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Police State

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on


by Peter Robertson

The shooting and killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri police department last August touched off a wave of protest around the country and brought a national spotlight to the topic of police violence in the U.S.  Along with the killing of Eric Garner in New York a month earlier, the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in November, and now the murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina, these high profile events have raised considerable concern about the growing tendency for police officers around the country to act in ways that result in the death of citizens.  While much attention has been given to the premise that young black men are particularly susceptible to being the target of these acts of police brutality, the problem is not confined to any particular demographic group, as people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities are subjected to violent treatment at the hands of American law enforcement officers.  In fact, the frequency and pervasiveness of these incidents suggest that something is very wrong with the state of the police in this country.

According to FBI estimates, there have been about 400 “justifiable homicides” by police annually for the last few years.  It is clear, however, that these estimates underreport the true number of police killings, since they rely on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies, many of which don’t provide relevant information.  An investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that there were about 45% more homicides by police in a set of 105 of the nation’s largest police departments than were included in the FBI’s tally of justifiable homicides in those jurisdictions.  Likewise, a recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that the FBI’s estimates include less than half of the true number of people killed by police, with its research indicating that over 900 people have been killed annually over eight recent years.  In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, government officials are expressing greater concern about the lack of reliable data regarding, as President Obama put it, “how frequently there may be interactions with police and community members that result in a death, result in a shooting.”

Maybe the most accurate count of the number of people being killed by police around the country comes from a crowdsourced database that keeps a running tally of these victims.  According to this information, police killed over 1100 people in 2014 and another 291 in the first quarter of 2015.  In fact, the number of people killed by police in the U.S. in the month of March alone was more than twice the number killed by police in the U.K. throughout the entire 20th century!  An analysis of a sample of these cases suggests that a relatively small number were either arrest-related deaths in which the victims died after being Tasered or otherwise restrained by law enforcement officers (8%), or killings by police officers acting outside the line of duty or accidental deaths (7%).  The vast majority (85%) were clear-cut police shootings in which the victims were fatally shot by officers acting in the line of duty.  Another analysis of the officer-involved deaths in California found that, out of a total of 156 victims in 2014, 144 were men and 12 were women; of the 67 in which race information was reported, there were 34 Latino, 15 white, 14 black, and 4 Asian victims.

It will help to put these numbers into perspective.  According to one report, 114 police officers were killed in the line of duty in 2014, with only 58 of these being the result of some type of assault.  Likewise, data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, spanning the years 2004 to 2013, indicates that about 55 police officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty each year during that period.  That’s only one police death for every twenty or so civilians killed by cops; in fact, a list of the top ten deadliest jobs in the country in 2012 didn’t even include police officer.  On the other hand, by one calculation, Americans are 55 times more likely to be killed by a cop than by a terrorist, and more U.S. citizens were killed by police during the eight years of the Iraq War than American soldiers were killed by enemy forces.  In Utah, the 45 people killed by police since 2010 account for 15% of all homicides during that period, more than were killed by gang members or drug dealers.  Information like this suggests that the police are proving to be the single most dangerous group of “domestic violent extremists” threatening Americans.

While aggregate numbers paint a sufficiently troubling picture, it is particular cases that demonstrate more clearly the seriously problematic behavior of the police officers involved in many of these situations.  It is of course well known that the police maintained their prohibited chokehold on Eric Garner despite his gasping that “I can’t breathe.”  Equally troubling are the facts that police officers shot Tamir Rice within two seconds of approaching him in their vehicle and spotting his toy gun, and Walter Scott was shot in the back while running away. But even these three examples don’t provide a broad perspective on the extent to which police officers engage in truly unwarranted actions that result in the injury or death of innocents.  The details of a few more cases can help to clarify the nature of police violence in the U.S. and the extent to which it is ingrained in the institution.

Mentally ill people, many of whom are also homeless, are at risk of being killed by police given their tendency to act erratically and irrationally.  One well-known case is that of James Boyd, a homeless Albuquerque man with a verifiable history of paranoid schizophrenia and previous run-ins with the police.  An hours-long standoff resulted when Boyd refused to leave the area where he was camping illegally, having brandished two small knives when officers initially approached him.  With as many as twenty police present at one point, and a plan to take him into custody, the standoff seemed to be coming to an end as Boyd gathered his belongings in an apparent agreement to surrender.  But then someone threw a flash-bang grenade at Boyd’s feet, police advanced towards him with a barking K9, and he responded by taking a knife out of his pocket.  After a few seconds, he turned away and started descending towards the ground, at which point two officers fired three shots each from their assault rifles, with others then firing bean-bag rounds at him after he was down on the ground.  Boyd died the next day, paying the ultimate price for the crime of not having any place to live.

More problematic is the use of undue force by police even when there isn’t any apparent threat to their or others’ safety.  Jonathan Ferrell was shot and killed by a policeman in Charlotte, North Carolina when he approached the officer presumably seeking help after getting in a car accident.  In Atlanta, an officer responding to a call about a man who was “acting deranged, knocking on doors, and crawling around on the ground naked” shot and killed the obviously unarmed man when he started running towards the officer and ignored orders to stop.  A police officer in Billings, Montana, on two separate occasions, pulled a car over on a routine traffic stop and within seconds shot one of the occupants, the first time because he had a “crazed look on his face” and the second time because the officer feared he had a gun; of course, neither of these men were armed, and they died essentially because one police officer couldn’t control his own fear.

