The core problem with police is that the main tool they have for addressing any given problem is force or the threat of force. The police can arrest people (i.e., an act we would refer to as “kidnapping someone and throwing them in a cage” if it were done by an entity beside the state). They can whack you with a stick. They can shoot electricity into you. Or they can shoot you or choke you to death.
Sometimes, we want there to be a government agency that has the power to do these things. A couple of years ago, armed men broke into my apartment building after fleeing the scene of a robbery. One of them was wanted for murder, and climbed into the building’s attic, directly above my apartment. The police surrounded the building and raided it. I confess that when they pulled the murder suspect down from the attic and took him away, I was glad that the police had come.
But there are plenty of other situations where the police make everything worse, because what a given situation calls for is not someone whose primary tool is the use of violent force. In 2012, Robert Saylor, a Maryland man with Down syndrome, tried to see a movie twice without paying for a second ticket. When he was asked to leave, he refused and became agitated. Three off-duty police deputies came, and “despite Saylor’s caretaker’s warnings and pleas for them to wait and let her take care of it,” they wrestled him to the ground and ended up choking him to death.
In 2016, a behavioral therapist named Charles Kinsey was trying to help an autistic patient who had run away from his group home. When police came upon the scene, Kinsey, fearing a bad violent reaction from police in a tense situation, lay on the ground and put his hands in the air, explaining clearly to police that the patient was not armed, and was just holding a toy: “All he has is a toy truck. A toy truck. I am a behavior therapist at a group home.” A police officer, not bothering to listen to Kinsey, decided to shoot the autistic patient with the toy truck. Instead, he ended up shooting Kinsey in the leg. (The officer was found guilty of criminal negligence and given probation, though the conviction was later overturned.)
I do not need to recite more such incidents, because we are by now so used to hearing about them. The most recent horrific killing by police was that of Tyre Nichols, beaten to death by five Memphis police officers. The city has released horrifying videos of the incident that show officers punching and kicking Nichols, and hitting him with a baton. (“I’m gonna baton the fuck out of you!” one of them shouts before striking Nichols.) Nichols offers no obvious resistance, just moaning and flopping about like someone delirious from being beaten up.
The Nichols case is an extreme one—even the police aren’t defending it, with the local police chief saying that the tapes show “acts that defy humanity.” Those who insist that the police are unfairly maligned will present this as another Bad Apples case, claiming that exceptional cases do not indict police as a whole. But in that case, why do the majority of Black Americans report having bad experiences with police (including nearly half who felt their life was in danger) and say that they don’t have much confidence in police to be fair?1Have they all just had the misfortune of running into Bad Apple officers?
The wildly different reported experiences of Black people and white people with police officers should be all the evidence one needs to understand that there is a racism problem in American policing. There is also empirical research showing that in similar police encounters, Black people are more likely than white people to be pushed into walls, handcuffed, pepper sprayed, and have weapons pointed at them.
The problems go beyond racism, though. After all, the equal application of cruelty is not necessarily fair. The officers who killed Tyre Nichols were all Black, and while it is true that, as Van Jones pointed out, Black officers are not necessarily immune to racial bias just because they are themselves Black, it’s also the case that American policing is brutal for reasons that go beyond its racial biases. Robert Saylor, the man with Down syndrome killed in a movie theater, was white. So was Justine Damond, shot by a cop when they arrived in response to her 911 call and she approached the patrol car window. One of the most horrific police shootings I have ever seen is the killing of Daniel Shaver, a 26-year-old white man shot in a hotel room corridor. The officer played one of those absurd games of “Police Simon Says” (i.e., “Get on the ground! Show me your hands! Cross your legs!”) where if you don’t do exactly what the officer says in the exact way they want you to do it, they get very angry and violent. Shaver was intoxicated and found it hard to respond to the officers’ precise commands. When he made a sudden movement, the officer (who had “You’re fucked” engraved on his gun) shot Shaver five times. The officer said he had been menaced when Shaver crawled towards him; the tape later revealed the officer demanded Shaver crawl towards him. (The officer retired with a $2,500 a month medical pension, due to the PTSD he incurred from murdering an unarmed man.)
This is exactly the same sort of “heads we tase you, tails we tase you” cruelty you see in the Tyre Nichols tape. It’s not obvious whether he’s complying with their instructions, but it’s obvious that he’s confused and in pain and that as they bark commands at him (“Lie flat! Show me your motherfucking hands!”) they seem to be making it impossible for him to actually comply by all piling on top of him. Anyone who has ever had more than a few encounters with police will be familiar with this dynamic: officers assert their authority by barking things at you, and then if you’re confused or don’t immediately comply, they get angry and aggressive.
