25 YEARS OF CN: ‘Why US Police Are Out of Control’–Aug. 20, 2015

This is the 7th story in our series looking back on a quarter century of reporting by Consortium News.

This is an exact copy of how the article appeared on Aug. 20, 2015.

Exclusive: U.S. police forces are so out of control there’s not even a reliable database on how many times police officers shoot citizens. So, beyond racism and fear of guns, the problem includes fragmentation in law enforcement and gaps in training among the 18,000 police agencies in the 50 states, notes Daniel Lazare.

By Daniel Lazare

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.

A screen-shot from a video showing Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. (Video via the New York Times.)

A screen-shot from a video showing Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. (Video via the New York Times.)

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.

Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).

18 comments for “25 YEARS OF CN: ‘Why US Police Are Out of Control’–Aug. 20, 2015

  1. Nick
    June 1, 2020 at 19:57

    The solution to police brutality is simple: require all officers in all jurisdictions to carry liability insurance just like doctors.

    Problems solved –

    * Taxpayer no longer pays for police malpractice.
    * Bad cops naturally weeded out due to multiple claims -high premiums make them unemployable.

    • robert e williamson jr
      June 2, 2020 at 15:31

      This is not that difficult to solve. If you are a cop who goes by the book and you witness or hear of transgressor in your ranks your will be held accountable same as him if you fail to report him . If you are a cop and you get too many black marks, your done, no badge, no gun no security jobs or guard jobs. You ARE DONE. You have proven you are not fit for the job.

      This is the way it should be already. These men are hired to enforce the law. PERIOD. The same should go for cheating federal prosecutors and intelligence professionals. The first rule for them all should be that they do no harm first.

      Then on top of what I have here we need to add Nick’s solutions.

      It would be a beautiful thing as opposed to the pornagraphic murder of a black man streamed live.

  2. John Drake
    June 1, 2020 at 18:02

    A good start on explaining a complex situation. One big factor not explicitly mentioned, but goes along with fragmentation is that European cops at least get double the hours of training that US cops do and the Netherlands, Norway and Finland require police to attend a national academy – a college for cops – for three years.

    US cops get about 110 hours in firearms training and only eight hours in de-escalation training. Their orientation tends to be control through weaponry, be it gun, tazer, or rough handling like throwing someone to the ground.

    . The Huff Puff (Why American Cops Kill So Many Compared To European Cops, 11/30/2015) has an interesting article on this subject. It also emphasizes the lack of centralized authority, training and standards.

    Another factor is, considering the number of firearms floating around this country, US police expect the possibility of a armed subject. I was once pulled over by a cop at night who kept one hand on his gun- pretty creepy- this just for slightly speeding.

  3. Karin Brothers
    June 1, 2020 at 15:08

    When police get Israeli training, it turns everyone into Palestinians.

  4. Claude
    June 1, 2020 at 12:45

    Accountability is the issue. USA cops kill, maim, harass, assault, and brutalize our citizens simply because they can. Time after time they commit crimes in full view of the public with video documentation and completely walk free, again and again. Eric Garner’s strangulation was no different than this most recent one, only more cops were complicit. No changes or jail for the officers, no accountability.

  5. E Wright
    June 1, 2020 at 01:00

    A unitary police force very quickly becomes a weapon of State under the wrong kind of leadership. There is nothing wrong with decentralisation as long as it is accountable. One of the problems we have here is that policing has become a haven for veterans who bring their army/marine corps ethos with them. This ethos involves closing ranks and treating those out of uniform as the enemy. Demilitarisation is needed. But how do you do that in a country that glorifies guns?

  6. Susan Siens
    May 31, 2020 at 15:10

    As someone who lived through the 1960s and the police violence of that time, there is only one answer to police violence, and that is DEMILITARIZATION OF THE ENTIRE UNITED STATES. As long as we think it’s just fine to invade other people’s countries and do to them on a daily basis what the police do here on a daily basis, the status quo will continue. Without critical analysis and ORGANIZED resistance — both of which are difficult and totally opposed by the power structure, who will infiltrate and attempt to sabotage — nothing will really change. What each of us needs to do, no matter our ethnic background, is question how and why we support white supremacy, whether in the form of the U.S. military, U.S. police forces, U.S. border patrol, or furthering our political careers by pandering to white privilege.

