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“An Outlier For All The Wrong Reasons”: What America’s Gun-Toting Cops Look Like To The Rest Of The World

From protests in Washington, the police shooting of an unarmed teen in suburban St. Louis looks tragic. From rallies in Los Angeles, the death of a man caught selling cigarettes in New York City looks baffling. From inside churches in Chicago, the police shooting of a black child with a toy gun in Cleveland looks heartbreaking.

Still, there’s often a weariness to these responses, a sense that excessive police force is both shocking and predictable at the same time. Which is why it’s helpful, every now and then, to remember what all of this looks like from abroad.

The Economist this week has penned a blunt editorial that captures how much of the rest of the developed world views the American criminal justice system and our particular brand of policing: “In many cases,” the U.K.-based magazine writes, “Americans simply do not realise how capricious and violent their law-enforcement system is compared with those of other rich countries.”

We forget that other countries (the U.K. included) often police without firearms at all. We don’t realize that other parts of the world maintain public safety without the high costs of over-incarceration. We don’t know — in a country where we’re bad at keeping such stats ourselves — that police killings of any kind are exceeding rare elsewhere.

From that foreign perspective, this is what our system looks like:

Bits of America’s criminal-justice system are exemplary—New York’s cops pioneered data-driven policing, for instance—but overall the country is an outlier for all the wrong reasons. It jails nearly 1% of its adult population, more than five times the rich-country average. A black American man has, by one estimate, a one in three chance of spending time behind bars. Sentences are harsh. Some American states impose life without parole for persistent but non-violent offenders; no other rich nation does. America’s police are motivated to be rapacious: laws allow them to seize assets they merely suspect are linked to a crime and then spend the proceeds on equipment. And, while other nations have focused on community policing, some American police have become paramilitary, equipping themselves with grenade launchers and armoured cars. The number of raids by heavily armed SWAT teams has risen from 3,000 a year in 1980 to 50,000 today, by one estimate.

Above all, American law enforcement is unusually lethal: even the partial numbers show that the police shot and killed at least 458 people last year. By comparison, those in England and Wales shot and killed no one.

The U.S. is an international model in a lot of ways, the magazine points out. But this is decidedly not one of them.


By: Emily Badger, Wonkblog, The Washington Post, December 12, 2014

December 15, 2014 - Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Police Shootings, United Kingdom | , , , , , ,

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