At a truck stop in Laredo, Texas, police arrived on the scene after receiving a call about a man with a gun.  Jose Garza had just bought a pellet gun from Walmart, which he had shown to the security guard, and then proceeded to fall asleep on a couch in front of the building with a bottle of wine and headphones on.  A witness says that the police had been told that it was just a pellet gun upon arriving, but apparently that didn’t matter to the cops.  “He was sitting down, and he woke up after several commands [from police], because he had headphones on and he was asleep. As he stood up, the police officers began firing.”  According to Garza’s family, they decided to cremate his body because the cops shot him so many times that he no longer had a face.  The really sick part is that the officers were caught on a surveillance video fist bumping and taking photos with their cell phones after their cold-blooded murder.

Then there is the story of John Geer in Fairfax, Virginia.  Geer was shot and killed by police as he stood inside the screen door of his home with his hands raised and begging not to be shot.  The police had responded to a call from Geer’s wife, who was breaking up with him and moving out; the angry Geer was throwing her possessions out into the front yard.  He went inside the house when four cops in two patrol cars arrived, followed soon by a trained police negotiator.  With the four officers behind him with their guns drawn, the negotiator tried to coax Geer out onto the porch, but Geer resisted, saying that he didn’t want to get shot.  In their ensuing discussion, Geer offered to let the negotiator come and retrieve the holstered weapon that he had shown to the police, and he volunteered to come out and be handcuffed if the other officers were to move way back.  With his hands above his head, he asked for permission to scratch his nose, and when the negotiator consented, one of the officers fired his gun and hit Geer who proceeded to bleed to death before he got any medical attention.  The officer who shot him started muttering that he was sorry and that his wrist was hurting, and then he told the negotiator that he had had a fight with his wife on the phone just before arriving on the scene.  So poor John Geer had to die because another cop was wound up just a little too tight to keep himself from shooting.

Police brutality is certainly not limited to shooting people, and is demonstrated in such actions as punching and kicking them, slamming them to the ground or into a wall or car, hitting them with a baton or club, and using tear gas or a Taser on them to temporarily immobilize them.  One conspicuous sign of the willingness among police to resort to violence when it isn’t warranted is the growing use of tasers on children as an appropriate response to their childish behavior.  Four police officers in Pierre, South Dakota felt compelled to taser a 70-pound, 8-year-old girl who was holding a small paring knife and thought to be a danger to herself. An officer at a school in Virginia used a taser on an 8th grade student who had become “disruptive,” after unsuccessfully trying to handcuff the student who then started to run away.  An officer in Ohio used a taser on a 9-year-old boy who refused to cooperate with his commands.  Two cops in Indiana tasered a 10-year-old boy at a home day care location because he was being “unruly.”  A 10-year-old boy in New Mexico was shot with a taser after he said that he didn’t want to wash the cop’s car.  And the list goes on.

Not all police violence is simply the result of questionable reactions by particular officers to potentially threatening circumstances.   In some cases, the deaths of innocent people can be attributed to the tactical decisions police make regarding how to conduct their operations.  A good example is the use of “no-knock” raids to enter people’s homes in order to apprehend suspected criminals and/or disrupt criminal activity.  Last October, David and Theresa Hooks were at home one night in East Dublin, Georgia when sheriff’s deputies arrived at 11pm to investigate a tip they had gotten from a burglary suspect, who had stolen an SUV from the Hooks after taking a bag containing methamphetamine from a pickup parked outside their house.  Looking out the window and seeing hooded figures wearing camouflage standing outside, Theresa thought the burglars were back and so she woke up David, who grabbed his shotgun.  The deputies then burst through the back door without knocking or identifying themselves as law enforcement officers, and seeing David holding the gun, they fired sixteen shots that killed the 59-year-old grandfather.  No drugs or other illegal items were found at their home.  A similar fate befell Derek Cruice, who was standing in his home in Deltona, Florida wearing basketball shorts and no shirt when police knocked down the door with a battering ram and entered the house with their weapons drawn.  Friends who were present said the police fired without hesitation even though it was obvious that Cruice was unarmed.  While the officers claim that Cruice “advanced” toward them, his friends say this is a lie.  Once again, no drugs or weapons were found on the property.

As these examples suggest, police choose to burst into peoples’ homes prepared to shoot at the first sign of resistance, which could easily be the first reaction people make when they think they are under some sort of attack, such as David Hooks grabbing his gun and Derek Cruice making whatever move he did when the cops broke down his door.  This ready-to-shoot attitude claimed another victim in Detroit a few years ago, a little 7-year-old girl named Aiyana Stanley-Jones.  One night, shortly after midnight, a Detroit PD Special Response Team armed with submachine guns arrived at the duplex in which Aiyana was living with her parents, three siblings, and grandmother.  Accompanied by a production crew that was filming the operation for a reality TV show, they had come with a warrant to arrest a man who was known to stay with his fiancé in the other unit in the duplex.  The house had been under surveillance throughout the day, there were toys in the front yard, and a man they detained right before the raid warned them there were children inside, but the police ignored this information as they got ready for the no-knock raid they hoped would enable them to apprehend their suspect.  Instead of targeting only the unit he was believed to be in, this team’s “special response” was to storm both units of the duplex simultaneously.  The police shattered the picture window of Aiyana’s home, threw in a flash-bang grenade, and kicked down the door, and as the lead officer charged into the living room, he immediately shot Aiyana in the head as she lay sleeping with her grandmother on the couch.