  7. evelync
    May 31, 2020 at 11:56

    We tolerate a subterranean culture of violence and murder perpetrated with the knowledge and acquiescence at the highest levels.
    Only because of whistleblowers does this filter down to the rest of us.
    Fear – like what slipped out of Chuck Schumer’s mouth – seems to drive it.
    Lies about the dangers of a manufactured foreign enemy. Lies about the dangers of people whose skin happens to be other than pasty…errrr…lily white.
    Somehow our history from the decimation of the native peoples to take over their land using fear mongering to get our acquiescence has never left us.
    We allow psych0paths and sociopaths to act in secret serving their own sickness and, apparently, the MICIMATT or it wouldn’t go on……
    How exactly it works is not clear.
    A cultural “heart of darkness”.

    Is that why Bernie Sanders had to be stopped? He has a kind heart and cares more about the millions of people in a “target’ country than the usefully demonized “leader”?

    Why have we all acquiesced to the cold war thinking that the MICIMATT pushes as imperative?
    You tube has a political thriller/docudrama made in Canada about 20 years ago starring Christopher Plummer – riveting. – This article reminds me of it for some reason. It’s titled “Agent of Influence”. There’s more than 1 film with that title.
    The docudrama “Agent of Influence”, a “story of espionage and counter-espionage is based on the novel by Ian Adams. Suspicious circumstances surrounded the mysterious death of a Canadian diplomat”

  8. SayWhat?
    May 31, 2020 at 11:36

    So you think a federal police force headed by William Barr would improve the current situation???

    • Consortiumnews.com
      May 31, 2020 at 11:47

      That already exists. It’s called the FBI.

  9. May 31, 2020 at 08:47

    When we teach people from cradle to grave that they are victims, their reaction is that what happens to them and their destructive behavior is not their fault. We are seeing it today, one or four bad cops are all cops and violence committed is because all cops are bad. In reality, the overwhelming number of cops are not bad cops, and honest people know that. Yet the reporters, virtually all of them begin their reports that the reason for the riots is because of one, two, three or four cops committed a criminal act in Minnesota. It doesn’t dawn on them how absurd this message appears to ordinary people of any color who are making our society work.

    Too many of our leaders thereby enable and justify violence, and those involved in riots are fully aware of that, that we confer on anarchists the power they should not be allowed to have.

    When we launch a satellite into space, when we are in the midst of a crippling pandemic, all attention is on a criminal enterprise dressed as a righteous protest.

    Those who want change at the White House should understand that failure to call out such behavior for what it really is could very likely put the incumbent back in the White House.

    • robert e williamson jr
      June 1, 2020 at 12:20

      Herman I suggest you read this quote by one of our leaders I assume you are referring to as those who truly are enablers.

      April 11, 2003. He said:

      “The task we have ahead is an awkward one. It’s untidy, and freedom is untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things and that’s what is going to happen here.”

      Isn’t it insane how too many of our leaders enable and justify violence? Is it that the rioters have seen through Rummy’s bull feather statement?

      I can give some advice on how to stop those three or four or on bad cops. STOP KILLING UNARMED PEOPLE! NO EXCUSE EXISTS FOR THE DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD.

      I could school you on absurdity but I’m thinking you too are already a victim. I’ll leave it to you to sort it out.

    • robert e williamson jr
      June 1, 2020 at 15:49

      The “Tricky Funster” here Herman. It appears to me that you surely must have The Honorable Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on mind. No! Rummy says U.S. Forces should not be blamed for the rioting in Bagdad.

      From UPI April 11, 2003:

      “The task we got ahead of us now is an awkward one….it’s untidy and freedom is untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They are also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what is going to happen here.”

      One must surely be careful of what one wishes for, doncha think?

      Is everybody happy? Are we having fun yet? How slick is too slick on that slope that gets talked about ad nauseam ?


