by Patrick Byrne
There are serious problems with policing in America. Police officers kill around 1000 Americans every year. Reports circulate of ties between far right militias and police officers. Police officers engage in racial profiling, stopping and searching black and Hispanic drivers at higher rates than white drivers. Due to the increased proliferation of video-recording technology, it is no longer possible to deny that a large portion of police officers in America abuse their power.
A central role of governments is to maintain a monopoly on the use of violence. By maintaining this monopoly, governments therefore reduce the overall level of violence in society. However, the government can only have a legitimate claim to this monopoly if it wields it justly and competently. Police play an important part in upholding the state’s monopoly on the use of legitimate force. However, they frequently wield this power recklessly, brutalizing non-resistant people, killing pets, destroying property, and even shooting unarmed individuals.
These are not essential elements of policing. Law enforcement officers in other developed countries do not do this. In Britain, around 4 people are killed by police officers every year. In Japan, around two individuals are killed every year. Even when adjusting for population size, no other wealthy country has even one-third as many annual police killings. The problem is uniquely American.
American police are abnormally violent when compared to other countries for many reasons. Firstly, police violence is correlated with overall levels of violence in society, and America is a uniquely violent country, with a homicide rate several times that of other wealthy nations.
Secondly, police are not held accountable when they abuse their power. Officers feel that they can get away murder because they literally can get away with murder. In one particularly egregious case, a police officer shot a man who was on the ground crying. After the shooting, the officer was given an early retirement on medical grounds (he claimed to suffer from PTSD after the shooting) and a $2,500 a month lifetime pension. In many other cases, police officers have avoided penalties for theft and property destruction. Police officers are unaccountable to the public, largely for two reasons: qualified immunity and police unions.
Qualified immunity refers to a portion of federal law which states that police officers are immune from civil lawsuits unless their actions violate clearly established law. At first, it may seem like a reasonable attempt to shield officers from frivolous lawsuits. However, as interpreted by courts, it means that it is not enough for a plaintiff to show that a police officer violated their constitutional rights. They must also demonstrate that conduct similar to the accused officer’s conduct had been found to be unconstitutional in a previous case. If no comparable case is found, the officer is immune from prosecution, even if they violated the plaintiff’s rights. This has led to absurd court rulings, with a district panel writing in one case that “At the time of the incident, there was no clearly established law holding that officers violate the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment when they steal property that is seized pursuant to a warrant” (emphasis added).
Police unions have also acted to insulate members of law enforcement from consequences for their misconduct. Unions in many departments have secured special privileges for cops. Some departments have “get out of jail free” cards, which officers can issue to friends and family to help them escape punishment for minor infractions. Another common privilege for police officers regards interrogations. In 16 states, there are restrictions on "how long an officer can be interrogated, who can interrogate them, the types of questions that can be asked, and when an interrogation can take place." In 11 states, officers facing investigation can get "access to information that civilian suspects don't get, including 16 cities that allow officers to review all evidence against them prior to being interrogated." Furthermore, according to George Mason Professor Alex Tabarrok, “in the unlikely event that a police officer is officially reprimanded, many states and cities require that such information is automatically erased after a year or two.” As a result, even those who are punished are unlikely to face long term consequences.
The consequences of police unions acting to shield officers from accountability have been sadly predictable. A 2018 study examined the impact of a court decision granting collective bargaining rights to sheriffs, finding that collective bargaining rights led to a 40% increase in violent incidents of misconduct. Economist Rob Gillezeau found that police gaining collective bargaining rights led to an increase in killings of civilians, concentrated amongst non-white individuals. Law enforcement unions protect officers from punishment, and officers behave accordingly.
Police reform is necessary. Minor tweaks are not enough, and the problem does not boil down to a few “bad apples” in the police force. However, despite the severe flaws of American law enforcement, defunding or abolishing the police would be a terrible mistake. Social science research suggests that police play a large role in reducing levels of violent crime. For example, a 2005 paper examined the impact of police of crime in DC. At the time, DC had a terror alert system. When on high alert, more police would be deployed on the streets, allowing researchers to show that crime tended to drop on days where more police were deployed. Another study in 2018 examined data in many large U.S. cities, and found that increases in the number of police officers led to decreases in violent crimes and property crimes. Police deter crime by shifting the incentives faced by would-be criminals. If potential law breakers perceive a higher chance of being caught, they are less likely to violate the law.
