Armies of the night. | Benjamin Thomas
Musa al-Gharbi,  June 18

Brutal Force

The full picture of police violence in America shows the cops are out of control

Armies of the night. | Benjamin Thomas
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Following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent wave of protests nationwide (indeed, worldwide) against police brutality, Americans have witnessed video after video of cops assaulting unarmed demonstrators and even bystanders unlucky enough to cross their path.

In one striking case, police senselessly shoved a seventy-five-year-old man to the ground, causing blood to pour out of his ears and giving him a brain injury. This incident occurred just one day after cops from that same department, in that same spot, knelt in solidarity with those protesting excessive use of force. To make matters worse, authorities then falsely reported that the man merely “tripped and fell.” Inconveniently for them, a video of the incident went viral, forcing everyone to reckon with the truth.

Many try to explain away cases like these as “isolated incidents” carried out by “bad apples” who are unrepresentative of most law enforcement nationwide. Apologists insist that that the media promotes an “anti-police narrative” that neglects the dangers cops face on the job (dangers that, apparently, justify the levels of force they deploy). The available empirical data on violence and policing, though, presents a more complex and troubling picture. If anything, most public discussions may be too narrow and myopic to capture how extreme, pervasive, and multifaceted police abuse of power actually is.

Widespread Police Violence

So far this year, 481 civilians have been shot to death by police in the United States, according to the Washington Post. Overall, there have been an estimated 7,397 gun-related homicides (excluding suicides and accidents) during this period. This means that roughly one out of every fifteen Americans shot to death so far in 2020 has been killed by a police officer.

Since 2015, cops fatally shot at least 352 people who were unarmed (that is, not even possessing a toy, blunt object, or other instrument). In total, 5,408 civilians were killed by police gunfire over the last five years; one out of every fifteen was unarmed. And it is important to note that these data only count police shootings. Hundreds more civilians are killed by cops every year with tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets, chokeholds, positional asphyxia, blunt force trauma, or getting struck by police cruisers and other causes; a large share of these civilians are also unarmed. Many have not committed a crime.

Deaths, however, only represent a small fraction of overall police violence. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at least 985,300 Americans experienced non-lethal threats or use of force from police in a single year: 2015, the most recent year of data available on the BJS website. Relative to the overall U.S. population at the time, approximately one out of every 324 Americans was verbally or physically assaulted by a cop in that year. Indeed, departments nationwide receive thousands of excessive force complaints that are “officially sustained”—i.e., sufficiently credible to justify disciplinary action against officers—every year as a result of such encounters.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are brutalized every year by law enforcement. The United States is an extreme outlier among wealthy liberal democracies in this regard.

There are also widespread reported rapes, sexual assault, and sexual harassment incidents involving on-duty cops every year. (Of course, many more cases likely go unreported.) According to an investigation from the Buffalo News, from 2005 to 2015, “a law enforcement official was caught in a case of sexual abuse or misconduct at least every five days.” The officers are usually armed in these cases. The victims are typically isolated, and often physically restrained. Sometimes there is an imminent threat of force or arrest. Nonetheless, cops often have the audacity to claim that these sex acts, against civilians under police custody, are consensual. An investigation by the Associated Press found that many cops use police tools and databases to stalk and harass exes or people they are sexually interested in (and for other personal purposes).

This is what we learn from a cursory glance at police behaviors in the line of duty. However, cops also regularly commit crimes, and carry out violence, when they are off duty. For instance, rates of domestic abuse are as much as four times higher among law enforcement than in the broader population.

In short, hundreds of thousands of Americans are brutalized every year by law enforcement. The United States is an extreme outlier among wealthy liberal democracies in this regard. The level of aggression cops deploy in an area seems to have no correlation with that area’s level of violent crime—nor does it seem proportional to the actual danger law enforcement agents face on the job.

Officers Down

How dangerous is policing? One way to get a handle on this question is to compare the homicide rate for police officers in the line of duty to that of the average American in their day-to-day life. It may seem intuitive to assume that a police officer is many times more likely to be killed on the job than is a civilian going about their usual routines. In fact, the ratios are pretty close.

Consider the data from 2016, the most recent year for which there are reliable statistics available for all the relevant categories. This also happened to be an especially high year for police homicides in the line of duty—higher than any other year from 2012 to 2019. Consequently, the ratios that follow can serve as a somewhat high-end estimate of the dangers faced by cops.

To capture the number of police killed on the job during 2016, let us rely on the Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP)the largest law enforcement memorial in the country and one of the most trusted databases tracking police deaths in the line of duty. Their statistics track casualties from federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as correctional officers and domestically stationed military police.

According to the ODMP, 181 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty during 2016. Of these fatalities, forty-eight were caused by health issues (heart attack, cancer, duty-related illness) and thirty-nine were the result of vehicular accidents outside the context of pursuit (i.e., accidental crashes involving planes, boats, motorcycles, trains, cars, or officers getting unintentionally struck by civilians). There was one fatality caused by an animal, two drownings, one fall, three accidental shooting fatalities, one training accident. All told, less than half of all officer fatalities, eighty-six in total, were directly caused by a perpetrator—for instance, by means of assault, stabbing, gunfire, vehicular assault, or crashes during pursuit.

