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“The Ideology Of Policing”: After Ferguson, Can We Change How American Police React To Potential Threats?

The story of Michael Brown and Ferguson, Mo., is not over, even if the city is calmer today than it was just after the decision not to try officer Darren Wilson was announced. As we look for lessons about race, power and justice, we also have to ask some fundamental questions about the ideology of policing in the United States.

One of the defenses people have offered of Wilson’s decision-making on that day is that if a police officer fears for his safety, he is allowed to use deadly force. And that is indeed a standard, in one form or another, used by police departments around the country. But that standard is near the heart of the problem that Brown’s death has highlighted.

American police kill many, many more citizens than officers in similar countries around the world. The number of people killed by police in many countries in a year is in the single digits. For instance, in Britain (where most officers don’t even carry guns), police fatally shot zero people in 2013 and one person in 2012. Germany has one-quarter the population of the United States, and police there killed only six people in all of 2011. Although official figures put the number killed by American police each year around 400, the true number may be closer to 1,000.

The most common explanation is that since we have so many guns in America, police are under greater threat than other police. Which is true, but American police also kill unarmed people all the time — people who have a knife or a stick, or who are just acting erratically. There are mentally disturbed people in other countries, too, so why is it that police in Germany or France or Britain or Japan manage to deal with these threats without killing the suspect?

This is where we get to the particular American police ideology, which says that any threat to an officer’s safety, even an unlikely one, can and often should be met with deadly force. We see it again and again: Someone is brandishing a knife; the cops arrive; he takes a step toward them, and they fire. Since Brown’s death, at least 14 teenagers have been shot and killed by police; the weapons they were wielding included knives, cars and a power drill, all of which can be obtained by European citizens, at least as far as I know.

If you’ve read parts of Wilson’s account of his confrontation with Brown, you know that the justification so commonly made in cases like this — I was afraid for my safety, and therefore I killed him — is the basis of his defense. You don’t have to be convinced that Wilson should be tried for murder to find his version of events absurd at every level, starting with the assertion that he politely inquired if Brown and his friend might consider walking on the sidewalk, only to be met with a stream of invective and an unprovoked assault from this “demon” with superhuman strength.

Maybe that really is what happened. But it seems much more likely that, as the account of Brown’s friend goes, Wilson began the encounter by shouting at them to “Get the [expletive] on the sidewalk” — in other words, seeking to establish his authority and dominance. This, too is part of police ideology: that one way to keep safe is to make clear to those you interact with that you are the one in control and that they should fear you.

Two months ago I interviewed an expert in police training procedures around the world, and she pointed out that in many other countries, particularly in Europe, future police officers go through much more extensive training than American police do, a large part of which is learning how to calm down agitated people and defuse potentially dangerous situations. American cops, she said, average only 15 weeks of training before getting their badges. Even after they’re on the job, they continue to be inculcated with the idea that in a situation with a potentially dangerous individual, they need to be ready to kill to protect themselves.

Much of the focus of discussions about Ferguson has been, quite properly, on race. And race matters to this question as well; we know that cops are more likely to see black people as potential dangers to their safety. But the question is whether, even beyond the differences in how different groups are treated, we can change the way so many American police approach confrontations, both actual and potential.

Of course, this is easy for me to say. Nobody’s going to wave a knife at me while I sit in front of my computer every day. Being a cop is hard and dangerous work, particularly in places where crime is common. Most officers are never going to fire their guns in the line of duty. Even in Ferguson itself, there are officers trying to approach people as people and not as potential threats. But the fact that police all over the world manage to do the same job while killing barely anyone, while American cops kill hundreds of people every year, means that something is wrong with American policing.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, November 28, 2014

December 1, 2014 - Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Gun Violence, Police Officers | , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. They should train how to be ninjas. The problem here is almost everyone owns a gun. And it’s going to be more of a problem if the state has open carry laws.

    Like

    Comment by renxkyoko | December 1, 2014 | Reply

    • You’re absolutely correct. I like the ninja idea though!!

      Like

      Comment by raemd95 | December 1, 2014 | Reply


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