Why US Police Are Out of Control
U.S. police forces are so out of control there’s not even a reliable
database on how many times police officers shoot citizens. So,
beyond racism and fear of guns, the problem includes fragmentation
in law enforcement and gaps in training among the 18,000 police
agencies in the 50 states
By Daniel Lazare
August 20, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Consortiumnews"
- America is clearly an outlier when it comes
to police brutality. According to The Guardian’s highly
website, U.S. police kill more people in a typical day than police
in England and Wales kill in an entire year. Where police in
Stockton, California, killed three people in the first five months
of 2015, police in Iceland, which has roughly the same population,
have killed just one person since the modern Icelandic republic was
founded in 1944.
Where the U.S. saw 97 police shootings in a single
month (March 2015), Australia saw 94 over the course of two decades
(1992 to 2011). And where police in Finland fired a grand total of
six bullets in 2013, police in Pasco, Washington, pumped
nearly three times as many last February into a 35-year-old
Mexican immigrant named Antonio Zambrano-Montes whom they accused of
threatening them with a rock.
What is the reason for vast discrepancy? The Black
Lives Matter movement blames racism, which is certainly true as far
as it goes, but potentially misleading since its suggests that
racism is not a problem in countries like England and Australia,
which is definitely not the case.
In a recent analysis, Alternet’s Steven Rosenfeld
reliance on excessive force, an absence of supervision, and a
confrontation mentality that leads urban cops to see their beats as
veritable war zones. While this is certainly the case, the
logic is more than a bit tautological since all Rosenfeld is saying
is that police are out of control because police are out of control.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence blames a “continuing
arms race between law enforcement and civilians” that causes
cops to see every suspect as a heavily-armed combatant. But while
the police are plainly upping their firepower – SWAT
teams are often more heavily armed than front-line troops in
Afghanistan or Iraq – there is no evidence that the average
American is following suit.
Indeed, Gallup reports that the proportion of
Americans who say they have a gun at home has
declined since the 1960s, while sales of military-style
assault weapons have so far had a negligible impact on crime rates.
So there is no evidence that a street-level arms race is underway or
that it is causing police to over-react.
Fragmentation of Police Forces
So what is the real reason that America is off the
charts when it comes to police shootings? The most important
explanation is one that almost no one notices: fragmentation.
Britain, for example, has some 50-odd separate
police forces, the Metropolitan Police Service covering greater
London, a slew of regional police forces covering the rest of the
country, plus a Serious Organized Crime Agency to deal with
Germany has a federal police force plus one police
department for each of the sixteen länder, or states, while France,
thanks to the Jacobin tradition of centralization, somehow makes do
with just three police forces in all: the National Police, the
National Gendarmerie, and the Municipal Police, only half of whom
are armed. Australia meanwhile has eight police forces, New Zealand
has just one, while Canada, somewhat unusually, has more than 200,
including two dozen or more among Native American tribes.
So how many police departments does the United
States have? The answer: more than 18,000. This includes three dozen
or so at the federal level plus a staggering 17,985
at the state and local level – everything from state
troopers and city patrolmen to campus cops, hospital and housing
police, park rangers, and even a special department of zoo
police in the town the Brookfield just outside of Chicago.
Where Britain’s police forces are firmly under the
control of the Home Office while France’s are under the Ministry of
the Interior, moreover, America’s are virtually autonomous. When
the Justice Department sent out a survey on the use of force in
2013, the answers that came back were so jumbled as to be well nigh
useless. Some departments sent back information on the use of guns,
while others included reports about punches thrown and the use of
non-lethal devices such as beanbag guns. Others, including such
big-city departments as New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit,
either did not know or refused to say.
A country that doesn’t even know how many times
police fire their weapons or under what circumstances is one in
which every local department is a law unto itself, a self-contained
barony with its own special rules and customs.
“It’s a national embarrassment,” Geoffrey P.
Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor, told The
New York Times. “Right now, all you know is what gets on
What does a lack of knowledge have to do with
ultra-high levels of brutality? The answer is simple: absence of
knowledge means an absence of control, which means that local
departments behave with relative impunity. If local cops seem out of
control, it’s because the only controls come from local politicians
who are often corrupt and racist and therefore tolerant of such
behavior on the part of the officers they employ.
