We can’t fix police violence because we don’t know the cause

Summary: Police violence is a hot issue in 2015, as NSA surveillance was in 2013. Activists probably will make the same two mistakes now as they did then. First, they’ll build an inadequate political coalition (many whites fear blacks more than the police). Second, they’ll fail to understand the roots of the causes of the problem, making effective treatment difficult or impossible.  Here we look at the latter problem.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Police: To Protect and to Serve

The pressure grows for reforms to the US law enforcement apparatus as the number of police brutality reports grow. By now it’s well documented, as in this detailed report by the ACLU: “War Comes Home – The Excessive Militarization of American Policing“. Of course resistance from the police has arisen along with opposition from the Right (see this and this story).

Yet the debate includes little discussion about the nature of the problem, which remains on the simplest level. The violence results from “bad apples” among police, plus “insufficient training” and “racism.” There are excuses also, such as “the police shooter was nervous because so many criminals have guns” and “the police shooter feared for his life.”

These are partial truths, at best, on which we’ll build controversial solutions with high odds of failure. Accurate diagnosis should precede treatment if we’re to have good odds of success. Agitating for change is nice, but not enough. Let’s review some important factors at work here.


Lethal Weapons
Lethal Weapons“, The Economist, 23 August 2014.

Consider the context of police violence

Perhaps nothing has changed and we’re just learning about police violence that has happened for decades or even generations. Perhaps journalists have just begun reporting these events. Perhaps the number of cell phone cameras has reached a critical level. Or perhaps police violence has increased, caught by the profusion of cameras — generating a noise level that journalists can’t ignore.

Supporting the latter theory is the big picture. So many other things are changing in America. My guess is that police violence is increasing (not necessarily to historically record highs), and this results from deep changes in American society.  We only see the signs it leaves, like the passage of the gophers in my backyard.

(1)  America’s police are rapidly militarizing their weapons and tactics.

(2)  America’s police shoot a lot more people per capita than police in other nations. Quite a few die in situations where the police were not at risk: the victim had no gun, or was even unarmed — often with many police present. An extreme example took place on 22 November 2014 when two police drove their car through an empty park right up to Tamir Rice. A patrolman jumped out; he immediately shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was holding an airsoft-type gun. Details here.

(3)  We have more armed Federal agents and more Federal SWAT teams, mirroring the increase in the number of SWAT teams during the past few decades at local and state levels.

(4)  The power of the police and security services is rapidly growing, driven by decreased judicial restraint, new laws (e.g., Patriot Act), and a massive increase in the intelligence services.

(5)  We don’t know how many people the police shoot each year or how many they beat up, let alone how these numbers have changed over time. D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News & Review, runs a crowdsourced national database of people killed by police. His conclusions so far:

You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men. You know who dies in the least population dense areas? Mentally ill men. It’s not to say there aren’t dangerous and desperate criminals killed across the line. But African-Americans and the mentally ill people make up a huge percentage of people killed by police.

What does this add up to? We’re seeing a powerful element of the New America that is rising on the ruins of the America-that-once-was. As the State’s first-line agency using force to maintain order, it’s among the most vital institutions.  We need to understand what’s happening with the police and resist the glib analysis and facile solutions so that we can reduce this violence — and stop the evolution of which the violence is just a symptom.

The latest episode of “to protect and serve”

This is a poignant story. Look at this video where a US Marshall charges woman, snatches and smashes her phone. Imagine how she felt as this large man –with his sunglasses, rifle and body armor, lunged towards her. Who was he protecting?

For More Information

For more about this see Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2014) and John T. Whitehead’s A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (2013).

See these posts about police brutality, especially these:



14 thoughts on “We can’t fix police violence because we don’t know the cause”

  1. FM,

    Subtle question on culture. How do police forces view citizens? Are they protecting us, or are we potential threats to them?


    1. Mike,

      That’s a great question. I suspect there’s some research about that, which I’d like to see. Mu guess is that most police see their role as protecting citizens. But I believe there are other questions which takes analytical precedence: who are citizens? What’s the relationship of police to citizens? I suspect many police see the world in terms of classes,

      (1) Who are citizens? For many police I suspect minorities are not citizens (old fashioned racism). I suspect that a larger number don’t see the poor as citizens; they’re proles — the underclass.