Just as disturbing as the police violence itself is the fact those involved are rarely held accountable for their avoidable mistakes, inappropriate aggression, and/or unwarranted brutality.  The grand jury in Ferguson chose not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, and the police who killed Eric Garner and Tamir Rice were not brought up on any charges either.  The Montana cop who shot two men in cars he pulled over has been cleared of any wrongdoing, and those who celebrated their execution of Jose Garza were cleared both by an internal investigation and by a grand jury that decided their lethal force was justified.  Even the officer who shot John Geer in cold blood did not get into any trouble, despite the fact that Geer committed no crime, did not threaten anyone, and had his hands raised above his head.  As the report on his case concluded, “The killing of John Geer is probably the clearest and most compelling example of what amounts to police impunity in recent American history.”

Features of our criminal justice system make it likely that a police officer’s actions will be seen as justifiable, regardless of how egregious the behavior.  Any assessment of the circumstances in which a cop shoots somebody oftentimes pits the police version of the story against the description provided by any eyewitnesses, and the police will nearly always be viewed as the more credible source of information.  Police can thus falsify reports and fabricate stories to exonerate themselves, knowing that these are typically assumed to be honest and factual accounts.  Historically, they could readily get away with this, as there was usually no way to prove them wrong short of taking the testimony of ostensible “bad guys” more seriously than that of the police.  However, with so many surveillance cameras and so many people now able to record events as they happen, police are in danger of their lies being contradicted by video evidence of what really transpired.  This was the case in Cleveland, where the officers’ description of the events preceding their shooting of Rice was contradicted by a video.  Unfortunately, awareness that they had lied about what took place prior to the shooting was not sufficient to charge them with a crime.

The nature of the grand jury process is another key factor that helps cops avoid being held accountable for their actions.  This process allows prosecutors to manipulate grand juries such that they nearly always reach whatever decision the prosecutor wants; a former judge once famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.”  In fact, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2010 indicate that, of 162,000 federal cases prosecuted by U.S. attorneys, grand juries returned an indictment in all but eleven of them.  These numbers are for regular citizens, however, and the picture is very different when grand juries are asked to decide whether to bring charges against police officers involved in shootings.  Officers are rarely indicted, probably reflecting a combination of both juror and prosecutor bias in favor of the police.  Regardless of the causes, the system dynamics that enable police officers to avoid any accountability for their brutality are readily apparent and clearly problematic.

The pervasive lack of accountability – the fact that police violence is nearly always seen by the criminal justice system as “justifiable” – contributes to the development of a police culture that tolerates, accepts, and even condones violence as “standard operating procedure.”  Internal police investigations rarely find officers at fault, or at most result in a relatively trivial punishment such as a temporary suspension.  Police leadership too readily reinforces this culture by publicly justifying officers’ actions and/or failing to criticize and denounce their behavior.  The Pierre police chief supported the findings that the officers had “acted properly” by tasering a child.  The head of the police union in Cleveland has argued that the killing of Tamir Rice was justified, and city officials are reinforcing this claim by fighting a lawsuit brought against the city by the boy’s family, claiming essentially that Tamir’s death was his own fault.

A problem here is that internal evaluations of officers’ use of violence are based on an assessment of the extent to which their actions reflected their training and followed departmental standard procedures.  But when those procedures include the acceptable use of a “shoot first and ask questions later” approach, police violence can’t be blamed simply on the individual officers who engage in this behavior but must be seen instead as something endemic in the institution itself.  With the training of police officers preparing them to respond violently, and acceptable policy being to shoot a citizen at the very first moment that an officer perceives a threat, then responsibility for these killings lies with the culture of police departments and the police profession.  In the aftermath of the shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin in March, the police chief said, “He was unarmed. That’s going to make this all the more complicated for the investigators, for the public to accept, to understand… why deadly force had to be used.”  Note the presumption that deadly force had to be used – now the challenge is for the investigators to come up with a justification that the public will accept.

Ultimately, the roots of police violence stem from the fear-based “us vs. them” mentality that is inculcated into police officers in their job training and socialization into the profession.  This mindset readily leads cops to interpret events differently than other people do; in particular, they are more inclined to see a lethal threat that requires a lethal response when civilians believe that other approaches could and should be utilized first.  Given this attitude, we shouldn’t be surprised that some officers see it as a “kill or be killed” kind of job, more akin to being a soldier in Iraq who is called to eliminate a threat than a public servant whose job it is to help keep the peace.  This helps explain why 33 police officers fired over 600 bullets at a car being driven by bank robbers even though they knew there was a hostage inside.  At least ten of those bullets hit 41-year-old mother of two Misty Holt-Singh and killed her, and apparently that was acceptable “collateral damage” in their efforts to take out the threat.

