Why US Police Are Out Of Control

| Educate!

America is clearly an outlier when it comes to police brutality. According to The Guardian’s highly useful “Counted” website, U.S. police kill more people in a typical day than police in England and Wales kill in an entire year. Where police in Stockton, California, killed three people in the first five months of 2015, police in Iceland, which has roughly the same population, have killed just one person since the modern Icelandic republic was founded in 1944.

Where the U.S. saw 97 police shootings in a single month (March 2015), Australia saw 94 over the course of two decades (1992 to 2011). And where police in Finland fired a grand total of six bullets in 2013, police in Pasco, Washington, pumped nearly three times as many last February into a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant named Antonio Zambrano-Montes whom they accused of threatening them with a rock.

What is the reason for vast discrepancy? The Black Lives Matter movement blames racism, which is certainly true as far as it goes, but potentially misleading since its suggests that racism is not a problem in countries like England and Australia, which is definitely not the case.

In a recent analysis, Alternet’s Steven Rosenfeld blamed police reliance on excessive force, an absence of supervision, and a confrontation mentality that leads urban cops to see their beats as veritable war zones. While this is certainly the case, the logic is more than a bit tautological since all Rosenfeld is saying is that police are out of control because police are out of control.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence blames a “continuing arms race between law enforcement and civilians” that causes cops to see every suspect as a heavily-armed combatant. But while the police are plainly upping their firepower – SWAT teams are often more heavily armed than front-line troops in Afghanistan or Iraq – there is no evidence that the average American is following suit.

Indeed, Gallup reports that the proportion of Americans who say they have a gun at home has declined since the 1960s, while sales of military-style assault weapons have so far had a negligible impact on crime rates. So there is no evidence that a street-level arms race is underway or that it is causing police to over-react.

Fragmentation of Police Forces

So what is the real reason that America is off the charts when it comes to police shootings? The most important explanation is one that almost no one notices: fragmentation.

Britain, for example, has some 50-odd separate police forces, the Metropolitan Police Service covering greater London, a slew of regional police forces covering the rest of the country, plus a Serious Organized Crime Agency to deal with higher-level offenses.

Germany has a federal police force plus one police department for each of the sixteen länder, or states, while France, thanks to the Jacobin tradition of centralization, somehow makes do with just three police forces in all: the National Police, the National Gendarmerie, and the Municipal Police, only half of whom are armed. Australia meanwhile has eight police forces, New Zealand has just one, while Canada, somewhat unusually, has more than 200, including two dozen or more among Native American tribes.

So how many police departments does the United States have? The answer: more than 18,000. This includes three dozen or so at the federal level plus a staggering 17,985 at the state and local level – everything from state troopers and city patrolmen to campus cops, hospital and housing police, park rangers, and even a special department of zoo police in the town the Brookfield just outside of Chicago.

Where Britain’s police forces are firmly under the control of the Home Office while France’s are under the Ministry of the Interior, moreover, America’s are virtually autonomous. When the Justice Department sent out a survey on the use of force in 2013, the answers that came back were so jumbled as to be well nigh useless. Some departments sent back information on the use of guns, while others included reports about punches thrown and the use of non-lethal devices such as beanbag guns. Others, including such big-city departments as New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit, either did not know or refused to say.

A country that doesn’t even know how many times police fire their weapons or under what circumstances is one in which every local department is a law unto itself, a self-contained barony with its own special rules and customs.

“It’s a national embarrassment,” Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor, told The New York Times. “Right now, all you know is what gets on YouTube.”

What does a lack of knowledge have to do with ultra-high levels of brutality? The answer is simple: absence of knowledge means an absence of control, which means that local departments behave with relative impunity. If local cops seem out of control, it’s because the only controls come from local politicians who are often corrupt and racist and therefore tolerant of such behavior on the part of the officers they employ.

The Sandra Bland Case

Just what this means became clear on July 10 when a 28-year-old Chicagoan named Sandra Bland found herself pulled over by a traffic cop in Waller County, Texas, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. As a graduate of nearby Prairie View A&M, a historically black university, Bland knew how small-town police in rural Texas operate. So she was angry, upset and prepared for the worst.

“You seem very irritated,” Police Officer Brian Encinia told her. To which Bland replied:

“I am, I really am.…  I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket.”

Bland had a point. When Encinia pulled up close behind her, she did the natural thing by moving over to let him pass. Yet now she found herself pulled over for a technical infraction, i.e. changing lanes without signaling. Encinia’s aggressive driving triggered the incident in the first place, and now his aggressive behavior was upping the ante.

As the argument escalated, Bland found herself thrown to the ground, cuffed and then tossed in jail when she failed to make bail. Three days later, she was found dead in her cell.

This is how a feudal knight behaves, not, supposedly, a modern cop in a democratic society. Encinia was suspended, the FBI stepped in, while the local DA launched an investigation to determine if Bland was the victim of a homicide. But this was only after dash cam footage showing Encinia’s confrontational behavior went viral on the Internet and protesters rallied to her cause. Otherwise, the incident would have been gone unnoticed.

The killing of Samuel DuBose six days later showed another side of the problem. DuBose was not the victim of an over-aggressive small-town policeman, but of a campus cop from the University of Cincinnati. Normally, the biggest problems campus police face are rowdy frat-house parties and overflowing parking lots on graduation day.

But in this case, the university, concerned about mounting crime, had entered into an agreement with the city to allow its police to patrol nearby neighborhoods. For a hapless local motorist like DuBose, the upshot was that instead of dealing with a police department accountable in some fashion to the voters of Cincinnati, he now found himself face to face with an officer answerable only to a university board of trustees, all appointees.

