An American Epidemic: Police Brutality

In just over 6 months, the U.S. has dealt with wave after wave of racial protests and outcries stemming from police killings.  In what seems like a monthly ritual, police departments across the U.S. have been caught on camera shooting unarmed victims, or using excessive force on victims, consequently ending fatally for the victims.  This article will explore the angles of police brutality, as well as, attempt to explain how our police departments lost their inherent focus—serving us.

Background

Mayors, Governors, and legislatures across the nation are now battling with how to reel their police departments in, and stop police brutality.  After a series of events—all independent of each other—where white cops have killed black men (some cases teenagers).  Leaders in their respective states are finding it harder to come up with solutions to fix the problem, and to curb societal anger.  Spanning from Los Angeles, CA to New York, NY police have been caught exercising excessive force, all claiming the lives of the victims.  Below, is a timeline of reported incidents of police brutality resulting in death; a more comprehensive timeline giving the background to each victim can be found here:

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Numbers Do Lie

As is apparent from the timeline above, the U.S. is currently facing approximately one death a month from unwarranted police brutality.  But, there is a problem with these numbers: they are not exactly correct.  Currently, a loophole exists in the reporting, where departments have discretion whether they will provide homicide statistics to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The report sums all data on homicides, including police killings.

However, an analysis of the data concluded that only 753 out of the nation’s nearly 18,000 departments reported their homicide statistics.  Even more concerning, the data was grossly incorrect due to a number of other factors.  Some of these factors included some departments’ inability to report due to technical issues.  Another sidelining factor stemmed from jurisdictional rules, where a department must report a homicide that occurred in its jurisdiction, even though it may have resulted by an officer of another department.  Furthermore, the inaccuracy of data, in large part, has to do with the fact that nearly all police killings are deemed justified by departments.

Accountable to Who?

Another problem that seems to be catapulting the issue of police brutality and the need for transparency, is that only in rare cases are officers charged for their on-duty criminal conduct.  Here, there are two-sides to the argument, with the nation’s police departments taking an assertive role on one side.

Police departments have speciously argued that the reason for the lack of accountability is, in large part, that they are justified in the killing.  This argument perpetuates the aforementioned problem of obtaining accurate data.  Furthermore, police contend that it is justified because they are either acting in self-defense, or in defense of another.

The counterargument, though, sees things differently.  The lack of accountability is giving a writ of approval to police officers to exercise any force they feel necessary without consequence.  Further, the lack of accountability creates a deep divide between the citizens—whom they are supposed to protect; a dangerous zone in terms of police safety.  The Cato Institute found that only 33% of criminally charged officers were convicted compared to 66% criminal convictions for their civilian counterparts.  As the divide grows between police officers and the citizens they intend to serve, there is a disconnect on exactly how to accomplish that goal, and what it means to “protect and serve.”

Military Personnel, Tactics, and Weapons: The Wrong Solution for Our Departments

It is without question that September 11, 2011 changed the landscape of the U.S.  With the lack of communication, personnel, and readiness to fight an elusive enemy, the federal government has developed a drug-like dependency on state and local authorities to fill the gaps.  Nonetheless, this dependency, and the mission forced upon them, is misplaced.

First, police officers, though trained, are trained for policing efforts.  Policing efforts are defined as static conditions, where simple presence and response to activity are the main focus.  Conversely, a mission to take down terrorism is aggressive and usually anticipatory.  In short, the latter mission requires one to be on the offensive.  Therefore, when the federal government selfishly pushed this new aggressive mission on police departments, it consequently changed a fundamental way police departments operate.  In so doing, police are no longer conducting themselves in passive measures, and, instead, anticipate interaction with their own residents in an aggressive manner.

Second, to further the federal government’s mission, the Feds have provided the police departments with military-grade armaments.  Military equipping of police departments further complicates the role of today’s police departments, and causes even more confusion.  For a police department, their general role is that of to defuse a situation without killing the very people they serve; but to have weapons utilized by the military, where the military does the exact opposite—kill people—seems to be impossible to square.

Again, police departments are meant to “protect and serve.”  In that very clear and plain statement, that means police departments are actually here for the residents where they police.  To equip these very same peace and safety touting police departments with military-grade weapons, as if everyone they meet is an enemy, is plainly incorrect.

Lastly, military personnel are inclined to make an easy transition from their military life, to the para-military lifestyle of the police.  Indeed, many police departments operate on this inclination directing a large part of their recruiting efforts toward military personnel.  Military personnel, however, may not be the right ones for the job.

Here, and similar to the second point, military personnel have a distinctly different mission than police officers do.  As an example, the Marine Corps rifle squad mission—taught to every Marine—provides, in pertinent part: To locate, close with, and destroy the enemy.  In contrast, the Phoenix Police Department mission states: provide community-oriented law enforcement designed to protect life and property, and maintain order, while assuring fair and equal treatment for all.  With former transitioning military becoming a robust population in police departments, Marines—or any military personnel for that matter—may not be able to acclimate.  In a comparative analysis of police officers and military personnel, the two contrast each other so greatly in every aspect that they simply cannot be forged.

In sum, the problems facing police departments across the nation are not vast, nor impossible to tackle.  Instead, there has been a slow and tortuous route, leading to police brutality across the U.S., which can be ascertainable, and measured.  The current round of police brutality has forced racial tensions to, again, rise to the surface.  However, focusing on police brutality where race is a complicating factor, would be stopping short of the real issue: a wide-spread departure from serving the public safety.  The federal government selfishly changed the fundamental purpose of police departments across the nation.  Consequently, the public no longer has a police force that is accountable, and here to “protect and serve.”  The public, therefore, has lost our departments, which were intended to serve us.