A culture in which cops see themselves as the good guys and the public as the enemy has two consequences that in turn help to maintain the pattern of violence perpetrated by police against citizens who do not deserve it.  First, a deep-seated tenet of police culture is that it is best to “lay low, don’t make waves” and thus to just go along with things as they are.  This was a key finding many years ago by John Van Maanen, who conducted participant-observation research for his PhD dissertation in 1970 by graduating from the academy of a large, urban police department and spending five months out on patrol as an observer.  Police culture thus includes a strong code of silence among officers that precludes them from providing any information that could support charges of wrongdoing by fellow officers.  As with most whistleblowers, those who violate this core value are likely to experience some form of retaliation, whether being fired or given dead end jobs, warned or threatened with violence, intimated or beaten up.  Detective Joseph Crystal of the Baltimore Police Department, whose testimony helped secure a conviction against a fellow officer for beating up a drug suspect, said he was told, “If you snitch, your career is done.”  And indeed, Crystal has turned in his badge and filed a lawsuit against the department for the threats and intimidation he experienced from other officers.

A second effect of this culture is that it leads police departments to perceive criticism as an attack and thus to respond with defensive strategies that exacerbate the problem by pitting the police against the community.  For example, with protests against police brutality in cities across the U.S. and Canada late last year, a common police response was to treat protestors like criminals and arrest them.  Even more telling is the reaction by police to the various “cop watch” groups that have sprung up around the country to monitor police activity, including by legally filming cops on duty.  Police departments have responded with retaliation that has included intimidation, unjustified detainment, arrests, yanking cameras out of hands, and even labeling particular groups as “domestic extremist” organizations and thus associating them with terrorists.  So what we have here is a group of citizens trying to enhance the transparency and accountability of public organizations, and those organizations responding with abusive if not violent tactics to discourage the citizens’ efforts.

So what we have here is a group of citizens trying to enhance the transparency and accountability of public organizations, and those organizations responding with abusive if not violent tactics to discourage the citizens’ efforts.

In essence, the police have decided that they are going to use whatever tactics they want and it doesn’t matter whether the citizenry approves or not.  In the us vs. them world of the police, the public is the enemy, the primary threat to police safety, and anyone who challenges the legitimacy or even legality of their actions – insider or outsider – is subject to intimidating tactics intended to maintain the power of police officers and departments.  By disrupting public protests, devaluing officer oversight, and discounting citizen criticism, police organizations undermine their ability to learn from mistakes, to improve their approaches to policing, and to enhance their responsiveness to the public interest.  This fortress mentality creates police departments in which problematic patterns of violence and other abusive practices are sufficiently extensive that they warrant an investigation by the Department of Justice; by one count, 21 of them have been launched since 2009.  At the extreme, violence can even become a “badge of honor” among cops, as in Oxnard, California where officers are reported to earn a gun and skull tattoo every time they shoot someone while on duty.  For those concerned about the literal costs of police misconduct, large cities are paying tens of millions of dollars as a result of lawsuits by victims; taxpayers are footing this bill and no one is holding the culpable police accountable.

photo credit: DNC 08 via photopin (license)

photo credit: DNC 08 via photopin (license)

The violent nature of police culture has been greatly exacerbated by the increased militarization of local law enforcement agencies especially after the 9/11 attacks and the advent of the “war on terror.”  In 1990, Congress authorized the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military hardware to law enforcement agencies for use especially in counter-drug efforts, with the law updated in 1997 to include counter-terrorism activities as well.  As a result of this “1033 program,” thousands of local and state agencies have received billions of dollars worth of military equipment that is now authorized for use in American cities and towns.  The Department of Homeland Security has also provided over $40 billion in funding to local police departments to buy even more weapons and other gear from private arms dealers, who hold field demonstrations and trade shows to entice police officials.  Some of this equipment has gone to small towns and rural counties that have hardly any legitimate need for this kind of militaristic capability.  The problem is that once they have the hardware, they are inclined to want to take advantage of it.  As Samuel Walker, Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska–Omaha, put it, “If you have it, you want to use it.”  Critics argue that this in turn is leading to more confrontations between police and communities and potentially the use of more force in resolving them.  This attitude was on clear display in Ferguson when the police responded to protests over the killing of Michael Brown.

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

Walker suggests that this diffusion of military equipment has changed the mindset of the police, who now see themselves in military terms with national security as their primary mission.  Thomas Nolan, a former police officer and now Associate Professor of Criminology at Merrimack College, agrees that “after 9/11, we saw a paradigm shift from community policing and problem-oriented principles to the war on terror, and we became Homeland Security police.”  But as he explains further, “If you dress police officers up as soldiers and you put them in military vehicles and you give them military weapons, they adopt a warrior mentality.  We fight wars against enemies, and the enemies are the people who live in our cities.”  In a commentary in The Nation, former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper points out that police departments with a paramilitary bureaucracy engender a culture – “a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood” – in which protestors are viewed as the enemy.  Whereas most of what police do on a daily basis requires patience, diplomacy, and interpersonal skills – or what Nolan refers to as the three Ps of partnership, problem-solving, and prevention – Stamper argues that the new mindset means that everyday policing is characterized by a SWAT mentality, with every other 911 call seen as a military mission. “What emerges,” he says, “is a picture of a vital public-safety institution perpetually at war with its own people.”

