What is police brutality?
Police brutality is the use of undue or unnecessary force against civilians. It includes harassment, beatings, torture, and other forms of violence. In some cases, it is fatal or has fatal consequences.
In the United States, police are given an average of 168 hours of training in the use of firearms, self-defense, and use of force; typically, only a fraction of that time is spent learning about domestic violence, mental illness, and sexual assault. Qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that prevents government officials from being prosecuted for offenses that do not violate “clearly established” law, often protects officers from facing consequences for deadly actions. In fact, of the 1,147 cases where people were killed by the police in 2017, police officers were charged only 1% of the time.
Police brutality is always an act of dehumanization. Our actions should uphold the other’s human dignity, and police brutality is an explicit rejection of the other, an attempt to assert superiority. It is especially egregious because the power police have is given to them so they can protect the vulnerable; aggressive violence is a grave perversion of that role.
Who is harmed by police brutality?
Everyone deserves to live free from violence, so no one should live in fear of police brutality. However, police brutality is an incredibly common problem — it is considered to be “one of the leading causes of death for young men” in the United States.
Police brutality exists across cultures and, while it cuts across lines of gender identity, race, and age, it disproportionately affects minorities and the most vulnerable members of a society. Transgender people, for example, experience police violence at 3.7 times the rate of cisgender people, and studies show that the rates of police killings “increase in tandem” with poverty rates.
The tragic consequences of police violence are abundantly clear when analyzing its relationship to systemic racism. Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to have fatal encounters with the police, and studies show that Black people who are killed by the police are more than twice as likely as white people to be unarmed. People of color who die by police violence are “disproportionately likely to have their deaths classified as the result of an accident, natural causes, or intoxication.” When use of force meets racism, we’re left with a routine and deadly dehumanization.
Many cases of fatal violence are not made public until a witness shares a recording of the violence. This leads to some unsettling questions: Who hasn’t been recorded? How many deaths have gone unwitnessed? How much violence goes undocumented?
Militarization of the Police
A militarized organization is one that sees “use of force and threat of violence as the most appropriate and efficacious means to solve problems.” As followers of the Consistent Life Ethic, we believe that aggressive violence is never the answer and that force is a poor first attempt at solving a problem.
When protests against police violence sweep the country, the news is plastered with photos of officers wearing riot gear, driving military vehicles, and wielding military weapons. They may attempt to shut down protests with tear gas and less-lethal bullets. How do police get access to this equipment, and why do they look more like a military operation than internal security? How did the police become militarized?
Rapid and widespread militarization has become possible because of the 1033 program, a federal initiative that allows the military to give surplus equipment to police agencies (much of this surplus comes from America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). Agencies can order things like grenade launchers and tear gas—the agency only has to pay for shipping the equipment—and then form paramilitary police units (PPU) modeled on special forces in the military.
PPUs were originally designed for “reactive deployment of high-risk specialists for particularly dangerous events... such as hostage, sniper, or terrorist situations,” but this has not been their main function since the 1990s. Instead, the vast majority of PPU deployments have been for drug raids, in particular “no-knock and quick-knock dynamic entries.” The use of PPUs in this way makes the “war on drugs” metaphor into a quite literal battle.
Around 8,200 agencies are currently involved in the program, and the equipment that has been given out is worth over 7.4 billion. Although the assumption might be that PPUs mostly exist in big cities, PPUs have massively increased in small towns too: in the 1980s, 20% of small-town agencies had a police paramilitary unit, and in 2007, this number had increased to 80%. Use of PPUs does not seem to lower crime or violence rates, and a study in Georgia showed that agencies that were more active with the 1033 program fatally shot at four times the rate of other agencies.
Militarization encourages a mentality that police officers are an occupying force rather than an agency meant to protect and serve. Dealing with crime is not war, and it should not be treated as such.
Studies show that police paramilitary units are disproportionately used in neighborhoods with higher numbers of Black residents, even when studies control for local crime rates.
Militarized uniforms tend to decrease the public’s support of and trust in the police.
Surveys show that the majority of Americans believe that police should not use military equipment.
Isn’t violence necessary to keep the peace?
Most would agree that some level of force can be justified for the protection of the vulnerable and for self-defense. However, defense of oneself or of others never requires brutality.
What should be done?
Whether you support police reform or police abolition, we think everyone can agree on these core ideas:
Policing is not a war, and over-militarization of the police is inappropriate
People having mental health crises deserve appropriate, compassionate care
Anyone working in potentially threatening environments should receive training in de-escalation and peaceful intervention
The use of legal loopholes like qualified immunity is immoral and obstructs justice
Vigil for Victims of the Justice System
Police, Prisons, and the Death Penalty: a panel from the 2020 Rehumanize Conference