A big month for police violence. Will they reform? Lessons either way.

Summary: Seven big incidents during the past 30 days! This post looks not just at what’s happening, but at the likely consequences. Unless they respond effectively, this growing flood of videos will inevitably redefine the image of police in the minds of many America, with ugly results. Unfortunately they, like so many of our institutions, appear dysfunctional in this most vital sense.

“There are two fairly standard approaches to political power used by those who seek it. Some seek power with the assumption that the citizenry are the source of legitimacy and are to be treated with respect. Others concentrate on identifying whatever insecurities there are within the citizenry and on exploiting them.”

— John Ralston Saul’s Reflections of a Siamese twin: Canada at the end of the twentieth century (1997).

Ahmed Mohamed


A busy month for America’s police

Video shows Philadelphia police officer threatening to have car towed unless driver for donates to police fundraiser., AP: incident occurred in August. Also see the NYT story.

Video Suggests Suspect in San Antonio Shooting Had Hands Raised When Shot“, New York Times: on August 28. Also see the second video of the incident.

Retired tennis star James Blake tackled by officer, without warning, while standing outside hotel. He resembled suspect of credit card fraud (a nonviolent crime), ABC News: September 11.

Video shows 4 Stockton police officers tackling a 16-year-old boy to the ground for jaywalking (it’s an infraction in California, not even a misdemeanor), LA Times: on September 15. See the video: “9 cops detain 1 US teen for refusing to use sidewalk (VIDEO)“. This article describes the beating.

Ahmed Mohamed interrogated by 5 police for building a clock and saying it was a clock. Taken away in cuffs, fingerprinted, suspended from school for 3 days: on September 15. His parents were not allowed to be present during police interrogation (and no attorney).

Cop Beats Unarmed Woman with a baton, Pulls Gun On Witnesses, ThinkProgress: on September 18. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officer arresting woman on a bus for theft.

Policeman harasses and cuff man for suspiciously eating a hamburger in the parking lot of an apartment building (plus an illegal search), AlterNet: on September 19.

This is probably an incomplete list of incidents during these few weeks, showing the usual mix of brutal of small but telling incidents plus an execution.

A police reform puzzle

Their response and the unavoidable consequences

“The criminal element is feeling empowered’ by anti-police sentiment.”
—- Police Chief Sam Doston of St Louis.

Challenges shape institutions, revealing their members’ true values and their collective ability to see the world and respond to changes. So far America’s law enforcement community has failed on all counts.

They’ve responded by drawing on their social capital — rallying supporters by appealing to the good deeds they do, and emphasizing the danger of their job (the 14th highest fatality rate; also see the BLS report). They imply that this casual brutality (rarely captured and disseminated on video) is an acceptable price for their service — although the example of other democracies shows otherwise.

Will police respond by making obvious reforms (e.g., national database of officers’ records, independent reviews of these incidents)?  The next year or so will tell us much.

The lesson we learn if they choose to fight reforms? Their guild loyalty trumps their loyalty to us, the wider community. Perhaps they define “American” more narrowly than many of us do (this is not exclusively racism in action, having a large class component).

I believe that reforms are coming (see Reforms are coming to America’s police, either with them or over them. Which?). What are the likely consequences if they fail to reform?  My guess…

(a)  Their core white middle and upper class supporters will continue to cheer “our” thin blue line that protects us from the “underclass”.

(b)  Their legitimacy in the “underclass” will continue to decline, even from its current low levels. In many areas they’ll be seen as an occupying army, which will reduce their ability to function — and probably increase the frequency and rate of violence used against them.

(c)  This breaking of legitimacy of yet another key institution along factional or tribal lines will further weaken what has been one of America’s greatest strengths — our social cohesion. It’s dynamiting the Republic’s foundations; we can say little about the result except that it will be bad.

For More Information

Much can be learned by our institutions’ response to the most obvious problems: “When Cops Break Bad: Inside a Police Force Gone Wild” by Nick Pinto in Rolling Stone, 29 January 2015 — “Over the past five years, police in Albuquerque have shot and killed 28 people.”