One key tactic in this war is the extensive police use of SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams to carry out no-knock raids to force their way into people’s homes.  The legality of these raids is only a recent departure from the long-standing English common law “castle doctrine,” i.e., the idea that that the home should be a place of peace and sanctuary to be violated only in the most extreme circumstances.  The Supreme Court started chipping away at this doctrine in the 1960s, such that police today can break into a man’s home without knocking, even in the middle of the night, based on a trivial amount of information suggesting “probable cause,” and if they end up killing him in the process, it’s his own fault.  According to one estimate, there were more than 80,000 no-knock raids on American homes last year, a number that has increased dramatically along with the number of cities and towns whose police department has a SWAT team.  While these teams were first formed to deal with violent civil unrest and life-threatening situations, the number of SWAT deployments has soared even while violent crime was falling, and now they are primarily used to serve search warrants and usually in drug cases.

The significant increase in the use of SWAT raids to search for drugs likely reflects the most basic of incentives; as The Economist succinctly explains, “SWAT raids can be profitable.”   This is because civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize any property they can plausibly claim was involved in and/or the proceeds of a crime.  The property owner does not need to be convicted of a crime, or even arrested and charged, and must sue the government in order to get the property back.  So, if the police find drugs in a house that they violently force their way into in the middle of the night, they can take any cash they find and possibly the house too.  Police became more aggressive in their use of federal civil asset forfeiture laws after 9/11, responding to encouragement from federal officials to adopt a technique known as highway interdiction to help in the fight against drugs and terror.  Since then, there have been nearly 62,000 cash seizures on highways and elsewhere, without the use of any search warrants or indictments.  Police took over $2.5 billion in these forfeitures, with state and local authorities keeping about two-thirds of it and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security along with other federal agencies receiving the rest.  Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, and in less than half of these cases did the government agree to return money.

According to The Economist, the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund held about $94 million in 1986, its first year of operation, and by 2012, that fund and the related Seized Asset Deposit Fund held nearly $6 billion.  While asset forfeiture laws were intended to serve as a means of decimating drug organizations, an analysis by the Washington Post indicates that it has been used instead as a routine source of funding for law enforcement at every level.   The bulk of the funds taken have been used to pay for guns, armored cars, electronic surveillance gear, and a variety of other expenses that police departments would not be able to afford on their allocated budget alone. An examination of 43,000 annual reports provided by local and state agencies to the Justice Department since 2008 found that, of the nearly $2.5 billion of police spending reported, 81 percent came from cash and property seizures in which no indictment was filed.  In effect, then, police are stealing property from innocent victims in order to fund the process of militarization that encourages and enables them to act in a more violent and coercive manner.  This is the essence of “policing for profit.”

Given that all this police brutality, violence, and thuggish behavior disproportionately targets people of color, it is easy for the issue to get framed and analyzed in terms of these racial implications, which then invests it with all the emotion that comes with the simmering racial tensions in this country.  However, it is just as accurate to understand these dynamics in terms of class rather than race; in other words, police violence targets poor people, who disproportionately are people of color.  These biases have been built into the institution of policing since its inception in England and the United States in the early 1800s, where police were established as a force to monitor and control the labor class, minorities, and slaves.  While police departments were created to maintain public order, the maintenance of this order primarily serves the interests of the rich and powerful.  Commenting on the class-based roots of the institution of policing in the U.S., historian Sam Mitrani observes, “The police were created to use violence to reconcile electoral democracy with industrial capitalism.  Today, they are just one part of the ‘criminal justice’ system which continues to play the same role.  Their basic job is to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system – who in our society today are disproportionately poor black people.”

While police departments were created to maintain public order, the maintenance of this order primarily serves the interests of the rich and powerful.

Throughout U.S. history, police have been willing to use violence to suppress uprisings among unruly masses who express their discontent with status quo inequalities. This has been true even when the protestors were acting peacefully, as was the case in many civil rights and anti-war demonstrations in the ‘60s and in the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago.  The police really tipped their hand during the Occupy protests against the 1%, the elite of the world whose greed and manipulation make life harder for all the 99-percenters.  Police should have been standing with the Occupiers – like ex-Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis – recognizing that they themselves are part of the 99 percent whose long-term well-being (e.g., the availability of their pensions) depends on changing the economic system in ways that will reverse the growing inequality and instability in the global economy.  Instead, they dutifully carried out the orders of their “Corporate America” masters, and forcefully shut down the biggest national protest seen in the U.S. since the Vietnam War.

This is the real danger associated with the militarization of local law enforcement officers that has coincided with a shift in their primary mission towards “homeland security” operationalized as an integration of the war on terror and the war on drugs.  Given how much money and equipment the federal government doled out to militarize local police departments, it is safe to assume the feds want local cops to be able to fight the war on drugs in their local communities and to be ready to deal with a terrorist threat if it arises.  The problem is that the government is broadening its definition of terrorism such that it is no longer clearly distinguished from social unrest. Earlier this year, for example, the NYPD announced the formation of a new 350-officer Strategic Response Group that Commissioner William Bratton said is dedicated to “disorder control and counterterrorism protection capabilities” and “designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents in Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.”  As one observer responded, “The bottom line is that those Americans in positions of authority over such matters, such as Commissioner Bratton, do not distinguish between legal First Amendment protest and terrorism. It’s just one big threat to ‘order’ and ‘authority,’ and therefore requires ‘similar skill sets.’ And similar weapons.”

