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Explaining police violence

The protests following the deaths of Eric Garner (asphyxiated by New York police in a chokehold in July 2014) and Michael Brown (shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014) have drawn public attention to the problem of excessive police violence. Such violence, far in excess of any force that may be required to perform police duties, is extremely common.

Not all police officers indulge in excessive violence, but those who do can hardly be dismissed as just a few “bad apples.” Researchers estimate that police officers have killed about 5,000 people over the last decade, which exceeds the number of American soldiers killed in the war in Iraq. (1)

My approach to explaining police violence relies on a selection of the numerous accounts of incidents that appear in the local press and on the internet. I have selected accounts that contain enough circumstantial detail to clarify what happened. (2)

A dangerous occupation?

Police violence is often excused on the grounds that police work is inherently dangerous. Is it not therefore understandable that police officers should be a little too quick to react violently to perceived threats and sometimes make mistakes as a result?

Let us look at some figures. According to the FBI website, the number of police officers “feloniously killed in the line of duty” in 2013 was 27, as compared with about 500 people a year killed by police. As there are 780,000 police officers in the country, this represents a mortality rate of 0.035 per 1,000. This is very close to the average rate of fatal work injuries in the US workforce (0.034 per 1,000 in 2011) and about a fifth of the corresponding rate for coalminers (0.162 per 1,000 in 2013. (3) So police work is not in fact an especially dangerous occupation. The police work mortality rate is also under a third of the traffic accident mortality rate in the US (0.116 per 1,000): a police officer is much more likely to die in a traffic accident than at the hands of a criminal. All this is consistent with the casual observation that most police officers do not seem to be in great danger most of the time.   

Of course, one reason why so few police officers are killed may well be that they are so fast to pre-empt any perceived threat. If police officers were more cautious in responding to perceived threats, thereby halving (say) the number of people killed by police, the number of police officers killed might increase. This raises the question of what relative values should be attached to the lives of police officers and to the lives of ordinary citizens.

Violence against nonwhite people

The protests have highlighted the role played by white racism within the police force. This is undoubtedly an important factor in black and Hispanic ghettoes, where police officers from white areas come to view all residents – or at least all young males – as potential if not actual criminals. (4) Black police officers are also at risk: in Providence, RI in 2000 an off-duty black police officer named Cornel Young was shot dead by his own white colleagues in 2000 when he tried to go to their aid in a fight outside a restaurant. They claimed that they failed to recognize him.

Even in the ghettoes, however, racism is by no means the only factor at work. For example, in a poor and mostly black city like Ferguson, with a weak tax base, a great deal of police violence against nonwhite people arises out of the official policy of coming down hard on petty offenses in order to generate the fines that the city needs to balance its budget. (5)

Violence against the homeless and the mentally ill and handicapped

Many white people also find themselves on the receiving end of police violence. Especially vulnerable are the homeless, the mentally ill, and the mentally handicapped (developmentally disabled) – overlapping categories that together account for over half of the victims of police shootings. (6) Consider these case studies:

In Frederick County, Maryland in January 2013 Robert Saylor, a young man with Down’s syndrome, was taken by his carer to see a movie. After the movie the carer told him to wait in the lobby while she went to get the car. While she was gone Saylor tried to go back into the theater, wanting to see the film a second time and not understanding that this was not allowed. He was restrained by three off-duty cops moonlighting as security guards and (like Eric Garner) died in a chokehold. His last words were “it hurt” and “call my mom.” A grand jury decided not to indict the guards.

In Los Angeles in March 2010 two police officers spotted an autistic man named Steven Washington walking alone. Their suspicions were aroused by his “blank stare.” When he reached into his waistband for his cellphone the officers shot him in the head. (7)

Texas police responded to report of a mentally ill man sleeping at a bus station by brutally beating him with a baton and filing a false report that resulted in him spending ten weeks in jail.

