Police Reform Part 1: A lot of Factors contribute to police brutality

On May 25th George Floyd, died while in police custody. He was at the time suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill. During his apprehension, Derek Chauvin held George Floyd in a chokehold position until he was unresponsive. George Floyd was later pronounced dead by medical emergency workers.

We have all heard stories like these or seen videos of people dying at the hands of the police. We have seen seemingly unharmful suspects getting shot while running away from the police or resisting arrest. Or worse yet, mentally ill individuals getting shot after they called the police. Every year multiple individuals die at the hands of the police. Most of these we never get to hear about, because they do not make the news.

How high are the numbers?

Between 2000 and May 2020, Minnesota has had 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 5400. This year alone (that’s January to June), 473 people have been killed by the police.

For other countries, these numbers are way lower, even after accounting for differences in population. In 2015, there were merely 4 fatal shots fired by the police in Germany but in the US, it was more than 900. As of 2019, the rate of civilians killed by police was 33.5 per 10 million people for the US. Canada, Germany, and England and Wales had the rates 9.8, 1.3 and 0.5 respectively.

Now some of these deaths may be justified. There is a chance some of these people posed an actual risk to an officer. However, the growing list of videos showcasing police brutality is no way justified by this risk the police inherently take.  There is certainly a level of danger to police work that may warrant some of the use of force. But compared with the low fatalities of other countries, the high numbers point to a big problem in the system.

Generally, a majority of people agree that the police system needs to change. There has been a growing realization that the way the system is set up encourages the use of force or does not discourage officers from using excessive violence. Things like (1) lack of adequate training (2) militarization of the police (3) tasking the police with jobs they are ill-equipped to do (4) public perception of crime, are some of the most common factors contributing to police brutality.

Training

There are two things with the training that may contribute to police brutality: (1) inadequate training (2) Prevalence of “warrior-style training”. In Germany, for instance, police officers are trained for 3 years and they earn a bachelor’s degree as part of their basic police training. Training additionally emphasizes alternatives to shooting, like in most European countries.

In the US training lasts on average 19 weeks, and in some cases emphasizes defense mechanisms. The most famous of these defense mechanisms training is the “Warrior style training. The Warrior style training style is basically any training in which an officer’s survival is the highest priority and every “interaction is seen as a threat to an officer’s safety”. The police officer who shot Philando Castile, for instance, had attended a warrior-style training seminar.

The rise of this military training might have some of its roots in the 1981 Military Cooperation with Law enforcement Act. When the Act was passed, it authorized and incentivized the U.S armed forces to train police in military tactics. The end result:

The police have deployed a militarized response to what they accurately or inaccurately believe to be a threat to public order, private property, and their own safety. It is in part due to a policing culture in which protesters are often perceived as the “enemy.” Indeed teaching cops to think like soldiers and learn how to kill has been part of a training program popular among some police officers.

One might argue that it is necessary for the Police to know how to defend themselves as they interact with dangerous individuals. While this might be true, the risk is not as high as perceived. in fact, the number of officers killed each year has been dropping, making being a cop much safer than before. On average about less than 200 cops are killed a year but cops contribute to deaths of about 900 people a year on average.

Militarization of the police

I am sure a lot of people are used to seeing their police officers geared up like they are going to war. This is because of the 1033 program that enabled the Pentagon to donate surplus gear to local officers. This program was created through the National Defense Authorization Act and allowed the military to donate things like armored vehicles, grenade launchers, M16s, helicopters, and weaponized vehicles. At least $5.1 billion in military equipment has been transferred since 1997. This was largely rooted in the war against drugs and resulted in an increase in SWAT teams even in small towns.

As a result, more than 80% of small U.S. towns (with 20,000 to 25,000 residents) now have a SWAT team. In 1981, the U.S. deployed SWAT teams about 3000 times total in response to hostage and active shooter scenarios, or an average of 8 times a day; last year, they deployed SWAT raids about 100 times a day, mostly for drug warrants.

And what follows an increase in SWAT teams is usually more SWAT raids, some of which end up with innocent people injured or killed.

In 1980, when the violent crime rate was approximately 63 percent higher than it is now, there were on average three SWAT raids per day nationwide; now there are about 120. Shockingly, the vast majority of those SWAT raids are undertaken merely to execute search warrants, 60 percent of the time for drugs. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, only 7 percent of SWAT deployments were for hostage situations or barricaded shooters, the original purpose for creating SWAT teams. In short, each day, local police are violently raiding homes approximately 120 times, mostly for nonviolent offenses. In the process, they destroy property, often kill pets, sometimes injure or kill innocent people, and generally create an unhealthy atmosphere of fear and distrust.

But even with no SWAT raids, equipping police with military equipment sends them the idea that they are at war. And the police wage this war on those they perceive to be criminals. It makes it the norm therefore for police officers to be violent with suspects. Police officers shift from being peacekeepers to law enforcers and this makes a big difference in policing.

There is evidence showing a correlation between militarization and violence. According to authors of a 2017 study:

Even controlling for other possible factors in police violence (such as household income, overall and black population, violent-crime levels and drug use), more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police. When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.

Use of force policies

Use of force policies are rules regarding acceptable use of force. Usually, every state or big police department has a set of written rules regarding what kind of force they can use and when they are allowed to do so. Usually, strict use of force policies results in a smaller number of incidents of excessive use of force by police. Police departments that fail to place restrictions may see a huge number of incidents of police officers using force excessively.

According to research by Campaign One, America’s largest police departments differ significantly in how they restrict officers from using force against civilians. Police departments that had more restrictions on police on the use of force were found to kill significantly fewer civilians. Lowest rates of killing were associated with police departments that implemented four or more policies.  And contrary to opinion, police officers in police departments with more restrict policies in place 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 Minneapolis Police Department has generally had four restrictions on the use of force. The Department (1) requires an officer to intervene when force is being inappropriately applied (2) requires officers to verbally announcing the use of force (3) requires officers to use de-escalation tactics (4) to discourage officers from firing at moving vehicles. Up until early June, the policy manual for Minneapolis police said officers could use chokeholds to cut off air supply

The police are tasked with doing too much

In February 2014, a man died in Minneapolis seven days after suffering from a heart attack. The man had suffered a heart attack shortly after the police has used a taser gun on him at a group of adults with mental illness. The police had been called when the man in question reportedly threatened other residents. The police sent a crisis intervention team that is trained to deal with people suffering from mental illness. When the team was unable to subdue the man, they tased him and he suffered cardiac arrest shortly after he was shocked.

There or there may not be a direct correlation between the man being tased and his death. But this is a common treatment of people with mental illness by the police. A good number of mentally ill individuals have been shot by police officers who felt threatened. In 2019 for instance, out of the 752 people shot and killed by the police, 142 have had a mental health illness

The police generally have little training in crisis intervention. And even with that little training, they are tasked with dealing with drug overdose patients, homeless issues, and mental illness issues. The police have extended into more areas of daily life, most of which they are ill-equipped to handle.  It is no surprising some of these interactions turn violent when they do not need to be.

People’s perception of the level of crime

Another contributing factor may be people’s perception of crime. People’s perception of crime levels often affects the kind of policing they support. When people believe crime is down, they are less likely to support policy that is unnecessarily tough on crime. The opposite is true; when people believe crime is high or rising, they support policies that come down tough on crime. This is true regardless of whether people’s perceptions align with data.

In the United States, people believe crime is rising even though the data says violent and nonviolent crimes have been decreasing since 1994. This belief in high and rising crime is potentially one of the reasons a majority of people support more police on the streets.