Particularly disconcerting is the fact that government agencies and law enforcement officials have become wary of American citizens who are “suspicious of centralized federal authority” and “reverent of individual liberty,” viewing them as rightwing extremists and thus potential terrorists.  For example, a sheriff’s deputy in Spokane County, Washington, when asked by a local resident why police would need vehicles specifically designed for warfare abroad, responded by pointing out that “we’ve got a lot of constitutionalists and a lot of people that stockpile weapons, lots of ammunition.”  A police chief in New Hampshire justified the acquisition of an armored “Bearcat” vehicle by citing the threat posed by libertarians, Occupy activists, and sovereign citizens.  Even returning veterans are now seen as a threat, given the skills they acquired through their military training and the fact that many are disgruntled with the American government.  In short, people who challenge the government, its legitimacy, and/or its efforts to restrict individual freedom are now being thought of as terrorists, thus legitimizing a militaristic response to this presumed threat.

On Valentine’s Day this year, twenty or more officers from city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies raided a meeting of a group called the Republic of Texas, whose members are dedicated to restoring Texas as an independent constitutional republic.  All sixty attendees were searched and fingerprinted, with all of their cell phones and recording equipment seized.  The ostensible purpose of the raid was that two members of the group had reportedly sent out some simulated court documents, with invalid summonses for a judge and a banker to appear before the Republic of Texas to discuss the matter of a foreclosure.  As the sheriff who led the raid pointed out, “You can’t just let people go around filing false documents to judges trying to make them appear in front of courts that aren’t even real courts.”  He determined that a “show of force” to serve a search warrant for an alleged misdemeanor crime was appropriate due to the potential for physical resistance by the group.  However, according to another assessment of the situation, the tactics went well beyond what was necessary to address a matter of disputed paperwork, and it was clear that the full-blown raid was performed to intimidate and harass the members.

The fact of the matter is that local law enforcement agencies in this country now have the capability and training to provide a militarized response to American citizens who are deemed dangerous by governmental officials regardless of the extent of their real threat.  If police felt compelled to use violent tactics against the mostly-peaceful Occupy protestors, how will they respond if and when the American people start demonstrating in bigger numbers and with more aggressive tactics?  While this may seem unlikely, given the rather placid recent history of American activism, the odds will go up if another economic collapse occurs and/or other crises cause some degree of chaos in the country.  With the rest of the world moving towards a de-dollarization of the global economy, a time may come in the near future when the American economy suffers the serious jolt of a sudden de-valuation of the dollar.  While it is hard to predict what the ramifications of that would be, it could cause sufficient disorder and/or disgruntlement that Americans would take to the streets in greater numbers.

In his review of Radley Balko’s book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, Nick Barrickman points out that, historically, a “turn to militarized forms of policing has coincided with periods of civil unrest, labor struggles and mass oppositional movements.”  He summarizes the successive steps, starting with the creation of SWAT teams after the urban riots in the ‘60s, that have resulted in the militarization of the police and the evisceration of Constitutional protections against undue searches and seizures.  He concludes that this process “has taken place alongside the growth of militarism abroad and unprecedented levels of social inequality at home, in the course of a half-century in which the global position of American capitalism has sharply deteriorated.”  With inequality getting much worse over the last generation, and capitalism already collapsing, it will not be surprising if any uprising by the people is met with a harsh and deadly response.  Indeed, former Marine Corps Colonel Peter Martino claimed in public testimony at a city council meeting in 2013 that the Department of Homeland Security was working to build a domestic army “because the government is afraid of its own citizens.”

Many observers believe that the increasingly oppressive nature of policing, along with the abrogation of basic Constitutional rights and freedoms, are clear signs that the United States is on the road to becoming a police state.  All three branches of the federal government have been contributing to this process.  Congress has passed key legislation such as the Patriot Act, which expanded police powers to spy on people and search their property, and the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows American citizens to be detained indefinitely by the military without due process of a judge, jury, and trial.  According to John Whitehead, author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, a long list of recent Supreme Court rulings as well as cases the Court refused to hear “reveals a startling and steady trend towards pro-police state rulings by an institution concerned more with establishing order and protecting government agents than with upholding the rights enshrined in the Constitution.”  Through executive orders, presidential directives, and Department of Justice memos, the executive branch has asserted the power to act in ways that violate domestic and international laws, including the right to torture and even assassinate people of its choosing.  Add in all the surveillance capabilities provided by an array of new technologies and the government has become much more Orwellian than we the people should be willing to tolerate.

