America’s Police Problem Isn’t Just About Police

It’s about race, poverty, and sky-high levels of violence. Why is the United States such a global outlier?


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that America has a problem with racist police violence. “Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers,” the Guardian reported last week. There was Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland; Eric Garner in New York; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio — and scores of others. Behind each name, there’s a story, and those stories make for painful reading: 43-year-old Eric Garner was arrested for the heartbreakingly petty offense of selling single cigarettes on the street, while 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s only crime was playing with a toy gun while black. In Cleveland, that was enough to deprive him of the benefit of the doubt, and his life.

Police killings of African-Americans — mostly young, mostly male, and many unarmed — have sparked local, national, and global protests, court cases, and some overdue national soul-searching. But though the grief and outrage over these deaths isn’t misplaced, both media coverage and many Americans have been quick to jump on a simplistic explanation for the killings: America’s police are brutal and racist.

It’s tempting to blame everything on racist, brutal cops: If bad cops are the problem, the rest of us can go to bed with clear consciences and no need to look in the mirror. But the “bad cop” explanation is too simple. A closer look at the data suggests that America does not, in fact, have a problem with racist police violence — instead, it has several quite distinct problems with racism, policing, and violence. Or, to put it a bit differently, America has a violence problem, and a racism problem, and a policing problem. Too often, all three problems intersect, with results inscribed in blood.

Start with America’s violence problem. The whole world knows that America has a violence problem. In 2014, U.S. residents committed more than 14,000 murders, along with about 1.15 million other violent crimes. Some 68 percent of homicides involved firearms, which isn’t too surprising, since there are an estimated 270 million to 357 million firearms sloshing around the United States. If you’re wondering if that’s a big number, it is: Some studies suggest that between 35 and 50 percent of all civilian-owned guns in the world are in the United States.

Compare these figures to rates of gun ownership and violent crime in other countries, and the scale of America’s violence problem becomes clear. In Britain, there are only 6.6 guns per 100 people; in Germany and France, there are roughly 30 guns per 100 people. In the United States, there are somewhere between 88 and 112 guns per 100 people. The per capita U.S. gun homicide rate far outpaces other developed countries: It’s roughly three times higher than France’s homicide rate, four times higher than Britain’s, five times higher than Germany’s, and 13 times higher than Japan’s.

America’s violence problem has obvious implications for American police officers and how they think about their on-the-job encounters. British cops can safely assume that most of the people they see around them aren’t armed. In the United States, police officers often assume the opposite, and given the astounding number of guns around, they may be right to do so. In the United States, police have one of the nation’s most dangerous jobs: In 2014, the FBI reported that 51 law enforcement officers were “feloniously killed” in the United States, 46 by firearms (even though most were wearing body armor), and the overall occupational fatality rate among American police was 16 per 100,000. (That’s almost, but not quite, as high as the homicide victimization rate among African-Americans, which in 2011, the last year for which I could find data, was 17.5 per 100,000.)

To some extent, then, the high number of killings by American police isn’t a “police problem,” but a subset of America’s larger violence problem. American police are far too quick to use lethal force — and so are most of the rest of us.

But America also has a racism problem. The poisonous legacy of slavery and segregation is still with us. Centuries of overt discrimination have left African-Americans still struggling to overcome enormous race-based disparities in educational attainment, employment, health, and economic well-being. African-Americans have shorter life expectancies than white Americans; they’re more likely to be unemployed, less likely to finish high school or college, more likely to live in poverty, and more likely to end up in prison. Compared to whites, black Americans are more likely to be convicted if arrested for a crime and more likely to receive a harsh sentence than white Americans convicted of the same offenses. Overall, black men have a one-in-three chance of landing in prison at some point in their lives, while white men have only a one-in-17 chance.

America’s racism problem isn’t only a matter of the long-term structural impact of slavery and segregation: There’s still plenty of active and virulent race-based discrimination in American society. Some of it is overt — racial slurs flung at black students at the University of Missouri, for instance — while some comes from what researchers call implicit bias: prejudicial attitudes we may not even consciously know we hold. The legacy of past de jure racism can help explain broad economic disparities between whites and blacks, for instance, but only ongoing racial bias can explain studies showing that employers are less likely to hire job applicants with “African-American-sounding names” than applicants with “white-sounding names,” even when their resumes are otherwise identical. Similarly, only racial bias — deliberate or subconscious — can explain why “[y]oung white men with felony convictions are more likely to get called back after a job interview than young black men with similar qualifications and clean records.”