7 Rules for Recording Police” by Steve Silverman in Reason, 5 April 2012 — “Courts are expanding rights but cops are cracking down. Find out how to keep your footage, and yourself, out of trouble.” I also recommend Do not talk to the police (important advice in New America).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the police, especially these…

  1. Police grow more powerful; the Republic slides another step into darkness. Can cellphone cameras save us?
  2. Shootings by police show their evolution into “security services”; bad news for the Republic.
  3. No need for police reform, since only criminals have trouble with police!
  4. Myths and truth about police violence, & why change is coming.
  5. Are protests about police killings causing crime to rise?

For deeper understanding of these things I recommend 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). Also see The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by legal scholar Michelle Alexander.

Rise of the Warrior Cop
Available at Amazon.
The New Jim Crow
Available at Amazon.


13 thoughts on “A big month for police violence. Will they reform? Lessons either way.”

  1. A word of warning about Rise of the Warrior Cop… if you aren’t fully in the pro-police-no-matter-what camp, it will make you physically shake with rage. It is good for your mind, but not for your body. I can’t recommend it enough.

  2. Timely article. This reminds me of something I read, I believe in the Marine Gazette back in the late ’80’s or early ’90’s, about an unpleasant train coming down the track (described in you point “b”). The article as I remember warned Marines of being (heavily) recruited by local PD’s and against joining up with a non-military crew who view themselves as an (occupying) army. Nothing good will come of it. Incidentally, what are PD Chiefs doing w/4 stars on their collars?

    I haven’t seen a level of self-awareness, insight or critical thinking needed by local PD’s that would lead me to believe they will accept reform. Defense of the tribe is strong w/them. Let’s also appreciate the fact that they will not hesitate to use all the gadgets, widgets and gizmos you and I pay for to discipline tribe members and critics. The response of the “good cops” to bad policing has been deafening in its silence.

    Compounding their defense rationale (if you can call it rational) is the fact that they seldom seem to know anything for sure before they act. Their defense rationale (excuses), for their often illogical problem solving, has devolved into acting on what they “thought”, what they “believed”, what they “heard” and the ever present “fear for their lives”. (Many of them sound too frightened to have been given the armed authority we grant them.) I believe this is due, in large part, to their unthinking, bonsai, bums rush, shoulder-to-shoulder, frontal assault tactics, (apparently a timed event) which immediately places themselves and innocents in unnecessary danger; fearing themselves up which results in the many unjustified shootings and/or chases (for reasons they are not even fully aware of). Hey, but who’s talking about common sense w/in the context of protecting and serving? For the love of god, you would think their families would demand a saner more intelligent, well thought out, less dangerous approach.

    Let’s not get into their pursuit tactics which almost never involve getting vehicles (which multiply like rabbits after the event) out in front of fleeing suspects, blocking routes of escape, cross streets and expressway on/off ramps … don’t get me started.

    1. Apologies for not confirming Marine Corps Gazette article before sounding off on it. Checked the site and can’t find the reference. Please disregard unconfirmed reference.

  3. Personal anecdote: The other day I was walking to work in the morning and passed a couple young men being arrested by police for who-knows-what. The police were being gentle, nice, and overall acting professionally. There were also at least 3 by-standers recording the entire incident on their phones.
    Read into it what you will, but I had the following thoughts:
    1. Police probably act professionally in most situations, and in most of their interactions with the public, but they are more likely to do so if they are being watched and recorded.
    2. Bystanders want to catch the police misbehaving.
    3. Police today are more likely to have their actions recorded. Whereas in the past, misconduct might have gone largely undocumented, now it’s more difficult to ignore. When dirty details come into light, and are more easily disseminated on the internet, scandals become more common, and so more accountability is demanded.

    I think Fabius Maximus is right, there are two directions this could go. Either the police could relax, reform, root out bad apples, and adopt a ‘community-based’ policing model, or they could double down, crack down, circle the wagons, and firm up the thin blue line.