The recent disclosure of a secret “black site” in Chicago where the police department operates an off-the-books interrogation center demonstrates that the kind of illegal tactics typically used in police states can be found in contemporary America as well.  People have been detained by the police without anyone knowing, held for hours while shackled, denied access to attorneys, and even beaten, activities which a Cook County commissioner likened to “antiquated Gestapo tactics that are more commonly found in parts of the underdeveloped world or in places like China or Russia.”  People as young as 15 have been held, and at least one man was found unresponsive in an interview room and later died.  This was reported to have been the result of an accidental heroin overdose, but at least one person who has been detained at the same Homan Square facility claimed that the police threatened to inject him with heroin to make him talk.  One analysis of this situation points out that police brutality and torture in Chicago go back to at least the ‘70s, and are not confined to just one location within the Chicago criminal justice system.  Thus, rather than viewing domestic policing as having been influenced by the war on terror, it is better to recognize “that the War on Terror and domestic policing are part of a single, vicious whole, in which tactics and ideologies are shared between military, police, and the public, allowing for state torture and violence both at home and overseas.”

Another notable manifestation of our evolution towards a police state is the rise of the prison-industrial complex.  Contrary to the antiquated notion that this is the land of the free, the U.S. is actually the largest jailer in the world, with nearly a quarter of the global prisoner population being held in American jails.  Since the start of the war on drugs in 1971, there has been a 700% increase in the number of prisoners in the U.S.  With the privatization of the prison industry that gained momentum in the ‘90s, the corporate sector gained a vested interest in keeping prisons full and increasing the number of prisoners and thus prisons.  A broad array of companies benefit from the growth of the prison industry, including those that build and run the prisons, those that provide particular services or functions such as food, clothing, telephones, security, or commissaries, and those that employ prison labor for extremely low wages.  At the same time that corporations are profiting from this industry, the public expenditures required to finance this growth have increased significantly.  For example, state spending on prisons has more than tripled in the last three decades, forcing states to reduce spending in other areas.  Thirty years ago, California spent ten percent of its budget on higher education and three percent on prisons, but in recent years the share for prisons has risen above ten percent while the share for higher education has fallen below eight percent.  In short, private interests are profiting from the exploitation of a captive prison population while the people as usual are paying the price.

In many ways, our entire criminal justice system is designed to serve the interests of the elite at the expense of the poor, and the scenario we now face reflects a rather concerted effort on the part of those in power to insure that they have a “crowd control” system in place as the prospect of widespread chaos grows ever more real.  They have used the war on drugs as a mechanism for locking up millions of mostly poor and working class people of color, and they have used the war on terrorism as a mechanism for preparing local law enforcement agencies to provide a militarized response to any significant uprisings on the part of the American people.  As a result, police violence and brutality are on the upswing, poverty is being criminalized, our Constitutional rights are being whittled away, and privacy is largely a thing of the past.  The police have already demonstrated their willingness to harass and beat up those who dare challenge the rule of the 1%, sending a clear warning to anyone who might consider doing so in the future.  Those who believe the federal government has overstepped its Constitutional authority are now identified as potential terrorists, and thus subject to assassination upon the order of the President.  With the debt-laden global economy on the brink of collapse, the government has long been prepared to implement martial law to deal with any significant unrest that may follow.

In many ways, our entire criminal justice system is designed to serve the interests of the elite at the expense of the poor.

The notion that the U.S. government is ready to declare martial law and suspend the Constitution may sound too extreme, but the militarization of local law enforcement and dismantling of individual rights since 9/11 make a lot of sense if martial law is the ultimate objective.  As one observer noted, it is reasonable to assume that all the excessive military equipment distributed to police agencies around the country must be intended for use against the American people, as there really aren’t a lot of other options.  Moreover, secretive joint training operations between military forces and local law enforcement officers raise suspicions that they are preparing for a martial law scenario.  The upcoming large-scale Operation Jade Helm training exercise in particular has generated considerable concern that the government is rehearsing for the imposition of martial law.  This concern has resulted in plans by members of the patriot movement to launch a “Counter Jade Helm” operation intended to keep tabs on the military exercise and “to practice deploying against the occupying armies of a dictatorship.”

Without knowing where all this might lead, it is reasonable to presume that the U.S. will continue its devolution into a repressive police state unless the American people step up and demand changes in how policing is conducted in this country.  Fortunately, there are signs that people are starting to push back against police brutality, not just by participating in public protests but through a variety of innovative tactics.  For example, a smartphone app is in development that, whenever the user is stopped by the police, will immediately connect him/her to a lawyer who can then interact with the officer over the phone while recording everything.  Citizens in Stockton, California have developed a grassroots, crowd-funded incentive structure to end police brutality in their community, by offering a $2500 reward for information leading to the arrest or termination of violent cops.  The hacker group Anonymous disclosed the names of two New Jersey police officers who were involved in the death of a man at the end of March.  With the development of new and more effective ways to identify, document, challenge, prevent, and punish incidents of police violence, it may be possible to stimulate a reduction in the prevalence of the problematic behavior.

A more traditional way of trying to effect social change is through legislation, and here too there are signs that the public is ready to take steps to mitigate police violence and militarization and the march toward martial law.  Several state legislatures are considering bills that would put constraints on the distribution of military equipment from the federal government to state and local law enforcement agencies, i.e., through the 1033 program.  Likewise, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez just signed a bill into law that abolishes civil asset forfeiture, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a bill into law last year which requires that deaths in police custody be investigated by an outside agency using independently gathered evidence.  Earlier this year the Berkeley City Council passed a one-year ban on the use of drones in the city for all but emergency response situations.  While each of these is just a small step in the context of a very large problem, the point is that public sentiment against police violence and government overreach is now influencing the kinds of policies being considered by law-making bodies around the country.

