I previously wrote about the gap between perception and reality when it comes to police killings. This week’s essay is a companion piece to that.
Whatever one's politics, it is in the public interest for needless police violence to be reduced as much as possible. In the age of smartphones and social media, the margin for error is low, and the tolerance for injustice, overreach, or even the appearance thereof is virtually nonexistent. The police in America shoot and kill about 1,000 people per year. Another 50-100 are killed by other means. We don’t know exactly how many people are injured by the police, though that figure is surely many times higher than the death rate, as over 60 million people have in-person interactions with cops every year. Over 2,000 people per year are injured by the police in New Jersey alone — we can safely infer a five digit number countrywide. A look at about 30 US cities found that lawsuit settlements for police misconduct cumulatively surpass $300 million per year — nationwide, this figure must climb well into the billions.
If we can reduce the number of such incidents (or seeming incidents), the causes of justice, public trust, public safety, and civil order will be improved. The following are strategies to reduce police violence.
The interactions that police officers have with civilians are the last link of longer causal chains. Addressing some of the root causes can prevent certain situations and environments in which violence or misconduct might occur.
End the War on Drugs. The legalization, or at least decriminalization of drugs will reduce the number of police interactions, thereby reducing the number of potential incidents of police violence. In 2019, there were over 1.5 million drug-related arrests in the US.
Reduce Poverty. More crime occurs in low-income areas, and low-income people are the most likely victims of violent or property crimes per capita. The poor are also more likely to be killed by the police. There is not much data precisely breaking down the total number of police interactions by socioeconomic status. What little exists does point to a slight disproportionality in overall contacts with the police among low-income people, compared to their share of the US population. Domestic policy that reduces poverty may help reduce the crime rate, and lower the number of police interactions.
Better Gun Policy. One reason American cops are more likely to resort to lethal force compared to those of other developed nations is because the US is unique in having over 390 million guns floating around (the US population is around 330 million). It is rational for officers to assume that any given person they interact with might be armed. The Second Amendment isn’t going anywhere, but any policies that can help lower the gun violence rate, the number of guns in circulation, or help keep them out of the wrong hands, will gradually lower the level of tension underlying every police interaction.
Mental Health. A nationwide survey of over 2,400 senior law enforcement officials found 84 percent said there had been an increase in the mentally ill population over the length of their career. 63 percent reported that their department saw increases in time spent on calls involving mental illness during this same period. There are 240 million 911 calls made per year, and while there’s not much data on what percentage get directed to the police, a review of 85 studies found about one percent of police calls involve a mentally ill person. This likely translates to hundreds of thousands if not millions of calls annually. This same review found 25 percent of people with mental disorders have been arrested at some point during their lives, and 12 percent of people who have accessed mental healthcare did so via police involvement. Without ever consciously intending to, we have assigned police officers to be mentally ill people’s liaison to our institutions. Effective policies aimed at improving access, availability, outreach, quality, and affordability of mental health care can reduce these numbers.
Strict Psychological Testing. Any law enforcement applicant for a field work position must be subjected to strict psychological testing. Some police departments currently require some form of psychological testing, though it varies. It should be a universal requirement, and should be retroactively applied to current officers. If you have problems with anger, impulse control, megalomania, sadism, sociopathy, or are otherwise unstable or unwell, you should not be a police officer.
Physical Size Requirement for Police Field Work. As with psychological testing, this already exists in some places, but should be a universal requirement. If you're 5'6, trying to subdue a person who's 6'4 and doesn't want to be subdued, no amount of training or strength conditioning is going to bridge the performance gap between yourself and an equally trained officer who is 6'1. When officers prove unable to subdue suspects through non-lethal means, that's when suspects can end up getting shot. We need officers who can manhandle people if need be, because manhandling them is better than shooting them.
Cops Should Be Paid More. The average police officer makes about $68,000 a year. They're hardly poor, but when we consider how important a job it is, how difficult it can be, and how high the stakes are — literally life and death — this begins to sound a little low. If we want to recruit the most talented people for police work, then police work needs to be better paid. The better paid it is, the more people will seek it out for the money, rather than for the perks (the gun, badge, authority, etc.). It is in the public interest to attract people seeking money rather than a power trip. Increased pay would also spur higher numbers of applicants, creating more competition for spots, forcing departments to be more discerning in their hires, which will ultimately result in better quality.
Longer Training. The average police officer receives just under four months of training. All sorts of other jobs in which one does not have the authority to end lives require much more education. Any job that requires a four year degree, or even just a two year degree, constitutes five to ten times more education than police officers go through. Let that sink in. Officers should be given one year of training at minimum, and should be required to complete a two-year degree in criminal justice (or something related) prior to that.
De-Escalation Training. All police training programs should emphasize de-escalation. While there is sometimes no choice but to use force, there are many cases where other options were plainly available in hindsight, and where better trained officers might have cooled things off by making different decisions. In some cases gone awry, police behavior involves rushing/pursuing the suspect, and responding with force if met with resistance. In certain cases, the suspect might have been surrounded from a distance and issued orders, making clear to them that they are surrounded, that they must surrender, and that force will be used otherwise. Some of these suspects, given a moment to process, will surrender peacefully. To put it in medieval terms, sometimes a siege can be more effective than storming the walls.
Train Cops in Grappling Martial Arts. Related to the physical size requirement, there are many situations where an officer is attempting to subdue a suspect who may be larger than them, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or who does not want to be subdued. If the officer is unable to subdue them, the risk that the suspect could overpower them and shoot them with their own firearm becomes a primary danger. Training officers in things like wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu could make a big difference in their ability to successfully subdue suspects without situations getting out of control and leading to lethal force.