John Wrana, a 95-year-old nursing home resident suffering from delusions, refused to be taken to hospital to be treated for a urinary tract infection. Paramedics were summoned and they called in the police. Several police officers in riot gear broke into his room, tased him, and shot him in the stomach as he sat in his chair with five beanbag rounds (at 300 feet per second). He died later of internal bleeding. Staff had begged police to be allowed to try and calm him down. An officer was charged with reckless conduct. (8)

In 2011 the manager of a restaurant in Fullerton, California called the police and asked them to get rid of a “loiterer” in the area – an unarmed mentally ill homeless man called Kelly Thomas. In order to get the police to respond more quickly the manager falsely claimed that Thomas was breaking into cars. Thomas was beaten and tased so severely by six officers that he died as a result.

Shoot first and ask questions later

Next let us take a couple of cases of police violence publicized on the website. Lisa Mahone of Hinsdale, Illinois writes:

I, my two children and my friend Jamal jumped into the car to get to the hospital to visit my mother, who was near death. In the rush, I didn’t think to put on my seatbelt and was pulled over by Hammond police officers. I offered my license, insurance, etc. to the officers, and Jamal provided a recent ticket with his identifying information since he didn’t have an ID with him. They refused to take Jamal’s information, and that’s when things quickly took a turn for the worse. The officers drew guns on us and the kids in the back seat. I was afraid for my life and called 911. Jamal asked the officers to call a supervisor. After ... nearly nine minutes the police officers ... smashed in the passenger side window, spraying glass all over the children in the back seat and tasing Jamal. The officers pulled Jamal out of the car, threw him to the ground and falsely arrested him for “resisting law enforcement.” 

Here is an account of the other incident:

On January 3, 2015, my son John Paul Quintero was shot and killed by police. He was 23 years old and unarmed at the time of the shooting. I watched him die in front of me. 

I received a call that John had been drinking at a birthday celebration and a fight began between him and his cousin's husband - there was a knife involved and family members called 911 to ask for help. I arrived to the house before the police and was able to talk to John and completely diffuse the situation. It was unfortunate that this fight happened but it was the result of intoxication and something we were all able to work out. 

I was sitting in my truck with John Paul when the police arrived. Instead of trying to talk with us about what happened, police immediately escalated the situation and pointed a rifle at both of us. Within moments, John Paul, who had his hands in the air, was tased by one officer, causing his hands to drop down. 

Almost immediately after this happened I heard the shots. An officer, using her high-powered rifle, shot John Paul twice in the chest, later claiming she thought he was reaching for his waistband. She shot him before his body could even fall to the ground after being tased.  

It's undisputed that my son was unarmed when he was shot and the knife in question was left in the house. Yet the Wichita Police Department is trying to smear John's name, saying he was belligerent and wouldn't comply with officers, though multiple witnesses said they saw him with his hands raised.  

Enough incidents have already been described for us to make the following generalization. Police do not assess the level of risk inherent in a situation, but always act as though the level of risk were high. They do not try to defuse a conflict by nonviolent means or even allow others to do so. Instead they resort immediately or almost immediately to violence – violence that often has lethal results, even when the weapons used (tasers, beanbag rounds, etc.) are designated as nonlethal. The motto seems to be: “Shoot first and ask questions later” – if at all.

If more people were fully aware that this is the regular pattern of police behavior, they would know that calling the police in a dangerous situation is likely to make it even more dangerous. They would also know that attempts to address on-duty police officers as though they were normal human beings are likely to trigger a violent response: the best chance of survival is to obey their orders right away, without arguing, and always carry proper ID.

Such a pathological pattern of behavior in an occupational group does not have much to do with the personal defects of individuals. It must be traced back to the way in which the police are trained. Police officers should certainly be held to account for their actions, but the main responsibility for police violence lies elsewhere – with those who set the goals and design the methods and programs of police training.  

The militarization of policing

There is good reason to think that the basic reason for the rise in police violence is the trend of recent years toward the militarization of policing. (9) Policing has been re-conceptualized as a form of warfare, as reflected in expressions like “the war on drugs” and “the war on terror.” The police are trained in quasi-military tactics and kept in constant combat readiness; this is why they maintain a high level of nervous tension quite inappropriate for everyday policing tasks. Under the federal government’s 1033 Program, which permits the Pentagon to give the police military hardware, local police departments have acquired machine guns, camouflage and night vision equipment, armored cars, and even aircraft. With all this equipment on their hands, they naturally try to think up ways of using it.       