There is no “war on cops.” Instead, the levels of violence police deploy against civilians seems grossly disproportionate to the level of danger they actually face from the public.

The OMDP figures for 2016 are roughly equivalent to the other major non-governmental database tracking police fatalities nationwide, the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund. They also count eighty-six police homicides in 2016 (i.e., fatalities resulting from officers being beaten, stabbed, strangled, shot, or struck by a vehicle). The estimates from both of these databanks are higher than FBI statistics, which reported sixty-six felonious deaths of law enforcement agents in 2016. Nonetheless, let’s take the highest estimate: eighty-six line-of-duty law enforcement homicides.

That number can be compared to the total number of law enforcement officers nationwide from agencies included in the ODPM database. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates, there were 701,273 full-time state and local law enforcement officers and 132,111 full-time federal law enforcement officers in the United States in 2016. The Department of Defense estimated approximately 50,000 military police stationed in bases across the country during that year.

Using those totals, we can calculate the overall line-of-duty law enforcement homicide rate in 2016: 9.74 per 100,000 officers. The CDC estimates that the overall homicide rate in the United States was six per 100,000 in 2016. The homicide rate for men, specifically, was 9.5 per 100,000. That is, police officers were just a little more likely to be a victim of homicide in the line of duty than the typical American male living his day-to-day life.

In fact, some segments of the American population faced significantly greater risk of getting killed than law enforcement officers. For instance, the 2016 homicide rate for African Americans was 23.4 per 100,000. On average, a black civilian was more than twice as likely than an on-duty cop to be a victim of homicide (and, it should be emphasized, many of these black deaths occurred at the hands of cops).

Nonetheless, fatalities alone are an insufficient measure of the dangers faced by police. After all, many officers are injured every year during violent encounters, too. That said, the data on injuries paints a similar picture to the statistics on fatalities. Law enforcement officers are about three times more likely than most other workers in America to require hospital treatment from injuries on the job (although there are many other jobs in the United States more dangerous than policing). As with fatalities, the vast majority (about two-thirds) of line-of-duty injuries cops sustain occur outside the context of violent encounters.

The BJS estimates that 4.5 per 1000 U.S. citizens sustained injuries from violent crime in 2016. For police, the number was roughly six times higher—twenty-eight out of every thousand officers. However, the vast majority (78 percent) of assaults on police officers involved hand-to-hand fighting, and a plurality of officer injuries from assault (31.4 percent) occurred in that context. Knives and cutting instruments or firearms combined accounted for just over 6 percent of cases and just over a fifth of officer injuries from assault. From these data we can infer that most of the injuries police received during assaults are likely non-severe: bloody noses, bruising, lacerations, strained muscles, etc. And of course, the flip side to these data is that 97 percent of police officers did not experience any injuries resultant from violent encounters. Put another way, not only are police homicides exceedingly rare in any given year, relative to the overall number of officers nationwide, violence-related injuries are also fairly uncommon. These data render the statistics on police use of force even more striking.

The ODMP estimates that 275 police officers have been shot to death by civilians from 2015 to the present. Over that same period, as noted above, police gunfire has killed 5,408 civilians, at least 352 of whom were unarmed. This means, for every four cops killed by gunfire over the past five years, police shot more than five unarmed civilians to death. Overall, for every officer downed by a perpetrator in the line of duty, cops shot down roughly twenty civilians. In 2015, for every instance an officer was assaulted by a civilian, cops carried out nineteen assaults against members of the public.

There is no “war on cops.” Instead, the levels of violence police deploy against civilians seems grossly disproportionate to the level of danger they actually face from the public.

Property and Loot

Not all abuses by police are physical in nature. Consider the billions of dollars in cash, cars, real estate and other assets that police seize from civilians every year on the grounds of “civil forfeiture.” In 2014, for instance, cops ended up taking more property from Americans than burglars did. In many cases, people who have their property or assets seized are never charged with any crime—however, it often proves nearly impossible for them to get their money or items back. The abuse of civil forfeiture has become so extreme and widespread that the Supreme Court recently had to step in to help curb abuses, and there is a bipartisan Congressional effort to cut down on the practice.

Police also regularly shake down poor communities—charging excessive fines for small offenses, upon penalty of imprisonment. In many cases, people arrested by police are saddled with exorbitant court fees even if they are never charged (let alone convicted) of any crime.

Crime has been consistently falling over recent decades—down roughly 50 percent from the early 1990s. However, the ratio of police-to-citizens has remained almost unchanged. This means that cops have a lot more bandwidth than they used to, relative to the levels of crime they actually have to deal with. And yet, most reported violent and property crimes in America go unsolved. More than one third of murders, almost half of all assaults, and the vast majority of reported rapes never result in a suspect being arrested, charged, and prosecuted. Indeed, many rape kits police carry out in the aftermath of a sex crime are never even processed: an estimated backlog of two hundred thousand kits have gone untested across the country.

