Crime’s Down, So Why is Police Aggression Increasing?

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New York police attack unemployed workers in Tompkins Square, 1874

New York police attack unemployed workers in Tompkins Square, 1874

You might not know it from watching TV news, but FBI statistics show that crime in the U.S.—including violent crime—has been trending steadily downward for years, falling 19% between 1987 and 2011. The job of being a police officer has become safer too, as the number of police killed by gunfire plunged to 33 last year, down 50% from 2012, to its lowest level since, wait for it, 1887, a time when the population was 75% lower than it is today.

So why are we seeing an ever increasing militarization of policing across the country?

Given the good news on crime, what are we to make of a report by the Justice Policy Institute, a not-for-profit justice reform group, showing that state and local spending on police has soared from $40 billion in 1982 to more than $100 billion in 2012. Adding in federal spending on law enforcement, including the FBI, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Agency and much of the Homeland Security Department budget, as well as federal grants to state and local law enforcement more than doubles that total. A lot of that money is simply pay and benefits. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the ranks of state and local law enforcement personnel alone swelled from 603,000 to 794,000 between 1992 and 2010. That’s about two-thirds as many men and women as the entire active-duty US military.

What these statistics make clear is that policing in America is ramping up even as the crime rate is falling.

To the advocates of militarized policing, this just proves that more and better-armed cops are the answer to keeping the peace. But former corrections officer Ted Kirkpatrick, like many experts in the field, warns against jumping to this conclusion: “Police will of course say crime is down because of them,” he tells WhoWhatWhy, “but they have a vested interest in saying that.”

Kirkpatrick has the credentials and training to look beyond statistics and simplistic answers to the underlying social forces at work here. In addition to his years of law enforcement experience, he is a homicide expert in the Department of Clinical Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and Co-Director of the university’s Justiceworks program, a think-tank specializing in law enforcement and justice issues.

“When something goes sour, like an increase in crime,” Kirkpatrick says, “everyone looks for a way to explain why. Yet when things go well, like this long-term fall in the crime rate, nobody bothers to look at why.”

Surprising Reasons for Drop in Crime Rate

Militarized “pro-active” policing may have had some effect on the drop in crimes in the US. But Kirkpatrick says, “I don’t think it’s the big thing.” Crime is down even in many cities where police forces have been cut for budget reasons, and experts agree that the decline in crime began before the militarization of policing really started to take off.

Other factors likely play a bigger role. One is increased immigration since, contrary to common belief, communities with greater numbers of immigrant families show the biggest drops in crime thanks to those families’ “stronger social fabric.” Another factor is an aging population—older people commit fewer violent crimes.

So what’s behind the push to put more police on our streets, with ever more impressive military equipment, while training them to behave like occupying troops in Iraq or Afghanistan?

One might assume that the militarization of American law enforcement began after the national trauma of 9/11. But, in fact, its roots go back decades earlier, when media stories in the 1970s created the impression that the nation was awash in illegal drugs.

An aroused Congress passed a “no-knock” law in 1970. The law allowed police to conduct drug searches and arrests by entering homes without first presenting a warrant. President Nixon’s declaration of his War on Drugs a year later led to an exponential increase in warrantless drug searches, with an inevitable emphasis on military-style policing.

SWAT team actions soared from hundreds annually in the 1970s to thousands a year in the ‘80s to 40,000 a year by 2005, according to a report by the libertarian CATO institute. The author of that report, and academic experts studying the issue, now estimate there may have been as many as 70,000-80,000 such raids in 2013 alone. Hard figures are not available: the Justice Department does not keep records on SWAT-team usage.

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The 9/11 Effect

On top of the increase triggered by Nixon’s War on Drugs, President George W. Bush’s War on Terror in aftermath of 9/11 gave a dramatic boost to the militarization of American police forces.

“There has been a clear escalation of violence by police, particularly since 9/11,” says Brigitt Keller, who heads up the National Police Accountability Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “The willingness of police to use very harsh measures against people has definitely increased.”

A big part of the problem, she says, is that these days “officer safety” is given primacy over “protect and serve.” A case in point: a South Carolina sheriff’s deputy in February shot and seriously injured a 70-year-old man at a traffic stop when the man tried to retrieve his cane from the back of his pick-up truck. The Sheriff’s Department said the deputy acted “appropriately,” as he had “a legitimate fear” that the cane might have been a long rifle.

