Why Are US Police So Violent?

The latest figures (updated as of Dec. 3, 2022) on the Mapping Police Violence website show the U.S. police have killed 1,074 people so far this year, surpassing the record total of 1,047 for the whole of last year. Federal records show a downward trend in the number of fatal police shootings in the U.S., but a database from The Washington Post shows the opposite: From 2015 to 2021, the number of police shootings in the U.S. increased almost every year. During that period there was a cumulative total of about 7,000 deaths at the hands of police officers. A deep-rooted gun culture and systemic racism are factors in continued U.S. police violence.

Killing at Will? Justified Killings?

The Washington Post reports that the FBI requires all 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to report any killings by officers, but the FBI’s tally of police shootings is two-thirds less than The Washington Post’s investigation. Incomplete official data means a less-than-truthful reflection of police abuse in the U.S. Criminologists say that some departments are not willing to report fatal police shootings because most police killings are ruled “justified.” Importantly, incomplete data seriously masks the racial disparities among those killed by the police in the U.S. In the wake of the “knee-on-neck” killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and racial discrimination swept across the U.S. for a time and attracted widespread attention and response.

In March last year the U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which aims to reform immunity for law enforcement. The Biden administration promised to ensure that the legislation would be passed by Congress by the first anniversary of Floyd’s killing in May 2021. This promise became a hollow one in the face of polarized and partisan political realities.

In May of this year, on the second anniversary of Floyd’s killing, the Biden administration, recognizing that legislation was hopeless, settled for the next best thing and signed an executive order to reform policing practices. The government’s ineffective measures have allowed the number of African Americans killed by the police in the U.S. to increase rather than decrease in the two years since the Floyd case. Data from the Mapping Police Violence website shows that Black people, who make up only 13% of the U.S. population, account for 24% of all people killed by the police. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people and 1.3 times more likely than white people to be killed by police while unarmed. In 98.1% of all police killings between 2013 and 2022, the officers involved were not charged with any crime.

From Slave Patrols to the U.S. Police

The analysis suggests that the “justifiable homicides” and “racial disparities” reported by The Washington Post reflect two inherent “American diseases:” gun culture and racism.

It was because powerful pro-gun groups and conservative politicians enshrined the “good guy with a gun” doctrine into the U.S. Constitution that gun violence and shooting tragedies in the U.S. have reached a point today where they are nearly out of control. As the “good guy of good guys,” a police officer can apparently shoot a so-called “dangerous person” in self defense, whether that person is armed or not, and not be charged. The survey found that most killings by U.S. police arose from traffic stops, mental health checks, disputes, non-violent incidents and calls where police were not responding to a crime.

At the same time, systemic racism, which considers African American people to be “inherently guilty,” has long been entrenched in U.S. society. It is very clear that police brutality against African Americans, like hate crimes against African Americans, is an old wound with its roots in the national tradition of racism in the U.S.

Malcolm X, one of the leaders of the 20th century’s civil rights movement in the U.S., stated bluntly in a speech that the crimes committed by white Americans against Black people were too numerous to record, and despite changes over time, their brutal nature had not changed at all.

According to Alexis Hoag, a civil rights expert at Columbia University Law School, while the dark and bloody institution of slavery has become history, the original sin of racism in the U.S. Constitution has never been truly purged and is at the root of the evil of police brutality against African Americans today.

Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith, an African American author who has written for several mainstream newspapers in the U.S., has observed that the founders of the U.S. were “complicit” in slavery, which was the origin of violence against Black people in the country. The policies and practices they promoted were manifestly anti-African from the very start, and the U.S. police system has been molded on that basis.

An article by Smith points out that slave patrols had been in existence in America for almost a century by the time that George Washington, the founding president of the U.S., and himself a slave owner, signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. Composed mainly of white men, they were authorized by the government to use violent, vigilante-style tactics against escaped slaves. These empowered civilians, backed by local, state and federal governments, were a source of an emerging police force. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S Constitution outlawing slavery was passed, many white Americans refused to recognize and accept the freedom of African Americans. Increasing racial animosity led many states to adopt a series of interconnected laws designed to criminalize the lives of Black people.

Smith argues that it is almost impossible to separate the influence of white supremacy and hostility to African Americans from established policing practices in the U.S. From slave patrols to white supremacist terror groups and the “white fear” of the civil rights era, “those powerful influences created a culture of police violence and continue to shape police practices today.”

As Karundi Williams, executive director of re:power, a national African American political training organization in the U.S., has said, the U.S. police and justice system were not created to protect Black people: “[U]ntil we get to the root cause of policing and police brutality and the differences in the way police treat Black folks versus white folks, we’re not going to get to change.”

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