Instead, police departments and city governments nationwide dedicate a huge share of law-enforcement manpower to extracting resources from the civilian population—often targeting those who are already among the most desperate and vulnerable in our society. At the same time, it is notoriously difficult to hold police accountable for negligence, malpractice, or abuse.

Blue Lies Matter

According to an investigation by USA Today, at least 85,000 cops have been investigated for misconduct over the last decade—including 22,924 investigations into excessive force; 3,145 allegations of rape, molestation of a child, or other sexual misconduct; 2,307 purported instances of domestic violence; and 2,645 cases of police obstructing an investigation, committing perjury, falsifying reports, and/or tampering with witnesses or evidence. These numbers, daunting as they seem, may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The first (and perhaps most insidious) line of defense protecting bad cops is the “blue wall of silence.” Police rarely report errors, misconduct, or crimes committed by their peers. In many cases, they stand idly by as abuses occur. Other times, they actively help other officers conceal their misdeeds. According to a Department of Justice study, most officers said it is “not unusual for a police officer to turn a blind eye to improper conduct by other officers.” And 61 percent admit that they did not always report even “serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers”; 56 percent acknowledged that an officer who reports misconduct by a peer is likely to be “given the cold shoulder” by their fellow officers. That is, many crimes committed by cops, including serious offenses, never even result in an investigation and as such, wouldn’t be captured in the USA Today statistics. (Moreover, many formal investigations are not public record and wouldn’t be captured in their data either.)

The first line of defense protecting bad cops is the “blue wall of silence.” Police rarely report errors, misconduct, or crimes committed by their peers.

When investigations do occur, police often close ranks to protect one another. Consider, for instance, the police officers who nearly killed that seventy-five-year-old man by shoving him to the pavement. The officers involved were suspended without pay while the incident was investigated (and they were subsequently charged with assault). Rather than applauding because their peers were being held to account for excessive use of force against someone who posed no plausible threat, the entire emergency-response police unit resigned from their assignments in protest of their colleagues being suspended. As a result of this tendency of cops to stick together—even when their fellow-officers are “in the wrong”—investigations into police misconduct generally come away empty-handed.

Worse, in those instances when investigations determine wrongdoing has occurred, officers are rarely held to account in the justice system. According to a 2007 USA Today investigation, less than 5 percent of police brutality incidents referred to prosecutors actually end up getting pursued in court. And in those rare cases where cops are actually brought to trial for misconduct, juries are hesitant to convict. Police are found guilty in only about one-third of cases.

In cases involving police killings, officers can generally be absolved simply by arguing that they felt fearful in the moment—even if the victim was unarmed or had committed no crime, and even if the suspect was fleeing rather than confronting police. Because the odds of success are so low, prosecutors are loathe to bring charges against cops for killing civilians—even when departmental investigations find that wrongdoing occurred. Consequently, in 99 percent of police killings from 2013 to 2019, officers were never charged with any crime.

Police are generally shielded from civil liability for wrongdoing as well. It is taxpayers who usually end picking up the tab to compensate victims of law enforcement malpractice. One of the most comprehensive studies to date found that annual expenditures on settlement payments, legal fees, and liability insurance costs for police wrongdoing exceeded half a billion dollars per year. Most striking? That study looked only at a hundred of the eighteen thousand federal, state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide.

In fact, due to police unions, many cops do not even face significant professional consequences for wrongdoing. It is very difficult to terminate or meaningfully penalize officers, even for confirmed infractions. Worse, when cops are actually forced out for bad behavior, they can often get their jobs back via arbitration, or simply move to another precinct—with departments compelled by police unions to hire these “bad apples” despite their record of misconduct. Studies have found that these officers often subsequently lead their peers into corrupt behaviors when they are reappointed or reassigned.

This impunity is how someone like George Floyd’s killer Derek Chauvin could persist on the Minneapolis police force despite at least seventeen previous misconduct complaints—including multiple claims of excessive force, repeated uses of lethal force, and even being referred to a grand jury for possible criminal prosecution in a previous incident. This is also why the officers heaping abuse upon those protesting Floyd’s unlawful killing are unlikely to face meaningful consequences for their actions. Even though they are aware that bystanders and journalists are recording their behaviors—and even though many are, themselves, wearing body cameras —they continue to act unprofessionally, safe in the knowledge they will not be meaningfully held to account. So long as this remains the case, corruption and abuse will continue to be distressingly common among law enforcement.

We can and should honor the sacrifices and risks police incur on our behalf. However, this does not require us to exaggerate the dangers involved with law enforcement, nor to exaggerate the effectiveness of law enforcement, nor to turn a blind eye to grievous abuses. Gratitude cannot serve as a license for cops to prey upon those they charged to serve and protect. Police cannot be permitted to stand above the laws they are sworn to uphold.

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University. Readers can connect to his research and social media via his website

 

 

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