End No-Knock Raids. No-knock raids are when the police (often SWAT teams) kick in the door of the suspect with little to no warning, and proceed to clear the building and conduct a raid and/or arrest. These are often performed in the middle of the night. Let's game out a scenario:
A legal gun owner has a firearm in his bedside drawer. The door is kicked in at 2 AM and a group of men come rushing in with guns. Disoriented, half-asleep, and in fear that his family is under attack, he reaches for the gun. Perhaps he gets hold of it. Perhaps he is able to get off some shots. The police officers, seeing the suspect reach for, grab, or fire a gun, open fire themselves, killing the suspect. In doing so, bystanders such as pets, other household occupants, or even neighbors (if bullets go through walls or windows) may be shot or killed.
The tragedy of it all is that in these scenarios, both parties — the police and the resident — are behaving rationally, and yet the outcome can easily be needless death. This is the hallmark of a bad policy. These raids should not be no-knock, and should not be conducted in the middle of the night (where even if the cops do knock/announce themselves once, it may not be heard by a sleeping resident). To compound everything, these raids are sometimes conducted on the wrong homes, or conducted on faulty information.
Demilitarize the Police. In the past 20 years, surplus or decommissioned military equipment has been made available to police around the nation, at little to no cost, provided that they find a use for them, which they unsurprisingly manage to do. While the use of this military equipment does occasionally cause increased property damage, injury, or death, the larger issue is one of optics and public trust. Bringing tanks, humvees, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns to bear against civilians in American cities and towns, is not only creepy authoritarian overkill, it’s terrible for the public image of law enforcement, and undermines public trust. The police should be seen as serving their community, not as an occupying military force.
End Qualified Immunity. Qualified immunity is a legal principle in the US that protects government officials such as law enforcement officers from being civilly sued unless the plaintiff can prove that their constitutional rights were violated. It is reasonable, given the impossible, split-second decisions officers sometimes have to make, that a degree of leniency should be granted to law enforcement for doing things that a civilian would get into trouble for. But immunity is a bridge too far. If a doctor causes harm by making a mistake, they are subject to civil suits, with no stipulation that it only applies to constitutional violations. The police should be no different.
Body Cameras. In the past eight years, many police departments have begun to adopt body cameras which record both video and audio when officers are in the field. Much has been brought to light because of this. The problem is that not every department uses them, and sometimes the cameras are shut off by officers. By requiring all cops to have these cameras and establishing that as the new norm, any officers whose cameras shut off should be investigated for non-compliance, and penalized if found guilty.
Community Policing. A vaguely defined term, community policing refers to building a relationship between a community and the police who serve them. This would entail dedicating officers to patrol the same area on a regular basis, and develop familiarity with the people there, and for the police to partner and be in touch with various community organizations. Where it has been adopted and studied, community policing has been shown to improve attitudes toward police, though with “limited effects on crime or fear of crime.” Improving attitudes alone is valuable enough to pursue community policing more widely.
The Police Should Not Be in Charge of Policing Themselves. Every state should establish a body of investigators and prosecutors separate from and unconnected with any police department, police union, or local/city government. This body would carry out investigations, indictments, and prosecutions of law enforcement officers, free from much of the internal pressures, politics, and conflicts of interest that often hamstring internal affairs and district attorneys from bringing bad cops to justice.
Mandate Comprehensive Record-Keeping. There isn't much in the way of record-keeping requirements, so each police department or precinct does it their own way, some more diligently than others. There are few centralized resources where robust nationwide data is aggregated. While journalists, data scientists, and activists have done an excellent job of creating databases of police violence, the data remains incomplete. All law enforcement should be required to keep comprehensive records, and to report them to a national database. Good policy is grounded in good data. The more and better our data, the better we can craft effective policy.
It's Not All the Cops' Fault
Even if not perfectly harmonious, a workable, civil relationship between a community and its police is a two-way street. There are some truly bone-headed decisions that people often make, which create situations that are more volatile than they need to be. Here are some basic precepts that will not only lead to better police-civilian interactions, but may just save your life:
Don't Resist Arrest. It doesn't matter if you think you are being wrongfully or unfairly arrested. If you resist, you significantly increase your likelihood of being injured or killed. It's just not worth it. When everything is cleared up, lodge a complaint, get in touch with local news, make a viral post online, or sue the police department. But while the arrest is underway, that's not the time to dispute it. In life, you have to pick your battles. Some hills aren’t worth literally dying on.
Don't Be Intoxicated in Public. First, this is already a minor crime in most places. Second, many police interactions that result in injury or death involve a suspect who was under the influence. Being intoxicated is a recipe for bad decisions, which is why these substances are best consumed in the comfort of one's own home, or in some other safe, private space.
Don't Reach for Anything or Make Sudden Movements. Keep your hands where the officer can see them, and move like you're suspended in congealing amber. Remember, there are 390 million guns in this country. It is totally rational for a cop to assume you're armed.
It is also important to address the most charged element of this issue, the claim of systemic racism in policing: the idea that law enforcement is systemically biased and prejudiced against black Americans. The evidence just doesn't add up. When you correct for poverty and criminality, the various sub-claims made by the systemic racism camp, and the surface disparities they point to, are either mostly or entirely collapsed. What we see in the press, or on social media, is the tiniest, handpicked sliver of what goes on, and it can give a distorted picture. This does not mean that racism or injustice no longer exists. What it does mean is that while more data is needed, based on the data currently available, there is no problem with policing that couldn't be better addressed with reforms that apply across-the-board as opposed to race-specific policies.
There is this pressure one feels nowadays to lace everything in rhetoric about the scourge of racism and white supremacy. Of course those things are bad. All decent people already believe that, and saying it over and over won't convince anyone new. It doesn't add anything of value to the conversation. It obscures, distracts, and divides. We should keep our eye on the prize: finding, advocating, and implementing strategies to make the police function better for society.