Even African-American children rarely get the benefit of the doubt. Tamir Rice is a particularly tragic case in point, but a 2014 report published by the U.S. Department of Education notes that as early as pre-school, black children are punished in school more often and more severely than their white classmates. Another 2014 study found that black children are assumed to be older and “less innocent” than their white counterparts. (A note on methodology here: College students and police officers were asked to look at photos of black and white children and assess their age and potential culpability; when shown photos of children and told that they were felony suspects, the college students overestimated the age of both the white and black children, but they overestimated the black children’s age by more than twice as much as they overestimated the ages of white children. Shown the same photos, police officers underestimated the white children’s age by nearly a year but made the same age errors as college students when assessing photos of black children, believing them to be, on average, about 4.5 years older than they actually were.)

America’s racism problem and America’s violence problem frequently intersect. All else being equal, black Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and given prison sentences than whites, and black Americans are also some three times more likely than white Americans to become homicide victims or victims of other violent crimes. To some extent, this is about poverty as much as it’s about race. According to a 2014 report from the national Bureau of Justice Statistics, Americans living in poverty were more than twice as likely to be the victims of violent crimes as Americans living in high-income households. (Did I mention that America has a poverty problem, too?) Rates of violent victimization were similar for poor blacks and poor whites, but in America, black families are three times more likely than white families to live in poverty.

Here again, all this raises a question about police killings of African-Americans. Does the disproportionate number of police killings of African-Americans reflect a police racism problem? Or is it just one of many manifestations of America’s deep and shameful societal racism problem?

America has a police problem, too. The United States has a patchwork of law enforcement agencies, including some 18,000 separate state and local police departments and 73 federal law enforcement agencies. The 18,000 departments include town and city police, state police, sheriff’s offices, university police, transport system police, and a range of other “special jurisdiction” departments — and these 18,000 police departments also have nearly as many different recruitment policies, training programs, disciplinary policies, equipment and weapons policies, and standard operating procedures.

Meanwhile, more than 600 different law enforcement academies offer training to would-be law enforcement professionals. While some academies are operated by municipalities and only admit new hires, other academies will admit any student willing to pay. In Washington, D.C., and New York City, police recruits have 28 weeks of full-time academy instruction before they can begin supervised patrolling; in Louisiana, the police academy lasts a mere nine weeks.

The content of police training also varies greatly. Some police academies operate more like colleges and emphasize community policing skills, while others adopt a military-style “boot camp” approach and focus mainly or exclusively on skills such as firearms use, criminal codes, and arrest procedures. Some academies train officers extensively in how to de-escalate tense situations and handle mentally ill citizens; others do not.

Unlike many other countries, America can’t really be said to have “a police force” at all: Instead, it has more than 750,000 sworn state and local officers and 120,000 federal law enforcement officers, but these officers operate within hundreds of different police cultures; enforce different municipal, state, and federal criminal codes; and have dramatically varying levels and types of training.

It shows. When you drill down on the statistics on police killings in the United States — a particularly useful database was put together by the Guardian — many don’t take place where you would expect to find them, if the problem of police killings was largely driven by race or violent crime rates. Wyoming now leads the nation in per capita police killings, for instance; in 2015, police in Wyoming killed six people out of a population of just 584,000. Coming in at a close second was New Mexico, where police killed 21 people out of a total state population of just over 2 million; in third place was Oklahoma, where police killed 38 people out of a total population of 3.9 million. Contrast these states with New York, where police killed 25 people out of a total population of nearly 20 million, for a per capita police-killing rate almost 10 times lower than that of New Mexico.

There’s no simple race or crime rate-based theory that explains why police in New York City, with one of the most diverse urban populations in the world, managed to get through 2015 with a far lower per capita rate of police killings than police in the more homogeneous, less urbanized and less densely populated states of Wyoming, New Mexico and Oklahoma — nor for why the Oklahoma City Police Department, which polices a city of 610,000, killed almost exactly the same number of people in 2015 as the New York City Police Department, which polices a city 13.7 times larger. Maryland, the state with the fifth-highest murder rate in the United States, ranks only 32nd for per capita police killings; Arkansas, with the 13th-highest murder rate, ranks 43rd for per capita police killings.

Some of this variance is surely due to differences in training and police cultures: For instance, a recent study of police shootings by the Washington Post found that nearly one-quarter of fatal shootings stemmed from a police encounter with someone suicidal or mentally ill, and in half the cases closely examined by the newspaper, the police agencies involved had “not provided their officers with state-of-the-art training to deal with the mentally ill.” As the United States has a higher mental illness rate than most other developed countries, lack of appropriate training may help account both for some of the regional variance and for the astonishingly high overall number of police killings. (Yes: America has a mental illness problem, along with a poverty problem, a violence problem, a racism problem, and a policing problem.)

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four American adults experiences some sort of mental illness each year, one in 17 experiences a “serious mental illness,” and severe mental disorders are experienced by an astonishing 20 percent of teens. Young males are the least likely group to receive treatment for their mental illnesses. Probably not coincidentally, young males are also the demographic group most likely to be both perpetrators and victims of violent crimes and thus to come into contact with the police. If police nationwide received more extensive training in handling those with mental illness, the number of police killings might be substantially reduced.