  10. Sam F
    May 30, 2020 at 17:46

    The article points to excessive decentralization leading to dominance of units by a rogue who allows roguery.
    The federation of such agencies may help in setting a higher standard. But only if federal government is not corrupt.

    Federation has led to centralized corruption, especially the duopoly party of the rich selecting rogues of their kind.
    They select rogue state and federal judges who approve fatal shootings by police rogues to keep the poor in line.
    So the first step is getting money power out of elections, politics, and mass media. Then set police standards.

    Because elections, politics, and mass media are the tools of democracy, we cannot restore democracy democratically.
    The corrupt rich have never in history relinquished the power they have stolen, except when opposed by superior force.
    Sometimes that has come by infiltration of police, national guard, and military to deny military power to the rich.

    Entering a depression, rioters will be angry about personal issues like police brutality, not restoration of democracy.
    The core issues will be constitutional reform to isolate democratic institutions and mass media from money power.
    The leadership of rioters must be chosen to ensure the constitutional reforms needed to restore democracy.

    Some essential reforms:
    1. Public officials including mass media monitored for dependencies, rated in fairness, and dismissed for violation.
    2. Economic or other influence upon public officials should be felony crime, and if organized should be treason;
    3. Funding of mass media and elections must be restricted to limited registered individual donations;
    4. Three equal top-level decision groups in each branch and mass media, which must agree to exercise power;
    5. Limitation of treaties to border defense and UN: no secret interests secretly “defended”;
    6. UN membership must limit military and economic powers to a similar structure and humanitarian purposes.

  11. Nathan Mulcahy
    May 30, 2020 at 11:08

    You forgot: Training in Israel.

  12. Annie
    May 30, 2020 at 04:27

    The populations in the countries mentioned by Mr. Lazare in total constitute less then a 1/3 of the US population,  and I believe the police in England , Wales and Iceland don’t carry guns. So, I don’t think it’s fair to compare the number of deaths perpetrated by the police in the US with those countries mentioned. Although I agree that the number of police caused deaths in the US is high, and all are not fully accounted for, and  agree that the system is fragmented which no doubt impacts the overall performance of the police, and reduces accountability. Also, the murder rate is very high in the US with over 16 thousand US citizens murdered every year, so we’re a rather violent country on many levels. All that being said, I think the majority of police act in a responsible manner. If you look at the medical profession that are there to service the health and well being of the people of this nation they are nonetheless the third leading cause of deaths, cancer and heart disease prevent them from being number one.

  13. KiwiAntz
    May 30, 2020 at 01:30

    The US of Anarchy better get used to rioting & looting coming to its own Country, similar to the Hong Kong type protests it has engineered overseas? Paybacks a bitch isn’t it? With the illegal & thuggish killing of yet another coloured person by a entitled, white, red neck Cop & egged on by a racist, white, imbecilic President, in Trump, this is just the beginning of the chaos to come? Just imagine when America’s economy collapses because of Central Bank meddling & under the effects of the Wuflu Pandemic? What happens when the stimulus checks stop coming & people can’t pay their bills, mortgages, rents, car payments, credit cards or buy food?? Imagine thousands more Pandemic deaths & infections with more millions out of work & the supply lines ending? You will then see looting & burning happening on a huge scale that will make these latest riots look like a picnic?? And what this crisis demonstrates is how razor thin the US veneer of civilisation is & how quickly it can dissipate once a catalyst, such as the killing of this black man, can become a rallying point to mobilise against tyranny & injustice by this Elite class & its corrupted private Police State Army! This is just another example of the sad & irreversible decline of the American Empire & its hopelessly incompetent Leadership with the loss of prestige & any semblance of respect that it used to have in the eyes of the World!

    • Jim other
      May 31, 2020 at 15:00

      I disagree that our leaders are incompetent! They are very competent in the value they uphold the highest: making money! They have on they side: the law, the president, the legislature, the armed forces (any violence on the part of the exploited will be met with greater violence by the armed “peace keepers”).
      They don’t care about respect in the world, “we’re rich!”

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