Today, questionable police killings of citizens are in the headlines daily. There is a clear pattern to these killings. Most of the time when an unarmed citizen is shot down or killed by other means by a police officer, the victim is usually black, male, young and poor. In the United States, race, class, and youth are risk factors for being killed by police as surely as obesity is a risk factor for diabetes.
I have become so inured to this reality that I was jolted when, on July 15 in Minneapolis, Mohamed Noor, a black policeman of Somali origin, shot and killed a 40-year-old white Australian-born yoga teacher, Justine Damond, for no apparent reason.
A shock to one’s assumptions can lead to new insights and, in this case, it led to this one: while race, class, and age are key determinants of who is most likely to be killed by a police officer, as the Damond homicide shows, everyone is at some risk of being killed unjustifiably by a cop.
The ultimate reason police in the United States kill so many civilians is because they can. I will explain this in more detail later. But first, let me lay out some things I have learned while researching this column:
- The number of police killings of civilians is at a 20-year peak.
- In 2016, police killed 963 civilians. In 2017, the trend lines suggest we will top last year’s figure.
- The number of police officers killed by civilians has been declining significantly over the long run, notwithstanding occasional spikes.
- Since the number of police officers has increased steadily over the same period, the probability that an officer will be killed on duty has declined even more sharply than the total numbers.
- The pattern of impunity for cops who kill civilians continues to be virtually an iron rule. Prosecutors are loath to charge officers. Other cops are equally averse to testifying against comrades in blue. Juries in homicide trials against cops behave much like the O.J. Simpson jury did but in reverse. They identify with the cops and disdain the victims, while the Simpson jury identified with the defendant and disliked both the cops and the prosecutor. They ignore evidence as compelling as videos of homicides or beatings perpetrated by police and, in the Simpson case, the jury discounted the DNA evidence. They almost always acquit the cops even when there is a videotape showing a savage clubbing of a subject on the ground, as in the Rodney King case. In countless television shows and movies, cops are the good guys. Americans uniquely have a love affair with their police forces. They seize on the thinnest of rationalizations to acquit. The bar for convicting a police officer even of second-degree murder is higher than the high-jump world record.
- Police in this country kill significantly more civilians per capita than police in any other advanced country.
The reasons why cops kill without justification and get away with it are complex: institutional, racial, economic and more. But the factor least considered and probably most important is cultural. I know I am going out on a limb, which many people would be happy to chop up, with what I am about to say.
There is a strong militaristic streak in American culture. While fortunately there is a bright red line between police and military functions, there are many points of intersection. Many in the military become police officers after leaving the service. Both police and the military are authoritarian organizations ruled BY a strict chain of command.
Authoritarian organizations both attract and breed authoritarian mentalities. Prima facie evidence: veterans favored Donald Trump 2-1 in 2016 and Trump was endorsed by both a national police union and the border patrol union. Both police and military make a strong distinction between their ranks and civilians, who are outsiders to the police/military culture. Every culture is suspicious of outsiders, not least the police. The more the social distance—a sociological measure of how people feel about others who are different from themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, class and so forth—the greater the suspicion.
All these variables are important in understanding the all-too-widespread phenomenon of unjustified police killings of civilians. Ultimately, however, the imbalance in power between an armed authority figure and a citizen is crucial.
Also crucial is the police’s wariness about those located far from the blue line in terms of social distance.
Important also is that some officers, with an overdose of the authoritarian mentality, feel the need to assert their dominance and authority no matter what or how.
Most important of all is the knowledge that, while they may be despised in some quarters, they are honored, even beloved in most communities. The force, the justice system and, crucially, the law-abiding public that sits on juries all have the cops’ backs.
Outsize levels of police killings of civilians in the United States compared with other countries are the result of complex factors. But it is possible to construct a coherent narrative to explain the facts.
Impunity encourages officers to risk civilian lives if they think there is even the smallest chance there might be a threat to their own lives. The Minneapolis case is an extreme example: the cop heard a loud noise and fired at an unarmed woman posing zero threat, killing her. Just in case.
I have zero sympathy for this. You enlisted in the police by choice. Assume the risk and don’t put innocent civilian lives in peril unless you are very sure there is an imminent threat to life. If by doing so you get killed, I would be sorry but innocent civilians didn’t sign up to be in the line of fire and you did. Own it. If you must risk your own life to ensure that you won’t kill an innocent, just do it.
To serve and protect is the motto of most police departments in the United States. The majority of officers uphold this principle or at least try to. But there is an even more powerful undercurrent in police culture that says, above all save your skin, shoot first, and ask questions later.