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Opinion: US policing culture is growing increasingly violent – so where will it end?

Adjusting for the disparity in population, citizens in Britain – another country with armed police – are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans.

Niall McGlynn

THE DEATH LAST week of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, of Michael Brown in August, can both be linked to the increasing militarisation of police forces in America at both state and federal levels.

According to some estimates, each year in the United States police forces shoot dead more than 1,000 people. The FBI, which keeps track of crime data for police forces across the country, does not record all police shootings, only those which are classified as “justifiable homicides” by police officers.

Given that reporting officer shooting incidents by police departments is on a voluntary basis, the data is widely regarded as an unreliable and incomplete estimate of the total number of police shootings. According to the FBI, 410 people were killed by police in 2012, the most recent year available.

The FBI does, however, keep a close track of how many police officers are killed each year in the line of duty. According to this data, in 2012 48 law enforcement officers and one federal officer were killed in the line of duty. In 2013 27 law enforcement officers 4 federal officers were killed in the line of duty. If we go by the FBI’s data alone it means that, in 2012, police in America killed roughly eight people for every police officer who was killed. If we go with the estimates provided by non-governmental organisations and journalists which are around 1,000 people killed, this ratio rises to 20-to-1.

More violent policing than in other comparable countries

These ratios compare very unfavourably with police-shooting numbers from other countries. Using the United Kingdom as an example, police across the whole country shot one person in 2012 and had no fatal shootings in 2013. Even when adjusting for the disparity in population between the UK and the United States, the Economist estimates that “British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans”.

As these numbers suggest, policing in America is much more violent than in other comparable western countries. The largest part of the blame for this must go to the highly militarised and aggressive policing culture in the United States. The profusion of powerful, military grade weaponry and paramilitary forces within what are supposed to be civilian police forces, have started to undermine the distinction between war and peace and between civilian and enemy combatant within America.

SWAT raids

Paramilitary forces, such as SWAT teams within local and state police departments, are a case in point. Since the 1980s the number of these teams has soared, as has the frequency of their deployment. The vast majority of towns and cities in America now have SWAT teams attached to their local police departments, including places like Harwich, Massachusetts, population 11,000, and Middleburg, Pennsylvania, population 1,363, to name only two of the smaller towns from a report by the Cato Institute detailing the rise of militarised policing in America. SWAT teams now conduct an estimated 50,000 raids a year, involving heavy calibre rifles, “flash-bang” grenades, helicopters, rams and armoured vehicles in some cases.

Most of these raids, however, are not conducted against violent offenders, hostage takers or heavily armed gangs as SWAT teams were originally intended for. Instead most SWAT raids are for drug offences, in some cases for a few grammes of marijuana. Police in America now routinely break down doors, throw flash-bangs and point assault rifles at the heads of citizens for the possession of a drug which is less dangerous than cigarettes or alcohol and legally medically prescribed in several states.

Police departments are given military surplus

Another factor driving the increasing military mindset of police departments is a little known programme run by the United States Department of Defence, where police departments are given military surplus, including tanks, aircraft, machine guns, assault rifles and grenade launchers. SWAT teams and even regular officers receive training and weaponry from professional soldiers and Special Forces experts. They use military bases to train, receive seminars and advice from military personnel and have started to adopt a military mindset and culture that is completely at odds with their role as protectors of the civilian population.

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Police in America, armed with the weapons of soldiers, given the training of soldiers and working in an environment which is increasingly military, have unsurprisingly started to treat suspects, armed or not, as enemy combatants. Faced with any threat, whether a kitchen knife or simply a large and powerful looking man like Michael Brown, they respond with lethal force. As Tamir Rice’s tragic death shows, officers often do not wait to see if a gun is real, or even if it is being pointed at them. As soon as they see anything that might be a gun, whether it is in someone’s hand, tucked into their trousers or simply lying close at hand, they shoot.

Undermining the whole purpose of civilian police forces

Of course this does not apply to all police officers. The overwhelming majority of officers try their best to be a positive presence in their communities, and to serve and protect as they are sworn to do. The problem is the culture, training and mindset that are being pushed on police officers across the United States. The surge in military weapons from the Pentagon, the rapid proliferation of SWAT teams and the increasing tendency to meet all crime, whether violent or not with deadly force is undermining the whole purpose of civilian police forces. Officers are being pushed into a position of being a combatant rather than a protector.

The sight of the police in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death, armed to the teeth and pointing assault rifles at protestors, illustrates all of this clearly. Police lined up against protestors not like law enforcement officers protecting their community, but like soldiers facing an incoming enemy attack. The culture of military policing is deeply embedded within America. Uprooting it may prove to be one of the defining challenges the country faces in the 21st century.

Niall McGlynn is a graduate in history and science from Trinity College Dublin. He has written articles on Irish and global affairs for Trinity News, and blogs on both with his brothers at http://lazyhermes.blogspot.ie/ and tweets at @NiallMcGlynn1.

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