The same is true for training in how to de-escalate potentially violent situations. In some police departments, the trend has been toward ever greater militarization, and aggression is valued over diplomacy: A good cop is a cop who never backs down. But the stories behind so many police killings suggest that this can become a lethal habit. Sometimes, police killings are appropriate, even heroic — but other times, police killings come about when routine encounters turn suddenly tense, often for no reason beyond bad tempers or too much alcohol. In Oklahoma, for instance, state troopers shot and killed 35-year-old Nehemiah Fischer after warning him to abandon his flood-stranded pickup truck and move to safety. It was dark and the rushing water was noisy; Fischer apparently grew angry and shoved a police officer, and the officer’s partner shot him dead. Technically, the shooting was justifiable — but like the deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and so many others, it could likely have been prevented if police had been less quick to resort to lethal force.

Ironically, the United States has gotten fairly sophisticated about understanding what it takes to create a fair and effective national police force — in other countries, that is. Programs funded by the State and Justice departments send roughly 1,000 U.S. police officers abroad each year to conduct training missions in places ranging from Sudan and Liberia to Haiti, Kosovo, Guatemala, Afghanistan, and Lebanon; the United States also provides funding for police reform and U.N. civilian police units. When America trains and supports police in other countries, it places significant emphasis on the importance of clear and consistent national training standards, community engagement, and respect for human rights, accountability, and the rule of law. Too bad we can’t implement such national level reforms in our own country.

Still, there’s much we don’t know about the causes and correlates of police shootings in the United States. As Justice Department officials have acknowledged, the “official” statistics on police killings rely on self-reporting by police agencies and greatly undercount such deaths. Media outlets and nonprofits have made impressive efforts to fill in the blanks by researching local news reports and interviewing relatives of those killed, but in the absence of consistent national data collection methodologies, the information we have is often incomplete. In late 2014, Congress passed a law mandating reporting and data analysis of deaths in custody, but it only requires the reporting of barebones information (name, gender, race, ethnicity, and age of the deceased, time, date, and location, and “a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the death”).

That’s not enough. To get a clearer picture of police killings, we’d want to know far more: the age, gender, race, and years of experience of the officers involved in each death; the type of training they’d had; the number of prior excessive force or bias complaints they and their departments had; their departments’ procedures for investigating police-involved deaths; the size and demographic makeup of their departments, and so on.

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Most non-U.S. observers have little trouble recognizing police killings as a symptom of broad and interlinked societal failings, rather than a stand-alone problem. When street protests broke out after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira summed up her analysis in a tweet: “Racial profiling, social exclusion, territorial segregation, cultural marginalization. firearms, fear. fatal cocktail.” Portuguese press commentary decried how “militarized” U.S. police have become, and even the Iranians noted (surely with some schadenfreude) that “violence has become institutionalized in the U.S. in recent years.”

The Financial Times called the protests “a painful reminder of … enduring racial and economic tensions,” and China’s Xinhua News Agency added that “racial discrimination against African Americans or other ethnic minorities … still persists in every aspect of U.S. social lives, including employment, housing, education, and particularly, justice.” In 2015, police killings were also a central focus on the U.N. Human Rights Council’s review of U.S. human rights practices, with countries around the globe sharing the sentiment of the Mexican government, which urged Washington to “adopt measures at the federal level to prevent and punish excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against members of ethnic and racial minorities.”

Even jihadis have taken note: Last week, Somalia’s al-Shabab released a new recruiting video featuring images of police shooting black men alongside footage of the Ku Klux Klan, civil rights protests, and Donald Trump’s recent calls to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States. The video, which urges black Americans to join the jihad, includes images of al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a 2011 U.S. drone strike: “Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching and Ku Klux Klan, and tomorrow, it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps…. The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.”

Looking to the future, Britain’s Economist offered a grim prediction: “Unless America can either reduce its colossal gun ownership rates or fix its deep social problems, shootings of civilians by police — justified or not — seem sure to continue.” And it’s a safe bet that if America’s high rate of police killings continues, so too will international condemnation and internal protests.

Here in the United States, we need to open our eyes: Dismissing police killings as solely the responsibility of brutal, racist cops lets the rest of us off the hook a little too easily and makes us too quick to accept Band-Aid solutions — a prosecution here, an apology there, a redoubled effort to recruit more black cops somewhere else. Until we acknowledge that police killings are just one symptom of a host of broader societal problems, we’ll make little headway when it comes to meaningful reform.

America has a violence problem, and a racism problem, and a policing problem, and all of us share the responsibility. This thought makes most of Americans uncomfortable, but if we can’t force ourselves to face these various interconnected problems, the bodies will just keep piling up.

Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.