One important vehicle of militarized policing is the SWAT team. (10) SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. The SWAT team, which resembles a special unit of commandos, was originally devised to deal with real emergencies like hostage taking and mass shootings. By 2012, however, the majority (62%) of SWAT team deployments were to search for drugs.

This is what it can mean to have your home raided by a SWAT team:

On the basis of a secret informant’s report that a relative of the householder (who did not in fact live there and was later arrested elsewhere) was selling meth, a SWAT team raided a house near Atlanta, Georgia to search for drugs and threw a flash-bang grenade that landed in a crib, nearly killing a baby. No one was held responsible or paid over $800,000 in medical bills. (11)

In whose interests?

What interests underlie the trend toward the militarization of policing?

Certain special interests are easy to identify. Defense contractors can increase their profits by supplying their products to the police (even if indirectly) as well as to the armed forces. Politicians who promote the militarization of policing can earn campaign contributions from these defense contractors, (12) in addition to deriving any electoral benefits to be had by appearing “tough on crime.” 

Matters are less clear-cut when the issue is examined from the point of view of the general interests of the capitalist class.

On the one hand, our masters may rely on militarized policing to deter and subdue social unrest. It is surely no coincidence that police work has undergone militarization during a period also marked by economic crisis, austerity, high unemployment, and increasing social inequality.

On the other hand, the rise of a movement of mass protest directed specifically against police violence may prompt the more rational members of the ruling class to ponder whether the strategy of militarization may not be proving counterproductive. It is clearly less effective than expected in intimidating the subject population; it is provoking rather than deterring unrest. Persistent mass protest may therefore halt and then roll back the process of the militarization of policing, stimulating a revival of more “normal” approaches to police work such as “community policing.” Indeed, the first tentative signs of such a revival are already discernible. (13)  



(2) I have not tried to cover the specific issue of violence against suspects after they are arrested and taken into custody.

(3) Nonfatal injury rates in 2013 were 8.8 per 1,000 for police officers, as compared with 20.8 per 1,000 for nursing assistants, 23.2 per 1,000 for firefighters, and 24.1 per 1,000 for orderlies (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics).  

(4) An incident in Golden Valley, Minnesota in 2005 illustrates how police officers conflate the concepts of “criminal” and “black man”: after two separate callers had informed the police that a local bank had been robbed by a white man, officers proceeded to a nearby gas station and arrested Al Hixon, a dark-skinned black man who was refueling his car. He was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed in his eyes and nostrils. The officers were not disciplined.

(5) This is one of the points made by Jeffrey Smith, assistant professor of urban policy at the New School and former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, in his book Ferguson in Black and White (Kindle, 2014-11-21).

(6) According to an investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. See: Natasha Lennard, “Half of People Shot by Police Are Mentally Ill, Investigation Finds” (

(7) Emily Shire, “Worse Than Eric Garner: Cops Who Got Away With Killing Autistic Men and Little Girls,” The Daily Beast, December 4, 2014 (

(8) Chicago Tribune, August 2, 2013 (‪

(9) See: John Sprintzer, “Police Brutality and Oppression” (!police-brutality-and-oppression/c1f8n)

(10) For an analysis of the use of SWAT teams, see the recent report of the American Civil Liberties Union entitled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing (2014) (


(12) David Sirota, “Ferguson Police Militarization: Cash Flowed to Lawmakers Who Voted to ‘Militarize’ Police,” International Business Times, August 15, 2014 (  

(13) See, for example: Jerry Dyer, “A Return to Community Policing in Fresno,” The Fresno Bee, September 24, 2014 (

A correspondent in Russia comments: "Police violence exists wherever there are police. The inhabitants of Russia do not have to go far for examples. The author notes the racist bias in the actions of the American police. The Russian police also behave in a racist manner toward people of non-Slav appearance, or at least toward those of them who clearly do not belong to the bourgeoisie. Moscow police officers will not use violence against the respectable Mafiosi from the Caucasus who commit medieval outrages in broad daylight. In general, police violence assumes specific forms and targets specific groups in different countries, but this is of secondary importance compared to its class character."         

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