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Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 1.01.20 PMDarrin Manning’s unprovoked “stop and frisk” encounter with the Philadelphia police left him hospitalized with a ruptured testicle. Neykeyia Parker was violently dragged out of her car and aggressively arrested in front of her young child for “trespassing” at her own apartment complex in Houston. A Georgia toddler was burned when police threw a flash grenade into his playpen during a raid, and the manager of a Chicago tanning salon was confronted by a raiding police officer bellowing that he would kill her and her family, captured on the salon’s surveillance. An elderly man in Ohio was left in need of facial reconstructive surgery after police entered his home without a warrant to sort out a dispute about a trailer.

These stories are a small selection of recent police brutality reports, as police misconduct has become a fixture of the news cycle.

But the plural of anecdote is not data, and the media is inevitably drawn toward tales of conflict. Despite the increasing frequency with which we hear of misbehaving cops, many Americans maintain a default respect for the man in uniform. As an NYPD assistant chief put it, “We don’t want a few bad apples or a few rogue cops damaging” the police’s good name.

This is an attractive proposal, certainly, but unfortunately it does not hold up to scrutiny. Here are seven reasons why police misconduct is a systemic problem, not “a few bad apples”:

1. Many departments don’t provide adequate training in nonviolent solutions.

This is particularly obvious when it comes to dealing with family pets. “Police kill family dog” is practically its own subgenre of police brutality reports, and most of these cases—like the story of the Minnesota children who were made to sit, handcuffed, next to their dead and bleeding pet—are all too preventable. Some police departments have begun to train their officers to deal more appropriately with pets, but Thomas Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council, a police consulting firm, says it’s still extremely rare. In the absence of this training, police are less likely to view violence as a last resort.

2. Standards for what constitutes brutality vary widely.

“Excess is in the eyes of the beholder,” explains William Terrill, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Michigan State. “To one officer ‘objectively reasonable’ means that if you don’t give me your license, I get to use soft hands, and in another town the same resistance means I can pull you through the car window, [or] I can tase you.” The special deference police are widely given in American culture feeds this inconsistency of standards, producing something of a legal Wild West. While national legislation would likely only complicate matters further, local or state-wide ballot propositions should allow the public—not the police—to define reasonable use of force.

3. Consequences for misconduct are minimal.

In central New Jersey, for instance, 99 percent of police brutality complaints are never investigated. Nor can that be explained away as stereotypical New Jersey corruption. Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that. In Chicago, the numbers are even more skewed: There were 10,000 abuse complaints filed against the Chicago PD between 2002 and 2004, and just 19 of them ”resulted in meaningful disciplinary action.” On a national level, upwards of 95 percent of police misconduct cases referred for federal prosecution are declined by prosecutors because, as reported in USA Today, juries “are conditioned to believe cops, and victims’ credibility is often challenged.” Failure to remedy this police/civilian double standard cultivates an abuse-friendly legal environment.

4. Settlements are shifted to taxpayers.

Those officers who are found guilty of brutality typically find the settlement to their victims paid from city coffers. Research from Human Rights Watch reveals that in some places, taxpayers “are paying three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police ‘defense’ funds provided by the cities.” In larger cities, these settlements easily cost the public tens of millions of dollars annually while removing a substantial incentive against police misconduct.

5. Minorities are unfairly targeted.

“Simply put,” says University of Florida law professor Katheryn K. Russell, “the public face of a police brutality victim is a young man who is Black or Latino.” In this case, research suggests perception matches reality. To give a particularly striking example, one Florida city’s “stop and frisk” policy has been explicitly aimed at all black men. Since 2008, this has led to 99,980 stops which did not produce an arrest in a city with a population of just 110,000. One man alone was stopped 258 times at his job in four years, and arrested for trespassing while working on 62 occasions. Failure to address this issue communicates to police that minorities are a safe target for abuse.

6. Police are increasingly militarized.

During President Obama’s gun control push, he argued that “weapons of war have no place on our streets;” but as Radley Balko has amply documented in his 2013 book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, local police are often equipped with weapons powerful enough to conquer a small country. Police use of highly armed SWAT teams has risen by 1,500 percent in the last two decades, and many police departments have cultivated an “us vs. them” mentality toward the public they ostensibly serve. Although possession of these weapons does not cause misconduct, as the old saying goes, when you have a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.

