be over the lobbying of the military industrial complex, which likes this model just fine. After all, they never bear the brunt of militarized policing.
White supremacist infiltration of police forces
This has been a thing since the early 2000s. The FBI published a report on it in 2006, during the Bush Presidency. Ghost skins — white supremacist officers who hid or downplayed their racism — in police forces were an active strategy of supremacist and far-right groups in the USA.
And it’s not like the report prevented it from happening. Nine years later, another FBI report, talking about all the links between active duty police officers and white supremacists. An assessment of Facebook comments by police officers found almost 20% of them were making openly racists comments. Obama era consent decrees for police forces, driving police department reform, have been heavily watered down under the Trump administration.
Lightweight training of police officers
CNN pulled together training hours for police vs various other occupations in a variety of states in 2016. What they found confirmed something which had been anecdotal, that for the most part the heavily armed and armored police officers patrolling US streets had received far less training than far less demanding roles.
This was repeated across the USA.
- Florida: police 770 hours, interior designer 1,760 hours
- Massachusetts: police 900 hours, refrigeration tech 1,000 hours
- Michigan: police 594 hours, electric sign tech 4,000 hours
- etc., etc., etc.
You don’t rectify lightweight training of police over night.
It isn’t just one thing that’s making police forces in the United States a big problem, it’s multiple overlapping problems. And it isn’t a few bad apples. It’s systemic.
And this is without getting into the thin blue line challenges.
The way to address problems in policing is by first acknowledging the problem. And right now the USA is led by an authoritarian racist who is encouraging police officers to be racist and bring heavily armed tactics against people of color. Trump’s tweets in support of heavily armed white lockdown protesters stand in stark comparison to his recent tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”.
That phrase has a long history in white on black authoritarian violence. Observers were concerned that white supremacist groups like the boogaloo bois would consider this carte blanche to attack black protesters.
But it also fell into the ears of poorly trained, heavily armed, often racist police officers who have been conditioned to be deeply suspicious of people of color.
Small police departments won’t fix themselves inside this system. Large police departments will have extraordinary difficulties. Obama started to address some aspects of this, but when Trump departs, his actions will have to be reimplemented, and extended.
Bad policing in the USA is a wicked problem. Most individual police officers are not to blame for it. But they end up acting in ways that are often deadly for others, and condoning the violence of the bad apples because of it.