Public opinion may also be shaping how prosecutors deal with cases of innocent people being killed by cops.  It is heartening that officer Michael Slager was charged with murder for shooting Walter Scott eight times in the back as he was trying to run away after being shot with a Taser; that officer Lisa Mearkle was charged with criminal homicide for shooting David Kassick twice in the back while he lay face down on the ground after she shot him with her stun gun; and that officers Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy were charged with murder for shooting James Boyd just as he appeared to be bringing an end to their standoff.  While charging officers with a crime in a few egregious cases does not necessarily demonstrate a trend, the fact that all these charges were filed in 2015 may indicate that district attorneys are starting to feel more pressure to hold cops accountable at least for the unnecessary use of lethal force.  While the Albuquerque DA said that her decision to charge the two officers in Boyd’s murder was not influenced by other recent cases where police were not charged by grand juries, it certainly seems likely that widespread public outcry over the deaths of innocent people at the hands of the police can’t help but put pressure on prosecutors to charge them with a crime and bring them to trial.

Another interesting indicator of public opinion can be seen in the results of a recent Public Broadcasting Service poll to assess support for “more restrictions on guns in your state” two years after the Sandy Hook incident.  With over 125,000 responses, nearly 95 percent of them chose the answer, “No.  Laws like this unnecessarily punish lawful gun owners and will do little to prevent mass shootings.”  Likewise, the results of a recent Pew Research Center survey indicate that, for the first time in more than two decades, there is more support for gun rights than gun control.  While support for gun control was as high as 60 percent just ten years ago, today more than half the respondents believe that “it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.”  Since this change in attitude corresponds in time with the growing militarization of the police, as well as a decrease in violent crime, it is possible that Americans are remembering that our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms is included in the Constitution as a safeguard for the people against the tyrannical actions of an oppressive government.  As government in the United States gets more oppressive through its increasingly violent law enforcement system, we should not be surprised that more people are now more committed to the right to own a gun.

The problem with an armed populace, from the government’s perspective, is that many people have guns available to use against the police if and when they think the circumstances warrant it.  In December of 2013, for example, a police officer leading an early morning no-knock raid on a home in search of marijuana was shot and killed by 28-year-old Henry Goedrich Magee who, fearing for the safety of himself and his pregnant girlfriend, opened fire on the intruders.  Five months later, one of the officers involved in an early morning no-knock raid on a home in search of drugs was shot and killed by 50-year-old Marvin Louis Guy who, seeking to protect his wife and property, opened fire on the intruders.  While a grand jury refused to indict Magee, who is white, on the capital murder charges pursued by the district attorney, prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty for Guy, who is black.  Given the basic injustice of this discrepancy, not to mention the fundamental problem of charging people with murder who were simply defending their homes and families, an online petition to drop the murder charges against Guy has received nearly 7000 signatures.

Maybe more problematic than the use of guns on police in self-defense is their use in an attack fueled by hatred, anger, and/or a desire for retribution.  We live in a world in which violence usually begets violence, and thus it seems probable that escalating attention to cases of police brutality will eventually stimulate a growing level of “revenge” violence, as seen in the murder of two police officers in Brooklyn in December.  Already in urban communities the police are too readily seen as the enemy, and the ongoing militarization of law enforcement agencies and tactics runs the risk that much of the public will start to see cops as dangerous bad guys rather than public servants out “to protect and to serve.”  Whenever any future social unrest results in a significant police presence in one or more American cities, the concern is that armed citizens angry at the government and troubled by oppressive police tactics may use the chaotic conditions as an opportunity to attack officers out on the streets.   The police response to any such attack would likely reflect the next significant step towards a martial law scenario.

It seems quite clear that American society is moving in this direction; what isn’t so obvious is how we might effect the deep and broad institutional changes needed to undermine the violent police culture that is terrorizing American citizens.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t any good ideas about the kinds of changes that would be helpful.  Having made key decisions that contributed to the escalation of violence in the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, ex-police chief Stamper has had time since then to consider the types of institutional reforms that would enable police to respond more effectively in that kind of complex, volatile situation.  He concluded his essay in The Nation by commenting on the need for transformational change:

I’m convinced it is possible to create a smart organizational alternative to the paramilitary bureaucracy that is American policing. But that will not happen unless, even as we cull “bad apples” from our police forces, we recognize that the barrel itself is rotten.  Assuming the necessity of radical structural reform, how do we proceed? By building a progressive police organization, created by rank-and-file officers, “civilian” employees and community representatives. Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city. And because partners do not act unilaterally, they would be compelled to keep each other informed, and to build trust and mutual respect – qualities sorely missing from the current equation.

Stamper’s description of a meaningful form of community policing provides a compelling vision for the future.  If history is any guide, movement in that direction is unlikely in the absence of a groundswell of public demand and a champion for change who capitalizes on that support.  Both of those conditions are lacking at present.  We can only hope that they materialize before it is too late.


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect in any way those of the USC Bedrosian Center. 

Bedrosian Center