7. Police themselves say misconduct is remarkably widespread.

Here is the real clincher. A Department of Justice study revealed that a whopping 84 percent of police officers report that they have seen colleagues use excessive force on civilians, and 61 percent admit they do not always report “even serious criminal violations that involve abuse of authority by fellow officers.”

This self-reporting moves us well beyond anecdote into the realm of data: Police brutality is a pervasive problem, exacerbated by systemic failures to curb it. That is not to say that every officer is ill-intentioned or abusive, but it is to suggest that the common assumption that police are generally using their authority in a trustworthy manner merits serious reconsideration. As John Adams wrote to Jefferson, “Power always thinks it has a great soul,” and it cannot be trusted if left unchecked.

The good news is that the first step toward preventing police brutality is well-documented and fairly simple: Keep police constantly on camera. A 2012 study in Rialto, Calif. found that when officers were required to wear cameras recording all their interactions with citizens, “public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60%.” The simple knowledge that they were being watched dramatically altered police behavior.

Coupled with additional reforms, like making officers pay their own settlements and providing better training for dealing with pets, camera use could produce a significant decrease in police misconduct. It is not unrealistic to think that police brutality reports could be made far more unusual—but only once we acknowledge that it is not just a few bad apples.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of The American Conservative

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10 replies to this post
  1. Is it not the case that our local law enforcement agencies are being trained by Federal Enforcement personnel who are advocating techniques which are, at the very least, unconstitutional?

  2. In order for you to prove that it’s systemic, you have have (1) establish how many police brutality incidents occur over the entire number of police interactions, and then (2) decide what percentage would the criteria be to consider it systemic. Or perhaps another way would be to identify the number of policeman who have committed police brutality and divide that over the total police population, and then again decide what criteria makes it systemic. I prefer the first approach better. So if 1% of all police interactions result in police brutality, is that systemic? I don’t know, but 1% to me sounds extraordinarily high. That certainly might be systemic.

    I do believe police brutality is a problem. I personally don’t know anyone that has suffered police brutality,and I don’t see it make the newspapers with any regularity. Intuitively I don’t perceive it to be systemic.

  3. Since the 1980s at least, US cop dramas depict officers breaking the law to stop villains. In common US parlance, legally innocent suspects are ‘perps’ or perpetrators. Homosexual rape in prisons is a national joke. Americans WANT their police to be violent thugs.

  4. Many complaints against police are exaggerated or outright lies which in turn may diminish legitimate abuse complaints in the eyes of the investigators. Lies and exaggeration hurt those victims that need help the most. I do agree with number 6 and have seen this increase in militarization of departments across the country for years now which in turn is glorified by the entertainment industry. It cannot lead to anything good. I also find it interesting that John Adams is quoted. Adams also stated that ” Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”. The police are also facing an increasingly aggressive public. It takes two to tango.

  5. @John

    I agree. Before something is catagorized as police brutality, an investigation should be perofrmed to understand why that person resisted the police in first place. I’ve been taught that if a policeman in the course of his duties tells you to do something, you do it. If it’s unjust, a court of law will straighten it out. You don’t fight or resist a policeman.The only personal interactions I’ve had with policeman that I can think of is receiving a traffic ticket (some of which I thought were unjust) and following directions at parades and other such public events. In all cases I accepted the directions or ticket, whether I felt it right or not.

  6. Amen. Thank you so much for stating what must be stated–over and over again. Bob Higgs has been warning of an impending police state since the mid 1980s. Whatever was the case then, it is certainly true today. Again, thank you.

  7. Bonnie: good to see a fellow YAL-er popping up here on TIC, my home site! I hope to see additional entries by you in the future. Russ Kirk people here are more or less fusionists (because RK was homies with Hayek)–so as a fusionist I don’t feel like such an outsider, pace everywhere else.

    Like Dr. Birzer, I’m with you…mostly. I’m “all in” on 1-4, and 6-7. Some cops are very good, but as a genus, its just another public union, overpayed group of gov bullies.