Control wound up scrambled, accountability was slashed, while an ill-prepared cop was thrust into a situation for which he was not properly trained. As a consequence, a minor traffic stop ended with DuBose’s death.

Once again, the local DA went into overdrive. County prosecutor Joe Deters slammed Officer Ray Tensing for making a “chicken crap stop,” dismissing his account as “nonsense” and describing DuBose’s shooting as “the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make.”  “This is without question a murder,” he added.

Loss of Accountability 

But not only was this also after the fact, but the effect was to sidestep the issue of why the city had had shunted off policing to a body far removed from voters’ control. Responsibility rested not only with Tensing, but with the city officials who entered into such an undemocratic arrangement.

So, once again, it was a case of ineffective controls and a lack of accountability allowing police brutality to flourish. If the Black Lives Matter movement had not been in high gear by that point, DuBose’s death would almost certainly have been overlooked as well. But while emotions ran high, awareness of the basic structural issues at hand was nil.

This strange contradiction – outrage on one hand and utter passivity with regard to the larger political issues on the other – begs two questions: why has fragmentation become so massive, and why is it all but invisible?

The first is easy. The problem goes back to the deal that America’s so-called Framers struck in Philadelphia in 1787 in which they not only divided power among three branches of government, but also between the federal government and the states. While the former wound up with the ability to tax, borrow, regulate commerce, and coin money, the latter gained an all but unchallengeable monopoly on local governance.

Things have gotten a bit more complicated since then thanks to the civil liberties movement, the New Deal, the civil rights revolution, and other such events. But to a remarkable degree, the original division of responsibility still holds. While the feds intervene from time to time in urban policy, they do so obliquely while local prerogatives remain sacrosanct.

Much as Congress carved states out of the western territories, the states gained carte blanche not only to create as many police departments as they wish, but to carve out an endless number of municipalities and school districts as well, not to mention water and sewer boards, mosquito control commissions, and other exotic flora and fauna.

The upshot is not only 18,000 police departments but more than 90,000 local governments in all, all autonomous, self-governing, and endlessly jealous of their rights and prerogatives.

“[I]f there was a dominant ‘originalist’ notion of how the nation’s governance should work,” notes a prominent investigative reporter, “it was pragmatism; it was pulling together to get done what needed to be done” (Robert Parry, America’s Stolen Narrative, pp. 32-33).

But leaving aside the fact that pragmatism is far from a simple concept – the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the subject runs to more than 10,000 words – it is difficult to see how such an ornate arrangement can be described as pragmatic when there is no way to determine whether it is still working – or what “working” in this context even means.

Does San Diego County (population 3.1 million), to cite just one example, really need 65 separate fire departments? Does New Jersey (population 8.7 million) really need 565 municipalities and 591 school districts? Couldn’t the same tasks be accomplished more cheaply and efficiently if local government was consolidated?

The same goes for the police. Does America really need 18,000 police departments?  Couldn’t the same tasks be conducted more efficiently and fairly if the departments were consolidated and placed firmly under federal control?

Fear of Centralism

Conservatives will reply that any such nationalization would be tyrannical and that local prerogatives like these are the essence of American liberty. But just as liberty for the pike means death for the minnow, liberty for local pols in Waller County meant the opposite for Sandra Bland.

Americans went to war in 1776 because the British were “erect[ing] a multitude of New Offices, and sen[ding] hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” But with their 90,000 local governments, Americans have wound up saddling themselves with more local officials than George III could ever have imagined.

It’s a system crying for rationalization and reform. But this leads to the second question: how is it that no one notices? Where other countries fiddle with municipal governance as a matter of routine, abolishing some jurisdictions, creating others, and constantly re-adjusting powers and responsibilities, the very idea remains unthinkable in the U.S.

So what is the reason? The answer has to do with what one might call the dark side of pragmatism. If American governance rests on the dual principles of practicality and workability, then it follows that there is no point discussing a reform if it is not remotely in the cards. Indeed, there’s no point thinking about the problem in the first place or even noticing that it exists.

The absurdity of 18,000 autonomous police departments should be apparent to all, yet, for even the most ardent civil-rights campaigner, it disappears from view.

So do other strange aspects of the U.S. constitutional system – a Senate that gives the same number of votes to Wyoming (population 576,000) that it does to a multi-racial giant like California (population 38 million); an electoral college that triples the weight of certain lily-white “rotten boroughs” (as under-populated electoral districts were known in Eighteenth-Century England), or a two-thirds/three-fourths amending clause that, thanks to growing population discrepancies, allows 13 largely rural states representing as little as 4.1 percent of the population to veto any constitutional change sought by the remaining 95.9.

Rather than the elephants in the sitting room that no one wishes to discuss, these are elephants that no one even notices.

Which brings us back to race. Although civil libertarians celebrate America’s 228-year-old constitutional system on the grounds that it locks in the Bill of Rights, the consequences are not remotely democratic. To the contrary, the effect is not only to fragment power from above, but, more importantly, to muffle and disperse democratic political power from below by placing countless obstacles in its path.

As a result, racism is allowed to fester in countless nooks and crannies in America’s over-complicated political structure. The disease thus spreads, infecting one organ after another.

For protesters, the consequence is a curious mix of anger and complacency. Young people take to the streets in response to the latest outrage. They march and chant as they challenge the powers-that-be.  But then the fury wanes, and everyone goes back home. With gyroscopic efficiency, the system rights itself and fragmentation continues unabated.

If you want a picture of the future, to paraphrase Orwell, imagine an endless succession of Sandra Blands hanging in their cell – forever.