by Alice Salles
To famed and celebrated American author Mark Twain, there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. After all, facts are facts, and that’s all we need to rely on. Everything else is panis et circenses.
The notion that public policing has failed us is a fact — not a statistic. But looking at the numbers may help us attain a better understanding of where they have failed and what led these institutions to pursue policies that not only incentivize crime but also create it out of thin air — so much so that police officers are at the top of the list of threats the common American faces today.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, most homicides involve fewer than three victims. About three-quarters of all homicide victims are murdered by someone they know. But among those victims of homicide who aren’t familiar with the murderer, at least one third are killed by law enforcement, reports Granta, citing an analysis published by the Human Rights Data Analysis group.
Multiple incidents of police brutality have made the rounds in the media and people have taken to the streets to protest. Amid the outcry, the public was made aware that police departments often lack detailed information when it comes to the number of people killed at the hands of U.S. officers.
According to FastCompany.com, “[w]hen it comes to overall crime, there is a wealth of data available to law enforcement, governments, and researchers through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, … But the UCR is very crucially defunct in one metric: the number of incidents of homicide by law enforcement.”
The problem is that the government’s own database fails to include all deaths. Instead, it only reports the numbers of killings by police in what law enforcement considers to be justified. The collected data also includes the weapons used, but “non-justified police-induced deaths, … [or] all the deaths by police that [weren’t] deemed ‘justified’” are left out.
FastCompany.com also adds that “out of the 17,000 law-enforcement agencies in the United States, only 750, or 4.4% of them, submitted death-by-police data to the FBI in the most recent year available.”
According to MappingPoliceViolence.org, one of the organizations created out of the need to track and catalog these underreported deaths, police killed 1,152 people in the United States between January and December 2015.
To the author of Granta’s Violence in Blue, who has been documenting “mass killings by state agents in over thirty countries around the world,” the rates of deaths may vary from country to country, but what most have in common is the fact that “the data [they] are able to collect is always partial,” meaning that law enforcement organizations run by governments across the globe — including America’s — have a hard time keeping accurate data of killings committed by police officers. Why? According to Patrick Ball, “[v]ictims are afraid of retaliation and so they explain the deaths in other ways.” With governments playing hardball when it comes to tracking and disclosing these numbers, the lack of victims stepping forward makes it difficult for independent researchers do their job.
Ball adds that “state agents who commit mass violence make every effort to disguise their actions.”
“They influence coroners to describe the killings as accidents. They create narratives that distort responsibility so that it seems as though the victim is at fault for his or her own death. In their own narratives, police and military officials are keeping the peace and protecting innocents from the violent, the rebellious and the criminal. And in many cases, these narratives are correct. After all, the reason we consent to the existence of armed forces in our midst is precisely to keep us safe from these threats.”
But in some cases, deaths by officers happen because of accidents or because officers “used excessive force, or because their rules of engagement permit them to use deadly force whenever they feel their lives are threatened, for any reason.”
In America’s case, Ball suggests, individuals should be asking “at what point the violence committed by our protectors exceeds the violence we might suffer from the people they claim to be protecting us against?”
In asking this question, Ball makes a great point. State-run police organizations exist because we have always believed they were necessary. Considering reports indicate the most rapidly growing threats in America today are theft and violence perpetrated by police, would we be safer without these agencies?
In “The Broken Windows Theory of Policing Has Failed,” Ryan McMaken describes the popular theory of policing that has dominated American departments since the 1980s: if cops ignore minor violations it will send a signal to “others in the community that more serious crimes can be committed with impunity.” This theory was championed by George Kelling, the American criminologist and professor emeritus at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark. It may have helped prompt police agencies to adopt “forceful and deadly methods” to address small-time infractions, McMaken writes. At its core, McMaken adds, this theory and similar theories “depend on the idea that police interactions with community members should be expanded well beyond criminal activities while giving police officers more discretion over what laws to enforce, and when.”
In another article, McMaken makes another interesting point that seems to answer Ball’s question.
In present-day America, “[p]olice have become a general agency for dealing with minor neighborhood disputes such as unkempt lawns and children playing ‘unsupervised’ on their own property. One might call the police if a family member refuses to take his medication, or if a family member is suicidal but [poses] no threat to the community. These activities have no connection to ‘crime fighting.’”
But common Americans see the police as their go-to solution for issues unrelated to criminal activities without having to pay for it. As McMaken writes, “calling the police on neighbors or others in the community — including non-criminals — offers a low-cost means to intimidate or hassle others at nearly-zero cost to the one calling 911.”
His article poses the question: why do we get more policing than we need? And the answer, McMaken suggests, is that government-run policing is “free.”
Again, as with other aspects of policing, such as the drug war, incentives matter. If more individuals rely on police departments for minor incidents that could have otherwise been solved personally, police officers increasingly take on roles of aggressors in everyday life events and gain access to every aspect of our lives.
McMaken finishes his article by suggesting that “[i]n a world where police can be used to address every minor complaint, there will be no incentive on the part of the public to limit the use of police services to true emergencies and criminal behavior.” To the Mises Institute scholar, when people are no longer given the opportunity to rely on a free intermediary service, police officer’s aggressive policies will no longer be commonplace.
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