In another recent example, New York City police shot and injured an unarmed man who was acting “erratically” in Times Square. The officers were exonerated, while the man they shot was charged with causing injury to several bystanders—who were hit by the police officers’ stray bullets.

“I’m all for police officers not getting hurt on the job,” says the Lawyers Guild’s Keller, “but if you make that your first concern, then it’s problematic, because you allow the use of deadly or excessive force in practically every situation between an officer and a citizen, and you end up with citizens getting hurt.”

In fact, while being a police officer has been getting less dangerous, killings committed by police have been rising despite the drop in police who are killed.

The numbers are eye opening. The Justice Department, which keeps all kinds of statistics on violent crime, does not tally up individuals killed annually by police. But by combing public news reports and other sources, the Justice Policy Institute has estimated that police officers in the U.S. killed 587 people in 2012 alone. Over the course of a decade, they’ve tallied more than 5,000 people in the U.S. during that period—far more than the number of people who lost their lives in acts officially classified as terrorism in roughly the same span.

The many instances of deadly police violence captured on video give a visceral reality to these statistics. They show police beating and sometimes needlessly shooting citizens—even those with their hands up or armed only with a knife or stick while standing too far from responding officers to pose a threat.

In some jurisdictions, police have responded to these damaging videos by routinely confiscating bystanders’ cell phones and threatening witnesses with arrest, even though federal courts have consistently held that citizens have a right to photograph and videotape officers engaged in police actions.

The National Police Accountability Project’s Keller suggests that, along with the public’s acceptance of military-style policing, the killing of civilians has become more acceptable too. Police are rarely punished for killing people—even those who were unarmed or already restrained—because in most communities, police shootings are investigated by the police themselves, or by a closely-allied district attorney’s office. Indeed, about 95 percent of police shootings end up being ruled “justified,” a statistic that hasn’t changed as the body count has risen.

“I think when non-targeted individuals are killed in a raid, or when a person is shot in the course of a routine traffic stop, it’s seen as a kind of ‘collateral damage,’” Keller says, “instead of as some tragic or criminal use of excessive force by police.”

Public indifference to “civilian” casualties in police actions highlights a disconnect: The public perceives rampant crime while the actual crime report suggests nothing of the sort.

This fundamental misapprehension seems to be fueling the continuing political push for more police and tougher policing. While the militarization of law enforcement has little or no relation to the falling crime rate, there is reason to fear that it is eroding our constitutionally protected rights under the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

“I’m not sure that spending money on more police, on Kevlar suits and on things like armored vehicles is the most efficient thing to do,” says UNH’s Kirkpatrick. “It might be better to spend it on Big Brother/Big Sister-type programs and other kinds of services for kids. The trouble is, we generally implement public policy based on sentiment, not logic or statistics, and thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and its really quite dramatic reports on crimes, the average Joe or Jane thinks that things have gone nuts.”

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28 responses to “Crime’s Down, So Why is Police Aggression Increasing?”

  1. Mr Indie says:

    And why we should we the people need the police? Why not learn to communicate in our neighborhoods and police ourselves fer christ sake? If we did then the cops like they where a hundred years ago would be used as a secondary layer of authority.
    The police force has its origins in Scotland Yard: the coppers were the hounds sent out by the wealthy when the Irish or Scotch workers would protest because of slave wages.
    The police in America for the most part are uneducated knuckle-dragging thugs(most do not know the Bill of Rights or common law) who DO NOT respect the citizens they serve and get off the hook from going to jail when they murder innocent citizens. Our judicial system is rife with the stench of betrayal. Instead of protecting WE the people the judges placate the wrong doings of the order takers/police! Its vomit inducing!
    The entire justice system in this country is run poorly and I won’t even get into privatization of the prison system – a whole can of worms in and of itself.

  2. FATSO MAGEE says:

    Who’s the publisher ?

  3. Occupytheplanet says:

    But eventually people patience of POLICE BRUTALITY will began to deteriorate and revenge will occur!

  4. elarem says:

    The rise of police brutality happening all over the country at the same time because of 9/11 causes me to suspect that police departments got orders from on high (Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft) giving them permission to be firmer with the public. I think this because massive amounts of money being paid out in lawsuits against the police doesn’t deter them from acts of brutality. Their collective rear ends are being protected by those from on high. This is part of the Bush/Cheney legacy of violence and murder that is still going on.

    • Ricky Moore II says:

      The destruction of the United States constitution and the implementation of fascism in this country have long been planned by members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a political country club where Bush, Obama and the Clintons can shed their coats of deception and talk about how best to crush We The People.