I spoke last year with Rosa Brooks, a law professor who volunteered as a police officer in order to better understand what policing looks like from within. She told me that one serious problem is that officers are not trained to do much except mechanically apply procedure, and force is one of the only tools they have available:
It was essentially operational and tactical completely—no discussion of anything other than, Here are the nine property forms, memorize them. Here is how you handcuff a prone person versus a kneeling person versus a standing person. Memorize it, because you’ll be given a multiple-choice exam on these defensive tactics. So that was the curriculum. Here is the law in D.C. on this; here’s the procedure for writing a ticket; here is how you administer a field test for drugs. The omissions were in some ways even more striking. I went through the police academy in 2016. And then, as now, the whole country was talking about policing—talking about policing and violence, policing and race. And there were huge protests in major American cities—not on the scale of 2020—but pretty big and significant. And the one place where it felt like we weren’t talking about any of those issues was the Washington, D.C. Police Academy, which was pretty mind blowing.
As a result, when officers are sent out into the world, they are tasked with dealing with incredibly tricky and sensitive situations that call for a lot of subtle psychological insight and compassion, but they haven’t been trained in conflict management or negotiation or cultural awareness or social psychology. They blunder into situations where the threat of using force isn’t what’s actually called for. Brooks elaborates:
If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Police don’t have a whole lot of options at their disposal in the sense that, if things are bad, you know, they can arrest people and stick them in a cage. But every decent cop knows that that probably won’t solve any problem and may actually create even more problems. It may very well be that, among arrests, the problem could be solved in some other way. I shouldn’t say solved, but addressed, at least in the short term in some other way. Like two people fighting. Sometimes you just need to separate them long enough for them to calm down. And an arrest is one way of doing it. It’s the tool that cops have. And so it’s what they do. But there should probably be other ways, right? Get people into mediation, get people into therapy—but those things often just aren’t there. We have our cages and we use them.
Brooks is actually quite sympathetic to the police themselves, who she sees as often making the best of an impossible situation. But she notes that the combination of force as a cop’s primary available tool and the fear that is instilled in police can be lethal. She points out that police are made to feel very afraid of the communities they police, to be constantly on guard against threats. “The unofficial message we got,” Brooks said, “was that anybody could kill you at any time.” She notes situations she was in that nearly went sour because of jumpy cops. At one house, a 17-year-old girl reached into her bag to get her phone to show the officer, and he yelled “Get your hands where I can see them, sit back down!” Brooks notes that this aggression freaked the girl out and that small interactions like that, which leave people “angry and humiliated and frightened,” have a huge impact on whether people are likely to want the police to respond to a situation.
Police are not just racist, then. They are also dangerous and ignorant in a more general way, because they are given lethal weaponry, told that anyone could be about to kill them at any time, given little training in compassionately understanding people, and sent out to solve a community’s most difficult problems. No wonder they kill unarmed people. It’s the same dynamic that led soldiers in the Vietnam War to kill civilians. They were young, scared, heavily armed, and viewed the country’s inhabitants with suspicion. Brooks points out the widespread cynicism among police, who often talk disdainfully of the populations they police. Part of this cynicism is difficult to avoid given the nature of the profession: police see the worst side of human nature—the aftermath of murders, rapes, and robberies. They see the results of gruesome accidents, and often do get PTSD as a result. But it’s also clear that we’ve set up a badly-designed institution. You don’t want a person who thinks all sudden movements are someone going for a gun to be responsible for handling delicate and tense situations. You want someone thoughtful and sensitive, for whom violence is a last resort. As Brooks notes, most of what police do on a given day doesn’t even involve responding to crimes, but “other issues such as people behaving disruptively or people getting into arguments.” Introducing an armed and jumpy person to such situations is the worst possible idea.
On the left, a favorite slogan is that All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB). I’ve never liked the phrase because it seems to treat the problem of policing as a problem of individual cops being awful people, which is highly misleading. As Nick Slater wrote in an essay for this magazine several years ago, the nicest person you know can become a cop and still end up murdering someone. (Slater’s high school friend was Jeronimo Yanez, apparently a very nice guy, who nevertheless went on to become the cop that killed Philando Castile. One can be perfectly nice and still possess the deadly combination of lethal weaponry, fear, and implicit racial bias.) The problem is with the institution. It may turn out that the five Black cops who killed Tyre Nichols were considered upstanding and beloved by their neighbors. But when they’re sent out to deal with traffic infractions using pepper spray, tasers, and batons, and told that everyone who isn’t subdued is a potential threat, the predictable result is deadly violence.