The Sandra Bland Case
Just what this means became clear on July 10 when
a 28-year-old Chicagoan named Sandra Bland found herself pulled over
by a traffic cop in Waller County, Texas, about 50 miles northwest
of Houston. As a graduate of nearby Prairie View A&M, a historically
black university, Bland knew how small-town police in rural Texas
operate. So she was angry, upset and prepared for the worst.
“You seem very irritated,” Police Officer Brian
her. To which Bland replied:
“I am, I really am.… I was getting out of your
way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop
me. So, yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you
from giving me a ticket.”
Bland had a point. When Encinia pulled up close
behind her, she did the natural thing by moving over to let him
pass. Yet now she found herself pulled over for a technical
infraction, i.e. changing lanes without signaling. Encinia’s
aggressive driving triggered the incident in the first place, and
now his aggressive behavior was upping the ante.
As the argument escalated, Bland found herself
thrown to the ground, cuffed and then tossed in jail when she failed
to make bail. Three days later, she was found dead in her cell.
This is how a feudal knight behaves, not,
supposedly, a modern cop in a democratic society. Encinia was
suspended, the FBI stepped in, while the local DA launched an
investigation to determine if Bland was the victim of a
homicide. But this was only after dash cam footage showing Encinia’s
confrontational behavior went viral on the Internet and protesters
rallied to her cause. Otherwise, the incident would have been gone
The killing of Samuel DuBose six days later showed
another side of the problem. DuBose was not the victim of an
over-aggressive small-town policeman, but of a campus cop from the
University of Cincinnati. Normally, the biggest problems campus
police face are rowdy frat-house parties and overflowing parking
lots on graduation day.
But in this case, the university, concerned about
mounting crime, had entered into an agreement with the city to allow
its police to patrol nearby neighborhoods. For a hapless local
motorist like DuBose, the upshot was that instead of dealing with a
police department accountable in some fashion to the voters of
Cincinnati, he now found himself face to face with an officer
answerable only to a university board of trustees, all appointees.
Control wound up scrambled, accountability was
slashed, while an ill-prepared cop was thrust into a situation for
which he was not properly trained. As a consequence, a minor traffic
stop ended with DuBose’s death.
Once again, the local DA went into
overdrive. County prosecutor Joe Deters slammed Officer Ray Tensing
for making a “chicken crap stop,” dismissing his account as
“nonsense” and describing DuBose’s shooting as “the most asinine act
I’ve ever seen a police officer make.” “This
is without question a murder,” he added.
Loss of Accountability
But not only was this also after the fact, but the
effect was to sidestep the issue of why the city had had shunted off
policing to a body far removed from voters’ control. Responsibility
rested not only with Tensing, but with the city officials who
entered into such an undemocratic arrangement.
So, once again, it was a case of ineffective
controls and a lack of accountability allowing police brutality to
flourish. If the Black Lives Matter movement had not been in high
gear by that point, DuBose’s death would almost certainly have been
overlooked as well. But while emotions ran high, awareness of the
basic structural issues at hand was nil.
This strange contradiction – outrage on one hand
and utter passivity with regard to the larger political issues on
the other – begs two questions: why has fragmentation become so
massive, and why is it all but invisible?
The first is easy. The problem goes back to the
deal that America’s so-called Framers struck in Philadelphia in 1787
in which they not only divided power among three branches of
government, but also between the federal government and the
states. While the former wound up with the ability to tax, borrow,
regulate commerce, and coin money, the latter gained an all but
unchallengeable monopoly on local governance.
Things have gotten a bit more complicated since
then thanks to the civil liberties movement, the New Deal, the civil
rights revolution, and other such events. But to a remarkable
degree, the original division of responsibility still holds. While
the feds intervene from time to time in urban policy, they do so
obliquely while local prerogatives remain sacrosanct.
Much as Congress carved states out of the western
territories, the states gained carte blanche not only to create as
many police departments as they wish, but to carve out an endless
number of municipalities and school districts as well, not to
mention water and sewer boards, mosquito control commissions, and
other exotic flora and fauna.
The upshot is not only 18,000 police departments
than 90,000 local governments in all, all autonomous,
self-governing, and endlessly jealous of their rights and
“[I]f there was a dominant ‘originalist’ notion of
how the nation’s governance should work,” notes a prominent
investigative reporter, “it was pragmatism; it was pulling together
to get done what needed to be done” (Robert Parry, America’s
Stolen Narrative, pp. 32-33).