      (2) I suspect a large fraction of police see themselves as a special order distinct from and superior to citizens of the outer party (middle class) and proles (lower classes). As people who live in terms of power relations, they’re suitably obsequious to people in the inner party (the executive class) and the rich (whom they seldom meet). As police captain Bryant says in the film “Blade Runner”:

      ” You know the score, pal. You’re not cop, you’re little people.”

    1. dashui,

      I have a friend, an attorney who does nothing but defend drunk drivers (i.e., does plea bargains). From his long experience with police he believe many of them join because they like to push people around. But then I’ve heard many surgeons enjoy cutting people open. Life.

  2. Wherever Cops look, they see crime. Where they don’t look they don’t see….crime. Therefore they see crime all over the place. They are the bastion of safety and order and we don’t really understand this per their deeply reinforced meme. They feel under appreciated and maligned and must protect themselves from such sociological realities.

    They are pampered and protected by and from those they are to “serve”. Their managers resist any form of Citizen control or oversight. It is all about power. And we must take the power back from them and their managers.

    Define the problem? Absolutely and don’t make it too complex!


  3. Fabius Maximus,

    Ta-nahisi Coates of The Atlantic offers this potential reason for extra violence here: “The Myth of Police Reform” — “The real problem is the belief that all our social problems can be solved with force.”

    He postulates that we use the police as our go-to response to all sorts of problems that previously saw other ways to pursue the solution. Why are police responding to everything? Perhaps the same reason that our military is the only response we have to foreign affairs.

    My assumption is that these trends are built on political realities that make use of force/support the law/support the troops a viable political option in America. We haven’t seen a ceiling on it yet, so politicians are going to keep using it and avoid other solutions that better solve the problem but carry political risk.

    PF Khans

    1. PF Khans,

      I saw that. It is, as usual for him, incisively reasoned. But it misses the key questions. Has police violence grown worse? Or did we just not notice it?

      Without answers to those questions — the vital context — I suspect it will be difficult to produce effective reforms.

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    1. magus,

      That’s quite a statement. Videos are more than anecdotes. The tens of millions in settlements by governments is evidence of another kind (winning civil litigation against the government is very difficult). The increasing number of Federal DoJ “agreements” with local enforcement agencies provide evidence of another kind (it requires quite a bit of evidence to force these through).

      To say there is “no problem” requires tightly closed eyes.

      We have almost no evidence about the historical incidence of police brutality. Is the trend increasing or decreasing? How does this compare vs past periods?

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  7. I’ll begin by saying I believe a very big part of the problem – if not THE ROOT CAUSE of it – is the training would-be officers go through.

    Any violence aside for a moment, what is most obvious in pretty much all cases is that the “bad apple” officers appear to be either (A) unable or (B) unwilling to leave their personal values and beliefs at home, instead allowing those values and beliefs to have great influence on how they do their jobs.

    It seems they are (A) unable or (B) unwilling to uphold the laws AS THEY ARE WRITTEN and, instead, use their own interpretation of the laws.

    Case in point: the video of a NJ officer who was hassling a citizen for taking photographs inside a public building. While the situation did not turn violent; in fact, the officer never placed his hands on the subject, the officer demonstrated my points perfectly. When the subject asked the officer why taking photographs in a public building was illegal, the officer replied (and this is a direct quote), “Well, Obama has decimated the friggin’ Constitution, so I don’t give a damn. Because if he doesn’t follow the Constitution, we don’t have to, either.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoNR9RdA9bw For those who aren’t familiar with this story, the officer was forced to resign.

    Law enforcement training rule #1 needs to be: “We uphold the laws as they are written. That means in a completely unbiased manner. If you feel you cannot do that, the time to step out is now.”

    Several years ago, I posted the word “OUTRAGEOUS!” along with a link to the story (from July 2012, I believe) of a Texas state trooper who had pulled over two women for having tossed a cigarette butt out of their car window. The (male) trooper approached the women in their car and had a discussion with them about the cigarette butt. He then returned to his cruiser, outfitted with a video camera that was recording the event. He sat in his cruiser for quite some time (not visible on video), completely silent. Then he radioed to his headquarters, and then to another nearby trooper (female), asking her to join him at the scene, where the two women are still waiting in their car.