  5. buster says:

    I think the American, police forces are in fact gearing up for any future unrest, in case the population eventually have enough of dorporations running America, and decide to re teke democracy.

    • shaun h says:

      Bingo, occupying foreign countries is practice for squashing domestic insurrection

    • buster says:

      firstly, any nation must have control of their indigenous population. Otherwise anarchy would rule. So we control populations by common laws, applicable to, or in the main, the majority of the citizens. Secondly, they use different forms of coercion to enforce those laws. Secondly, all nations wish to fulfill their hedonism, and of course, the ruling elites, have taken a larger share of those hedonistic ambitions, and aspirations. Think like an ant? The queen ant rules the colony, the workers just work and do as they are constructed to do build the colony and feed the colony, but there is a disproportionate sharing of resources, just like humanity. Humanity, or the ruling elites of humanity.have pursued their self interests by killing those that stand in the way of their aspirations, since time immorial. They have used the passive bodies and minds of us the workers to fulfill those goals. We are bombarded daily with a kind of re inforced thinking that constructs our perceptions of our constructed reality. We think inside the box that they have spent centuries creating. very few think outside the box, if you do, you are deemed to be erroneous in thinking or a direct threat to their control. Ergo, force..

  6. IMPOed says:

    Two words, “Homeland Security”, permission to create a civilian standing Army, in addition to our already standing Army, MIC, both of which were denounced by our founding fathers, don’t you just love “our” country?
    Oops, it isn’t ours anymore, it belongs to the .01%!!

    • Trump Supporter says:

      Some say that this is springtime and cops get crazy this time of year but anytime, things are either good or bad. Don’t you agree?

  7. BigGuy says:

    Crime is down, but anomie is up. Police over aggressiveness provides purposefulness, enhances group cohesion, and improves morale; its all good for the police force, (nearly) all bad for the public. That good would be much better accomplished by the police playing in ball games outside of work, not busting heads while at work.

  8. 2wheelsonly says:

    Bullies with Badges
    never a good thing…

  9. Ken says:

    Simple to understand. Fed prints money at will. Gives it to policing organizations like the CIA, local law, etc. This creates an American Stasi to continue the elite’s eugenics agenda also known as Agenda 21 to reduce the “excess population”

  10. edwinvieira says:

    The para-militarization of police forces has nothing to do with a “fundamental misapprehension” on the part of the public or of anyone else. It is driven by the quite accurate apprehension of the political elite and their controllers that this country is headed, inexorably, towards a national economic crisis, manifesting itself in depression, hyperinflation, or most likely the latter followed or accompanied by the former. This will result in massive economic chaos, social dislocations, and civil disobedience, with radical political overtones, for which the response of the political elite will be “martial law”. In order to provide the necessary “boots on the ground” for a nationwide imposition of such a crack-down, the Local and State police and related “law-enforcement” and “emergency-services” people must be turned into little “standing armies”, and deployed to displace traditional civilian law-enforcement and normal judicial processes. This is one of the abuses and usurpations for which the Declaration of Independence denounced King George III. Of course, on that basis, as well as many others, it is completely unconstitutional. So the real problem here is the coming breakdown of all legitimacy in the governmental apparatus at essentially every level of the federal system–which, ironically enough, is being engineered by the apparatus itself, perhaps intentionally, perhaps inadvertently, but in any event stupidly. For once legitimacy is lost, no amount of “martial law” will hold the system together for very long, as very few people will consider “martial law” lawful. The stability of “the rule of law”, after all, depends upon large numbers of people acting lawfully on their own volition, because they accept the law as justified, not because someone threatens them with a gun. Once those large numbers cease to consider the system morally, politically, and legally justified, “all bets are off”.

    • walleryia says:

      To condense;
      DHS was created to take over local Police and Military.
      Watch it happen, because it IS happening.

  11. goingnowherefast says:

    Just wait until the dollar collapses and the streets are filled with angry people. We are being conditioned for the big crack down.

  12. Guest says:

    Abortion and birth control reduces the number of unwanted children born. Unwanted children have a chip on their shoulder and grow up to be antisocial – can you blame them? It follows, the fewer unwanted children born the less crime in the world. But a lower crime rate does not necessarily mean a more loving or civilized world. A paradox.

  13. Hekje says:

    That’s the look of a fascist state.