But leaving aside the fact that pragmatism is far
from a simple concept – the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
the subject runs to more than 10,000 words – it is difficult
to see how such an ornate arrangement can be described as pragmatic
when there is no way to determine whether it is still working – or
what “working” in this context even means.
Does San Diego County (population 3.1 million), to
cite just one example, really need 65
separate fire departments? Does New Jersey (population 8.7
million) really need 565 municipalities and 591 school
districts? Couldn’t the same tasks be accomplished more cheaply and
efficiently if local government was consolidated?
The same goes for the police. Does America really
need 18,000 police departments? Couldn’t the same tasks be
conducted more efficiently and fairly if the departments were
consolidated and placed firmly under federal control?
Fear of Centralism
Conservatives will reply that any such
nationalization would be tyrannical and that local prerogatives like
these are the essence of American liberty. But just as liberty for
the pike means death for the minnow, liberty for local pols in
Waller County meant the opposite for Sandra Bland.
Americans went to war in 1776 because the British
were “erect[ing] a multitude of New Offices, and sen[ding] hither
swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their
substance.” But with their 90,000 local governments, Americans have
wound up saddling themselves with more local officials than George
III could ever have imagined.
It’s a system crying for rationalization and
reform. But this leads to the second question: how is it that no one
notices? Where other countries fiddle with municipal governance as a
matter of routine, abolishing some jurisdictions, creating others,
and constantly re-adjusting powers and responsibilities, the very
idea remains unthinkable in the U.S.
So what is the reason? The answer has to do with
what one might call the dark side of pragmatism. If American
governance rests on the dual principles of practicality and
workability, then it follows that there is no point discussing a
reform if it is not remotely in the cards. Indeed, there’s no point
thinking about the problem in the first place or even noticing that
The absurdity of 18,000 autonomous police
departments should be apparent to all, yet, for even the most ardent
civil-rights campaigner, it disappears from view.
So do other strange aspects of the U.S.
constitutional system – a Senate that gives the same number of votes
to Wyoming (population 576,000) that it does to a multi-racial giant
like California (population 38 million); an electoral college that
triples the weight of certain lily-white “rotten boroughs” (as
under-populated electoral districts were known in Eighteenth-Century
England), or a two-thirds/three-fourths amending clause that, thanks
to growing population discrepancies, allows 13 largely rural states
representing as little as 4.1 percent of the population to veto any
constitutional change sought by the remaining 95.9.
Rather than the elephants in the sitting room that
no one wishes to discuss, these are elephants that no one even
Which brings us back to race. Although civil
libertarians celebrate America’s 228-year-old constitutional system
on the grounds that it locks in the Bill of Rights, the consequences
are not remotely democratic. To the contrary, the effect is not only
to fragment power from above, but, more importantly, to muffle and
disperse democratic political power from below by placing countless
obstacles in its path.
As a result, racism is allowed to fester in
countless nooks and crannies in America’s over-complicated political
structure. The disease thus spreads, infecting one organ after
For protesters, the consequence is a curious mix
of anger and complacency. Young people take to the streets in
response to the latest outrage. They march and chant as they
challenge the powers-that-be. But then the fury wanes, and everyone
goes back home. With gyroscopic efficiency, the system rights itself
and fragmentation continues unabated.
If you want a picture of the future, to paraphrase
Orwell, imagine an endless succession of Sandra Blands hanging in
their cell – forever.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books
Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt
18-year-old black high school graduate
fatally shot by police
: Nine people were arrested and officers used tear gas to clear
street amid protests
2 Cops Shoot Unarmed Man, Third Cop Stands
Over his Bleeding Body, Shoots Him in the Groin:
Although the suspect did not have a weapon, the initial two cops who
shot him are not facing charges because they claim he had been
reaching toward his waist.
"See Something, Say Something—Unless It's
Today the ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit against two officers from
the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority police department for civil
rights violations against our client Mary Holmes
Cop Shoots at Unarmed Man Because He Pointed
his Finger in a “Gun Gesture”:
It’s entirely bad enough that pointing a finger like a gun will get
children suspended from school. However, in police state USA, this
hand gesture now appears to be punishable by death.
2 Georgia ex-cops face murder charges for
tasing handcuffed man at least 13 times:
Two former Georgia police officers are facing murder charges for
tasing an unarmed man at least 13 times while he was handcuffed. The
man died following the confrontation.