    I am recalling this event from memory (even though I have the details documented), so the exact timing of events may be incorrect. Either just before or immediately after the female trooper arrives on the scene, the male trooper returns to the two women and – for the first time – states that he smells marijuana in the car and begins to question the women about that. He estimates, by what he allegedly smells, that (paraphrasing) “marijuana is smoked in this car every day.” He asks the two women if either of them are carrying marijuana. They say no.

    The male trooper now instructs the female trooper to conduct on both women a BODY CAVITY SEARCH, RIGHT THERE, ON THE SIDE OF THE HIGHWAY. Despite the women’s protests, the female trooper does just that… IN FULL VIEW OF THE VIDEO CAMERA in the male trooper’s cruiser. The male trooper searched the car and found nothing.

    That’s the gist of the story as it relates to my Facebook posting. My “OUTRAGEOUS!” Facebook post was seen by a family friend who happens to be a police officer in another state. Knowing full well who he was addressing, he responded to my post, admonishing me: “do not stoop to a level in which you are willing to sully and degrade the reputation of the very people that swear to protect you and do so with a pitance of pay, shitty hours, stress, liability, and very little support or praise from those we love to protect.” He continued “this lack luster shitty reporting is exactly what leads to the mistrust by the very people we are so willing to protect and put our lives on the line for. If you and everyone else even knew the circumstances of this case and so many like it that are thrown together and reported like this! Medias job=sell papers at any cost…Law enforcements job=save your ass any any cost.”

    I pointed out that the trooper’s very own cruiser video cam captured everything so, first, any sullying or degrading of reputation was done by the trooper himself and, second, if he considers video footage from the trooper’s cruiser camera to be “lack luster shitty reporting,” then there is a problem in separating cold, hard evidence from bullshit.

    Let me go on record that I believe most police officers are honest, trustworthy and above corruption. But the “bad apples” are out there; they are making a bad name for the law enforcement community and, thus, it is unfortunately up to the good apples to find them and weed them out.

    If would-be officers know before beginning training (or even learning during training) that the job pays poorly, the hours are horrible, the job is stressful and full of liability by putting their lives in danger every minute of every day, we must ask for what reason(s) do they want to become police officers? Unless they can convince us they are able to rise above all the negative aspects and uphold the laws as they are written in a completely unbiased manner, we are left to believe – as evidence increasingly suggests – that they want to become police officers so that they can throw their weight around. And the bad apples that are on video prove that without a doubt.

    If law enforcement is so concerned (aka angry) about the image the public has of them (thugs with badges), the way to correct that public image is certainly not to respond with even more violence, especially toward people who have not been proven guilty of crimes.

    We cannot have episodes like a police officer chasing after a woman who is walking away from him, throwing her to the ground and beating her in the face mercilessly. Or of a police officer who – rather than call for a female backup – instead chooses to taser a 70-something woman because she won’t comply. We cannot have police officers who, already knowing a language barrier exists, throw people (like the visiting Indian grandfather) to the ground, permanently paralyzing him. Or officers finding humor in and completely ignoring a subject’s plea that he cannot breathe because of the stranglehold being applied, which resulted in his death. These events and too many others show that police officers do not have the medical or psychological training to make educated decisions. Instead, they don’t consider for a moment that the person just might be telling the truth… or that he or she just might be suffering from some mental disorder, making it impossible for them to comprehend what’s going on. We cannot have ignorant thugs with badges interpreting laws and doing as they please.

    Because of what we’ve been seeing, I now believe the full curriculum of law enforcement training – everything would-be officers are taught – should be authored by the Justice Department so that everything is the same from state to state. Would-be officers would need to be able to prove their understanding of the laws and they must also swear to their understanding that there is to be no personal interpretation of laws.

    Further, even before beginning training, I believe all would-be officers must go through a complete screening. First, a comprehensive background check to ensure the applicant does not belong to any subversive groups or subscribe to their beliefs. Second, a thorough psychological evaluation to be performed by qualified doctors not affiliated in any way with law enforcement. And the psych evaluation would be performed every two years thereafter, or more often, if behavior warrants it.

    We cannot put in positions of authority people who are, for any reason, not mentally, physically or morally up to the task.

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