Supporters of more radical changes to law enforcement have argued that policing does not address the “root causes” of crime and disorder. This is true, but it doesn’t follow then that they are not beneficial. Increasing the amount of street lighting does absolutely nothing to combat the root causes of crime, and yet it reduces crime by 40%. Governments should target both the deeper causes of law-breaking, such as material deprivation, while also combatting the symptoms of that deprivation.
Another common point of criticism is that American police are overfunded, and that they deal with issues that would be better left to social workers. This has led to calls by activists to cut police budgets and distribute the money to other social services. It is true that police are stretched too thin. They are often asked to respond to mental health episodes that they have received little to no training for. This often results in unnecessary acts of brutality when officers panic and escalate the situation. The scope of cases in which police are asked to cover should be narrowed, allowing them to focus on violent crime and property crime, while social workers cover cases which do not require an armed presence.
This readjustment would require an increase in funding for social workers, but it would be a mistake to think this increase must come from a corresponding decrease in funding for police. Rather, local taxes should be increased to allow greater funding for both social workers and the police. Despite much talk about police in America being vastly overfunded, America spends less as a percentage of GDP on policing than the average country in the European Union does. Europe spends more on their police even though they have less to do, as Europe has lower rates of violent crime (the European homicide rate is 3.0 deaths per 100,000 people, while the American homicide rate is 5.8 deaths per 100,000 people). As a result of the additional funding, European countries can hire more cops and give them more training. In Germany, cops are required to undergo anywhere from 2 to 4 years of training. In America, basic training can last just weeks. American cops are thrust into situations they are unprepared for where split second life-and-death decisions are required. More funding is needed to increase the amount of training cops receive.
The suggestion that police are underfunded may seem absurd. After all, police departments around America have vast amounts of military equipment with no practical purpose. However, due to a Defense Department program, departments are able to receive this equipment while only paying shipping costs. These acquisitions of weapons of war mask the fact that departments are unable to pay cops adequately. The lower pay makes the job less attractive to potential cops, resulting in fewer applicants who are also lower in quality. In addition, fewer cops means that those who do remain are forced to do more work and work odd hours, perhaps explaining why cops commit suicide at a higher rate than the general population. Part of the issue with policing in America is that departments are unable to attract highly qualified applicants, with only 30% of the police force possessing a four-year degree. In addition, some departments deliberately reject high quality applicants, with one department rejecting an applicant for scoring too well on a test designed to measure intelligence. Local governments should move to ban departments from rejecting applicants for scoring too highly and increase salaries to attract better applicants.
Rather than seeking to reduce overall levels of funding, police reform advocates should focus on increasing accountability by abolishing both qualified immunity and police unions. One objection raised to police union abolition is that it could lay the groundwork for targeting other public sector unions. However, there is precedent for selectively targeting collective bargaining rights. In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, when eliminating collective bargaining rights for nearly all public sector employees, spared police unions - possibly due to their political support for him. There is no reason why a governor could not similarly target collective bargaining rights for police alone. Eliminating qualified immunity and police unions would go a long way towards creating a more accountable, less violent police force.
It has often been argued that America’s police are beyond reform. However, one only has to look overseas to see that a humane and just police system which works to protect rather than harass the communities it serves is possible. The police force in countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and Japan are not flawless. But they are better than America’s police, and show that accountability combined with proper funding and training produces good results.
Despite the massive problems with police in America, a better police force is possible if politicians are willing to stop being cowed by threats from police unions. The political moment is ripe for local mayors and legislators to restrict the privileges given to cops. This year has brought a spike in resignations by police officers due to an increasingly hostile climate. Many of law enforcement’s problems are a product of an institutional culture which encourages cops to stay silent about abuses of power they witness and inculcates an us-vs-them mindset towards civilians. The wave of resignations provides an opportunity to shift the internal culture of America’s police force by recruiting a more diverse and educated workforce.
Ultimately, there is no getting around the necessity of law enforcement. Every society needs armed individuals to maintain order. There has yet to be an example of a state that functioned in the long term without some form of law enforcement. Racism and brutality are not essential aspects of policing. A better path forward is possible for America’s law enforcement.
Have something to add? Disagree? Write a Counterview.
Patrick Byrne is a student at the College of William & Mary.