  14. Jay_Sherman says:

    The REAL reason we are seeing such police brutality is the exact same reason it was used in Nazi Germany: To create FEAR and submission among the citizenry! “Do as you’re told!”. This is the classic definition of TERRORISM! That’s right….the ones who are always claiming to fight a “War On Terror” are the very ones using terror on their own citizens, to illegally squelch the little that remains of our Constitutional rights. WAKE UP PEOPLE! (And this is something that will not be curtailed through mere voting. As long as there are so many of our fellow citizens who are willing to pick up a gun and badge, and be mercenaries for an illicit government of traitors and criminals; and act unconscionably towards their fellow innocent fellow citizens, this will not end).

  15. Colonel Smedley Butler says:

    The infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the ensuing violence that Chicago PD heaped upon the hippies was my first recollection of ‘when’ this police brutality trend began in amerika. But then I remembered that Gen Douglas MacArthur, way back in 1917, was dispatched with a gun gang to murder returning WWI vets who were protesting benefits that were stolen from them. And lest we forget good old George Washington sent the army to slaughter Pennsylvania farmers who refused to pay the feds a whiskey tax. I think that whenever a man (unprincipled, immoral and spiritually lost) is given a gun and badge, he frequently will resort to violence. Remember–a certain type of man–sociopaths and sadists frequently–are drawn to careers that allow them to brutalize others. Perhaps this violence has always existed; it’s just that today we have cameras everywhere to record the abuse. Best Chinese advice: Avoid authorities at all costs.

    • pete says:

      you may want to check your history, colonel. ww1 (the great war, the war to end all wars) was still being fought in 1917. it ended on 11 november 1918. what you’re thinking of happened in 1932 and was called “the bonus army”.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonus_Army

    • JohnnyD says:

      Yes, and I believe the occasion for their visit to DC was to petition the government to award them their war bonuses early, because thanks to Wall Street, they were all destitute and starving.

      A testament to the street’s remarkable skill at engineering failures so as to undercut and gut our financial structure for their own profit.

      “Ruining the middle class on behalf of the rich, since 1912. Remember, we place profit before any consideration, no matter how vital, or how trivial, because we work for you! “**

      Some things never change.

      Nice moniker, Smedley! Another unsung hero, or at least one unsung for the right things!

  16. public_servant_watch says:

    I saw the change after the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle. Seattle’s police before that event could even be classified as “cool” and that is no longer the case. Police, much too often, are the instigator of what turns into an out of hand situation; deescalation of folks on the edge seems to be out of style. IMO, something is off, and whether that something is benign, such as changes to and/or more training, or something more organic not yet fully revealed is a relevant question. Many police officers are former military; what’s new and different in that realm?

  17. PigStateNews says:

    At least 952 people have been killed by U.S. police since May 1, 2013. More than several times that number have been shot and injured.
    https://www.facebook.com/KilledByPolice

    • stk33 says:

      Speaking of injured, the same author, Dave Lindoff, once investigated why the injuries as the result of police shootings are actually very rare; in practically all cases they kill. He found that it’s because the police everywhere is using hollow-point bullets, specially designed to do maximum damage to the body on impact. Those bullets are banned from military combat by Hague Convention of 1899, but are legal to use against your own citizens.

      That article is at http://thiscantbehappening.net/node/1125

    • Rocky Soil says:

      One reason police shootings tend to kill rather than wound is A. They tend to fire several rounds
      B. Piggies like to travel in gangs and once 1 gets oinking, they all start blasting.
      I think that has more to do with lethality than ammo choice in many of the shootings. Dead is dead, hollow points don’t make someone more deader. (Intended grammar)

    • JohnnyD says:

      And tasing someone for not immediately following an officer’s instructions is NOT, repeat, NOT torture. It just happens to hurt like hell, kill a few people who probably deserved it anyway, and gets people moving real fast, especially naked people, those with mental problems, old ladies, and kids.

      Well, if they regain consciousness, and are able to stand up again, that is.

      (Ohhhh, we were supposed to use them on the CRIMINALS? But why would we want to use one on a rapist, bank robber, or serial killer? Aren’t we just supposed to shoot them as a matter of course?)

    • Anti Fascism says:

      Quintessential “coward” is the essence of what could ever conceivably affirm the above madness.

  18. Orangutan. says:

    Investigate 9/11. Ask Questions. Demand Answers.

    • nicho says:

      Never mind 9/11. Investigate Pearl Harbor. That was an inside job.

    • Orangutan. says:

      I just think like the article says after 9/11 this police state shit really got ramped up along with our rights being taken away en masse. So I focus on that because I feel it is effecting us more.