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How Big of a Deal is Police Brutality?

January 13, 2015

Whenever you get riled up about some injustice, it’s always useful to step back and ask “how important is this?”. Otherwide, you spend your time worrying about plane crashes and terrorism rather than heart disease. Police brutality is to the left what terrorism is for the right. It kills very few people, but triggers a strong emotional reaction. Because I follow many anarchist-leaning libertarians on Twitter and Google+, I see stories of police brutality nearly every single day on my social media feed, so it has a really high salience for me. But is it a major problem?

In total, in the U.S. there are around 16,000 homicides per year. There are about 1,000 people killed by police per year, so it’s not a major cause of death. According to the FBI’s report, about half of those are justifiable homicides. Not all homicides by police are categorized by the FBI, but all police homicides not explicitly ruled “justified” represent about 3% of all homicides. That rate is higher than the general population, but not a major cause of death. I realize these numbers are extremely rough, but they are to provide orders of magnitude, not exact statistics.

Source: Washington Post

Why is Police Brutality such a Faultline?
According to Kling’s Three Axes Model, conservatives frame issues on the Civilization/Barbarism axis. Things which support the orderly functioning of civilization are good, things which disrupt civilization are bad. Progressives frame issues in terms of Oppressors/oppressed. Those who oppress people are bad, the oppressed are good. When the defenders of law and order start oppressing people, get ready for some fierce political bickering.

Using Haidt’s 6 factor Moral Matrix, conservatives emphasize Sanctity, Loyalty, and Authority, whereas liberals emphasize Care and Fairness. To a conservative, we should be loyal to the police and respect their authority. Liberals focus mainly on the unfair treatment of minorities and the harm that that causes.

moral matrix

There are other philosophical objections. Cops are supposed to be upholders of the law, so they should be held to a higher standard than normal people. The legal system is biased in favor of police, and if you give someone impunity, there should be some other constraints to make sure they don’t run amok. I don’t think it’s healthy for any society to have a large group of people who are above the law.

Cross country comparisons
The vast majority of first world democracies have basically no one killed by police, except in extreme countries: Scandinavia, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Western Europe, Japan all have very low rates of police homicide.

On the other side of the equation, you have places like Russia and China. The Russians kill journalists, dissidents, and Chechens with gusto, yet still report American police’s bloodlust with glee. The one shining star of Russian journalism is pointing out Western hypocrisy.

I’d prefer the U.S. to be with the other well functioning democracies. It’s certainly possible. I don’t buy the gun culture argument either. Canada and Switzerland have high gun ownership rates and their police aren’t very violent. Some combination of body cameras, accountability, and culture change would probably drive violence by police and against police down. It’s important to note that violence by police has been trending downward, so the situation is far from hopeless.

Why are the American police more violent than other rich countries?

The drug war is probably the single biggest factor. Other types of crime have a victim, someone to alert the police to the fact that a crime has been committed. Even something as trivial as littering produces publicly observable evidence of the crime. Drug use is the one of the few crimes where everyone involved doesn’t want the police to find out. Even people who desperately want the drug users to stop using drugs, such as family members, want to conceal drug use from the police because the severity of the punishment. A mother who catches her teen using pot should be as terrified of the police as the teen, because she doesn’t want her child to spend the next decade in prison surrounded by violence criminals.

The stealthiness of drug users needs to be paired with an equal inquisitiveness on the part of police for the drug war to be remotely effective. The drug war has led to warrantless searches, asset forfeiture, no knock raids, and general corruption of the entire law enforcement system. Without the drug war, the necessity of the degree of law enforcement present in our society evaporates. Cops would be left to enforcing laws with actual victims, which are far fewer in number.

“Show me the man, and I’ll find you the crime” – Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD

Any time you have a law, that law needs to be enforced, and any interaction with the police involves some risk of death, both for the police officer and the citizen. So, I think the criminalization of everything is an unhealthy trend, especially with pervasive surveillance. If everyone is a criminal, and the government can prove it, they still aren’t going to actually arrest everyone. But they could arrest anyone. That leads to corruption and politically motivated law enforcement which is troubling in a democracy. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the law should be such that less than 10% of the population are criminals.

Culture and Racism
One of the questions that people seem very concerned about is whether or not the police are racist and whether or not the legal system is biased against African-Americans. There’s a lot of evidence for that hypothesis. While African Americans comprise 12.6% of the population, they make up around 40% of the prison population. While the various races have similar levels of drug use, African Americans are about three times more likely to be arrested for drug use. African Americans are more likely to have violence used against them by police as well, satirized by the Twitter hashtag #crimingwhilewhite.

But like any empirical issue, it’s complicated. If you account for poverty and education level, and a ton of other stuff, the legal system starts to look less racist, but then again it may not make sense if racism is the reason for the variables you are using as controls. I’m not an expert on this issue at all, but it does seem like African Americans are targeted by police violence more often.

If you know that, in general, your race is frequently on the receiving end of police violence, it makes sense to be overly polite toward cops. Some cops freely admit that they will hurt you at the drop of a hat. When you are interacting with a cop, remind yourself that it is a possibility that on the job violence is the reason why they took the job. Don’t mess with them. Know your rights. Keep your mouth shut. Follow directions. If you think they are doing something wrong, hire a lawyer and fight it in court.

In an ideal world, there would be far fewer interactions between police and citizens where either of them feared for their lives. We don’t live in that world, but we’re getting there.


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