Serve and protect

Several factors affect the levels of police brutality.

The aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death while in police custody is filled with stories and videos of other people dying at the hands of the police.

Some of these deaths may be justified. But compared with the low fatalities in other countries, the high numbers point to a big problem in the system.

Between 2000 and May 2020, Minnesotans experienced 195 police encounters that turned fatal. In the United States, the total number of people killed by the police between 2015 and 2020 is about 5,400. This year alone (January to June), 473 people have been killed by the police.

For other countries, these numbers are much lower, even after accounting for differences in population. In 2015, the German police fired just four fatal shots, while in the U.S. that number was more than 900. As of 2019, the rate of civilians killed by police in the U.S. was 33.5 per 10 million. Canada, Germany, and England and Wales had rates of 9.8, 1.3 and 0.5 per 10 million, respectively.

Generally, a majority of people agree that the police system needs to change. (See the recent Thinking Minnesota Poll on page 30 of this magazine.) Observers increasingly agree that the system encourages the use of force or does not discourage officers from using excessive violence. They point to contributing factors such as the following.


Inadequate training and an emphasis on “warrior-style training” likely contribute to police brutality. In Germany, police officers receive three years of training for which they earn a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, U.S. training lasts on average 19 weeks, and in some cases emphasizes defense mechanisms—warrior-style training—that underscores that every interaction is seen as a threat to an officer’s safety.

Militarization of the police

Many people have grown accustomed to seeing police officers geared up like they’re going to war. This is because Congress created a federal program that enabled the Pentagon to donate surplus gear—armored vehicles, grenade launchers, M16s, helicopters, and weaponized vehicles—to help local departments fight the war on drugs. With this equipment, even small towns created SWAT teams. And they use them.

Use-of-force policies

Use-of-force policies spell out what kind of force can be used in specific circumstances. Usually, strict use-of-force policies reduce incidents of excessive force by police. Research by Campaign Zero illustrates how the largest police departments differ significantly in how they restrict officers from using force against civilians. Departments with more restrictions on police killed significantly fewer civilians. And contrary to opinion, officers in departments with more restrictive policies were actually less likely to be killed in the line of duty, less likely to be assaulted, and have a similar likelihood of sustaining an injury during an assault.

The police are tasked with doing too much

In 2019, 142 of the 752 people shot and killed by the police suffered from a mental illness.

The police generally have little training in crisis intervention, yet their responsibilities require them to deal with drug overdose patients, homeless issues and mental illness issues. It is not a surprise that some of these interactions turn violent when they do not need to be.

People’s perception of the level of crime

When people believe crime is down, they are less likely to support policies that are tough on crime; when people believe crime is high or rising, they support policies that come down tough on crime. People in the United States believe crime is rising, even though the data say violent and nonviolent crimes have been decreasing since 1994.