Police in the United States are famous worldwide for their aggressive tactics (along with their use of “asset forfeiture” to increase revenue).
We are confronted on a weekly basis with cellphone videos and stories of shootings, abuse, and deaths at the hands of police, involving primarily unarmed civilians. I hear about U.S. police brutality and overreaction discussed by Germans on a weekly basis, and one of the first questions people from around the world ask me is if “the U.S. police are really as aggressive and violent as it seems?”
The never ending stream of videos represents, more than anything else in modern culture, how the public perceives the police. Hyper-aggressive police represent, along with privatised prisons and mass incarceration with little to no focus on rehabilitation, the triad of the American criminal justice failure.
The causes and roots of this, as well the depth of the situation, is what we’ll try to discuss in this text. To do so more effectively, I consulted with ex-Philidelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis.
To understand the police, you have to understand that like any institution it has its own subculture: internal rules, customs, and expectations. Like the fire department, they have a societal role that is often described as “to serve and protect.” But, unlike the fire department, the police roam the streets looking for trouble, and if the police find or create trouble, it can be very difficult to nearly impossible for a citizen to ever prove they weren’t at fault.
Theoretically, the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) exists to regulate the police and expose and punish officers who abuse or misuse their power. This is what ex-police captain Ray Lewis had to say about the IAB:
“The role of the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) varies GREATLY. Historically, the type of police department a major city has, is a reflection of the Mayor of the city. This is due to the fact that a Mayor chooses WHOMEVER they want to be the Police Commissioner (PC), literally anyone is applicable. The Mayor has sole discretion. There is no standard or testing required.
The appointment of a police commissioner is maybe the most important appointment a mayor makes. But, here’s what happens: the Mayor and PC (police commissioner) have tremendous interaction. The Police Department provides the Mayor with his Security Detail. These officers accompany the Mayor everywhere, day and night, and often times stand vigil at his house throughout the night. They know of any and all dalliances, shenanigans, and shady acts, engaged in by the Mayor. They get to know him intimately.
Subsequently, the PC knows the Mayor just as well. There goes the Mayor’s control over the PC. Now, the Police Department takes the face of the PC. This is where the face of the IAB takes shape.
In 1986 Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode replaced PC Gregore Sambor (in charge of the 1985 Move bombing catastrophe), with Kevin Tucker from the ranks of the U.S. Secret Service. Changes came quickly, everywhere within the Department, including IAB. Kevin was not chosen from the ranks, he had no allegiances within the ranks, and he was not one of the good ol’ boys. Compare that to the present Philadelphia PC.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is a career cop. The United States Department of Justice recently released the results of their study of the Philadelphia Police Dept. It cited 87 significant problems throughout the department. You have street cops with the number of citizen complaints, numbering in the high teens and twenties, all declared “Unsubstantiated,” by the IAB. The face of PC Charles Ramsey.
Let me give you a stark contrast of how IAB is a reflection of the Police Commissioner, and why it is the most important appointment a Mayor can make. To give you a stark contrast: one city’s IAB’s “Complaint Room” (where the complaint is recorded), was furnished with comfortable chairs and couch (for witnesses to the complaint), fully supplied coffee maker, and pastel painted walls. Another IAB Complaint Room, was cell-like, barren, hard metal bench, with blood procured from a local slaughter house, splattered on the walls. Those represent the faces and personality of their local Police Commissioner.”
The police weren’t always cruising the streets looking for trouble or raising revenue in the United States, and it is questionable whether a free society yearns to have armed representatives of the state keeping a watchful eye on them 24/7. This concern becomes even more intense when we realize that these armed humans on the prowl do not inherently face responsibility for their behavior, and this becomes even more valid when there exist a plethora of laws that forbid essentially harmless things like giving food to the homeless or growing a food garden in your front yard.
This would be bad enough if the enforcement of these petty ordinances was only a financial stressor, but it can cost essentially innocent people their lives.
How we went from “to serve and protect” to what we have now is an interesting story forged in the heart of industry and the “tough on crime” paranoia of politicians.
I would like to compare police culture to the military, but a recent article by an ex-soldier in the Washington Post brought to light that the police can be more aggressive than the military when entering a building for a raid. This isn’t just a product of official policy, but it’s a deadly brew derived from political corruption, a lack of police training, a lack of internal oversight, and a sprinkle of political suppression (do you remember when JP Morgan was basically paying the NYPD to break up and bully the Occupy movement?)
Compare to the following recruitment video with the one above:
The fact is that training to be a police officer in the United States spans between 7 weeks to 6 months, meaning the most well-trained police recruit has gotten a little less training in dealing with dangerous situations than a Oregonian barber/hairdresser has been trained to deal with a different type of hairy situations.
Maybe this explains why U.S. police seem to more frequently forget to use non-lethal controls compared to their European equals. 7 weeks to 6 months doesn’t look like much when compared to police training of other nations, for example standard UK police training takes 2 years, and training in Germany takes 2.5-3 years, with an extra 2 years for highest ranking officers.
The police are not being trained sufficiently to react to the complexity of real life situations, and the expectations that officers meddle in the personal lives of citizens (in everything from drug consumption to protest), makes this low level of training and a “license to kill” a very dangerous combination. Add that to hand-me-down military weapons and incentives from the richest of society to silence protestors, and you have successfully established the basis for a police state.
The fact that the police subculture, even beyond the IAB, shields its members from accusations (both warranted and unwarranted) has prevented the public from regaining any semblance of trust for the police. The majority of people have slowly become aware that their chance of dying at the hands of a police officer is much higher than their chance of being killed by any type of terrorism, and yet the military-grade equipment being supplied to police is frequently justified with fears of terrorism.
We shouldn’t only concentrate on the problems though, there are a few police departments trying to shift the focus of policing towards cooperation with the community. Looking at the civilian population as people, instead of simply potential criminals or an income source, would likely aid in reshaping both the general perception of the police by the U.S. citizens and also help the police do their jobs more effectively. It wouldn’t hurt to actually investigate accusations filed with the IAB, either.
We might want to consider changing both the role and attitude of the police in the United States. It has to happen on both a local and a national level. Different places will need different improvements, and you can best help improve the situation in your own area. One thing is certain, though: a failure to change the role and identity of U.S. police will inhibit efforts to create other types of political and systemic change, as we saw during the Occupy movement.
If the words of ex-Police Captain Ray Lewis (Philadelphia) weren’t enough, I will end by showing you a very similar depiction of the police in an interview with ex-Police Chief Norman Stamper (Seattle):
Thanks to retired officer Robert Kelly-Schleyer and ex-Philidelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis for their help gathering this information, and also a special thanks to retired officer Melvin Willis who supplied additional input regarding corruption and who shared Ray’s understanding that the chief administrator sets the moral tone in the organization.