I am sure we will now see the revival of the conversation about “defunding” or “abolishing” police. Personally, I am someone who believes in building a world without police or prisons. But I think the “abolish” and “defund” slogans are somewhat misleading to people, because they suggest the necessary program is a negative one. I think what people hear when they hear “defund the police” is “just defund the police,” and I think then they get scared that when they call 911, nobody will come. Even though police often make a bad situation worse, there’s something truly terrifying about the idea that if someone broke into your house, you wouldn’t be able to call an armed public safety force to come and remove them. Everyone wants someone out there who will keep them safe, and I think “defund/abolish” does not emphasize the positive side of the radical program, which is all about alternatives to policing that are actually better at keeping people safe. I think when we start talking about creating alternatives to policing, about making sure every problem is addressed by the kind of institution that is best equipped to deal with it, we will get a more productive conversation on how to get police out of situations where they’re not doing anyone any good. After all, if you give people polls that simply ask them in a yes-or-no way whether they would like more police in their neighborhood or fewer, they tend to say more or the same. But that’s because the question is bad, and offers them only two options: force as a solution to social problems or nothing.
When I talked to Robert Peters, a democratic socialist legislator in Illinois, about how he frames his efforts to put more money into social services instead of policing, and how he responds to the concerns of residents who fear violent crime, he says he explains that violence happens because we have seen policing (i.e., force) as a substitute for building effective public institutions that provide basic social services that everyone needs:
That violence is an indictment on a status quo that for the last 30 to 40 years has failed to keep us safe, has been filled with false promises. And it’s because it’s built on cowardice from people in political power who don’t want to make the hard decisions about the fact that if you build more housing and keep schools open and you give people healthcare and you fund it at the local and state level by taxing the rich, you’re more likely to keep people safe. So in every effort, instead of having to do that, they said “We’ll just throw a hammer at it called criminalization.”
Peters says that when people point to kids shooting each other, advocate more arrests and more punishment, he replies “And then what?” You can hold a person in a cage forever if you like, but assuming you’re going to release them at some point, you need to address the factors that cause people to commit crimes, rather than just trying to use force after a crime has been committed. As Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, told Current Affairs, we need to get past the idea that policing is the only way to reduce violence:
So we have to decenter this idea that policing and incarceration are the only possible tools available to deal with the problems these communities face. And I think that idea is actually getting through. I think, increasingly, what we’re hearing in high crime and disorder communities, is that they want something other than policing to fix their problems. They want community-based anti-violence programs, they want non-police, mental health crisis teams, they want drug treatment on demand, they want harm reduction services, and they want jobs for their young people. And so if we can reach a point where the choice is no longer between police and corrections or nothing, where the choice is between police and opening up a new youth recreation center with trauma counseling and job preparation, then all of a sudden, we have a whole different set of political choices available.
We want everyone to feel safe in their communities. We want to reduce violence and victimization. But doing so requires addressing the root causes of crime. And recognizing that the institution of policing does not make us safe. U.S. police have killed at least 1,000 people every year since 2013, with the victims disproportionately Black and Native. Report after report on police departments across America has revealed patterns of extreme misconduct that are not the products of Bad Apples. They are the product of a badly designed institution that gives officers uniforms, guns, and handcuffs and instructs them (often) to target the most vulnerable people (the poor, the unhoused, Black people, and other people of color). Somehow, the public is supposed to believe that this is all done for our common safety.
Police cannot act as social workers, psychiatrists, counselors, or anything else. And they shouldn’t have to try to. Policing is a last resort. It’s what you do when you can’t think of a real solution to a problem, and so have to resort to handcuffs and cages. We need to get serious about finding effective alternatives to policing that are better at keeping everyone safe. It won’t be easy. But we can start by listening to what members of impacted communities are saying on the ground. As Memphis Black Lives Matter member and community organizer Amber Sherman put it on Democracy Now!:
“And I think it’s disgusting that we, as citizens of a majority-Black city, have these police officers intruding on us, on our regular, everyday lives, and we can’t get the basic things we’ve been asking for, but we can get more and more police officers. And that’s what the mayor has pushed for. The mayor has pushed for limiting residency requirements so that people who live further away can become police officers. They have offered bonuses. They’ve used a lot of the COVID funding for policing. But they haven’t actually addressed any of the real reasons why we have crime or higher crime rates in certain areas.”
We can’t have more cases like that of Tyre Nichols, and deaths like his come about not just because cops are racist, but because cops are cops, and for too long, our society has used policing as a way to avoid investing in communities.
The statistics are stark: “Most Black Americans, unlike white Americans, view cops unfavorably and disapprove of how police are doing their job. Seventy-two percent of white people say most officers can be trusted; only 32 percent of Black people agree. Seventy-seven percent of white people trust police to “promote justice and equal treatment for people of all races”; only 42 percent of Black people agree. Most white people have at least some confidence in the criminal justice system; most Black people have very little or none. Seventy-seven percent of Black people say police violence against the public is a very serious problem; only 36 percent of white people share that view.” ↩