  4. The downward path that FM briefly discusses (loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the lower class) strikes me as a logical (almost said good, but there is nothing good about this) way to ease into 4th Generation Warfare. Four GW results from many different issues but they all have three essential ingredients (I have included my thoughts on the progress of 4GW in the US)):
    1) The government lacks legitimacy with a large percentage of the population (true for a lot of the feds, less true at the moment at the state and local level)
    2) A large underclass that feels pushed against the wall with no obvious source of relief. This oppression does not need to be physical or political, a bad economy can do a lot of damage in a short period of time (underclass is growing but mostly does not yet feel oppressed).
    3) Widespread use of force by the army/police force against the underclass to maintain peace but not justice, giving the underclass a nowhere-to-go-but-up and do-or-die mentality (not yet widespread but a growing concern).

    Except for such special cases as the War on Drugs (TM) we are still a long way away from 4GW in the US but I suspect that a bad economic downturn combined with a poor response from the government could move us much closer much more quickly than anybody expects.

    What can we expect if 4GW were to break out in the US? Nothing good; it takes are great deal of good judgment and restraint by the government (both of which are in short supply in US governments right now) to put the 4GW genie back in the bottle and it is very likely that things we all value highly (personal freedom, general physical and mental health, faith in all levels of government, and willingness to tolerate other people in general) would suffer greatly or vanish from this country.

  5. The most fascinating aspect of police violence in America?
    There exists no comprehensive government database detailing it. Not. One. The FBI doesn’t maintain one, it merely takes voluntary reports from local police departments — and local departments are not obliged to report incidents involving their officers.
    The U.S. government keeps meticulous records of everything from soy bean harvests to waste water processing…but no accurate official record of police violence.
    Interesting, no?

    1. Thomas, why are surprised by this? Let’s look at this from the inside perspective. Say you are a government official and you start hearing about a lot of shootings by active-duty police officers and you want to set up a publicly available database of them. What does your superior say? Of course he says no. And if he doesn’t, then his superior will veto the project.

      Government officials greatly fear loss of legitimacy and publicizing bad behavior by other government officials is the fastest way for government as a whole to lose legitimacy. It also invites other parts of government to go sniffing after your dirty laundry which might be the only thing to rank higher on every government official’s “don’t do this” list than “lose legitimacy.”

      After a bit of thought, I can see two implications for this:
      1) Government officials will do their best to legally (don’t want to lose legitimacy) reduce the number of killings on the Washington Post list you mentioned in your next post or to cause the list to be seen as inaccurate, which is bad because bad behavior that is unreported also goes uncorrected. A newspaper in Nevada started a similar list a few years back and has reported that several government agencies have behaved this way.

      2) At least our officials still recognize that it is bad behavior. The Nazis made big lists of the atrocities they committed, checked them twice for accuracy, and then were surprised when that information was used as evidence against them at Nuremburg. So it is not necessarily a good thing when the government starts reporting this because they may be so far gone that they think it will encourage more shootings and that more shootings will make their lives better.

  6. Intriguing article: the Washington Post has started tracking nationwide police shootings and has set up an unofficial database of civilian deaths at the hands of the police, since police and the FBI and the U.S. government won’t do it.

    The tally of people shot and killed by on-duty police officers passed 700 on Wednesday night — a fatal milestone that is almost double the highest number of police shootings ever reported by the FBI for an entire year — according to a Washington Post database tracking all shootings death at the hands of police this year.

    Source: “On-duty police officers have shot and killed more than 700 people this year,” The Washington Post, 17 September 2015.

  7. Generally police are not bright bulbs. The Texas case is standout example of the badly educated teachers. Texas has one of the worst ed systems in the country. A kid that bright should be in a school deserving of him. I wonder also if the English teacher wanted this because she felt inferior to him?

    Dan Rather Announces Prize to Improve Texas Education

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