    But now, #5 suffers from being as weak and unfair as any “disparate impact” analysis: I’m utterly unconvinced. Come to Southern or Central CA: Illegals are incarcerated (receiving d.p.) at four times the rate of citizens, for example, and cops are actually damn good sports about it all. They put up with a lot. It’s a horse of a different color where you live and where I live.

    Constitutionally speaking, anyway, even our lib-activist-tyrant-jurists have to admit that disparate impact analysis deserves only “rational basis” scrutiny, which they do. They’d put it on “strict scrutiny” if they could.

  8. I would say that the militarisation is perhaps the worst of the develops you mention. As I understand it, though starting out being used only in limited situations, SWAT team raid use has risen exponentially in the U.S, and their equivalent are used more and more in Britain.

    One of the worst things about police misconduct is that there is a culture of covering up. It can be very hard to get to the truth of the matter, and even when misconduct is obvious police federations will not accept it. It is commonplace for victims of police brutality to be charged with resisting arrest, assaulting police, and the like. In Britain one of the positive fallouts from the Plebgate affair has been increased scepticism of the police federation.

    I don’t agree with Manny’s suggestion that we should simply obey the police. In Britain we were once proud our police, when we had them, were not like the gendarmes of continental despots. Police are not our feudal masters. They should not look down and us or bark orders at us without good reason. So, I think there we need not simply obey any orders or requests made by police.

  9. The facts do not support systemic abuse. Statistically, fewer than 2 tenths of one percent of the Nation’s 900,000 law enforcement officers are involved in allegation of excessive force. While even that is a problem, if it were a systemic problem the rate would be much higher. The data for this conclusion is given below.

    There are about nearly 780,000 fulltime sworn local and state police law enforcement officers in the United States and about 120,000 federal fulltime sworn law enforcement officers ( plus an unknown number of part-time, reserve and auxiliary officers). For these calculations I will just use the number of fulltime sworn officers (900,000) and disregard the part-time and, reserve and auxiliary officers.

    The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project conducted by the CATO Institute tracks daily reports of police misconduct and produces quarterly and annual reports of the total reported incidents. Their annual report for 2010 (the last annual report I could find) reveals a total of 4861 incidents with 23.8 % of those bring allegations of excessive force, or about 1156 alleged incidents. The reports do not give the total number of officers involved in the allegations of excessive force however, the total number involved in all misconduct reports was about 6613,or about 1.35 officers per incident. If that same ratio is assumed in the excessive use reports then it can be estimated that about 1560 officers were alleged to be involved in the use of excessive force. Doing the math reveals that .17 percent of the 900,000 officers nationwide were involved in allegations of excessive force. And not all of the allegation are founded in fact.

    It is possible that I have made errors in my calculations or that more recent numbers may be found that will provide a different conclusion. Until such corrections are made to my calculations I must consider Bonnie Kristian’s case to be exactly what she said it is not. It is anecdotal.

    • We have far too many “isolated” incidents for this to be merely anecdotal. Cato’s map of botched paramilitary raids, while useful in illustrating the problem, isn’t even up to date. I can think of two botched raids right of the top of my head, one in Georgia where a toddler was maimed by a flash grenade (no suspect or drugs found in the house) and one in Texas where an officer was killed in a no-knock raid by an occupant of the home who (again, no drugs found). In both cases, the police chiefs defend the tactics used, and in the latter one the man who shot the officer is being charged with murder, even though there’s no evidence that he knew the people breaking into his house were police. The sheriff of Johnson County, Indiana, defending his department’s acquisition of a mine-resistant MRAP vehicle, stated that America is a war zone (really?). In Durham, NC, it was recently revealed that police were using faked 911 calls to conduct warantless searches of private homes and property. And just today there are headlines, with video, of the NYPD killing a man. Watch the sickening video in this article, if you can:

      The man is clearly stating he can’t breathe, multiple times, and yet they didn’t stop until he was dead. Why didn’t they stop when he said he couldn’t breathe?

      You can use statistics to minimize what’s happening, but something has clearly changed over the years in the mentality of law enforcement officers. Rarely does more than a day or two go by before another headline blares out another incident of lawlessness and/or excess brutality by those who are supposed to uphold the law. As I said at the top, there are far, far too many incidents occurring nowadays for this problem to be merely shrugged off as anecdotal.

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