6 Reasons Why The Cops Keep Killing People (Besides Racism)
In the time it took us to research and write this article, a man named Freddie Gray went from living anonymously in Baltimore, to lying comatose with spinal cord injuries after a ride in the back of a police van, to having his funeral spark protests and civil unrest in his city. And by the time we publish this, the cycle may have started over again with someone else.
In the meantime, the biggest question we're asking ourselves -- besides "I wonder what some random jackass I went to high school with is saying about these issues on Facebook?" -- is when will the freaking cops stop killing people? Not anytime soon, it looks like, because ...
We Have No Idea How Well (Or If) Body Cameras Work
"He said, she said" disputes are notoriously difficult to sort out, particularly when one party is dead. Simple solution to all of this: Start putting body cameras on all police officers. All of them, right now. What, we can attach GoPros to our cats, but we can't be bothered to strap them to our cops?
If you don't care about police brutality, look at it this way: We'd be one step closer to Robocop.
But before we start dropping millions of dollars on these bad boys, are we even sure that body cameras will solve the problem? Barak Ariel from the University of Cambridge has been studying CopCams (an abbreviation we just made up and trademarked) all over the world, including a year-long trial run in California, and his conclusion is ... maybe? While the results of his investigation look positive so far, the problem is that this is the only properly conducted study about body cameras that exists. Meaning that, as Ariel himself points out, we don't really know what effects these things will have. For instance, if the cameras are running all the time, would that reduce the number of informants or other "If anyone finds out I'm talking to you, I'm dead" types who approach cops? And if they're not running all the time, then what's the fucking point?
Ariel isn't alone; the US Department of Justice analyzed the "entire body of evidence on body-worn cameras," which was comprised of a whopping five studies, and concluded that there wasn't enough information to go forward with body cam mandates. And let's not forget there are incidents in which we do have video footage (like the Eric Garner arrest), and the situation is still as clear as Taco Bell toilet water. But hey, at least we got to see the Garner footage. The San Diego PD recently started a body cam program that came with a teensy caveat: They won't release any footage to the public. Ever. So they're telling us to trust that the cops are telling the truth, which hasn't worked out so well lately.
"It's just that Johnson had a huge zit on his face that day. He's very shy."
And then we have the numerous instances of cops forgetting to turn cameras on, "losing" footage, or suffering malfunctions. Such as in Virginia, where footage of a traffic stop beating was unavailable because the officers' dash cameras mysteriously and simultaneously shit the bed ... in all seven cruisers present. Cameras might be a useful tool in reducing police use of force, but without laws and policies in place to make sure we can, you know, use the footage, it seems like all we're doing is funding some sweet police department snowboarding videos.
Nobody Knows How Many Cop Shootings There Really Are
A nice way to start solving this problem would be for the authorities to look at how many people our cops are killing each year and then say, "Let's cut that by half before December, guys." Every job needs goals, after all.
Maybe add one of these outside every police station, with the official kill count?
However, that would require actually knowing how many death-by-cop incidents there are, and not even the feds have that number. The official figures are based on what the law enforcement agencies themselves report, but not all of them bother to do that. In 2013, the FBI's "justifiable homicides" figure was 461, but various attempts to come up with the real number (including one by the Bureau of Justice Statistics) reveal that it's close to 1,000. And as with Thanksgiving dinners, the situation turns more complicated once you bring race into it. Did you know that black people are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, as stated by Nicholas Kristof? Or wait, was it that almost three times as many white people were killed as black people, which is what Bill O'Reilly claims?
"WHICH ONES DO I SHOOT?!"
If you're looking for some clarification, you're shit out of luck, because they're both kinda right -- Kristof got his numbers from the FBI's homicide statistics and adjusted it for population (i.e., he factored in that there's way more white people than black people in America), but the "21 times" figure only applies to black males from ages 15 to 19. O'Reilly, on the other hand, got his stats from the CDC's 2012 death report, but didn't account for the population difference. And, again, they're both working with incomplete numbers to begin with. Everyone's talking out of their ass, and no one is.
Now come the uncomfortable questions about racial bias and police work. We've all seen the stats about how black people are more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested, but there's surprisingly little information about how many of those people were committing crimes versus how many were simply picked up by racist assholes with badges. Unfortunately, we can't know if cops are profiling blacks unless we know if blacks are committing more crime, which we can't know if cops are profiling blacks, which we can't know if blacks are committing ... etc. We don't know shit, basically.
More Gun Freedom = More Police Shootings
Sorry, Second Amendment, but you're really fucking things up for us. Other countries don't seem to have this problem -- you never hear about cops in the UK accidentally shooting a kid for holding a toy gun, mainly because they rarely shoot anyone at all. This decade, England has averaged one deadly shooting a year, with none in 2013. That's despite the fact that English cops fired guns a whopping three times that year. All of them combined, that is.
Pictured: Simon Pegg's most far out sci-fi movie to date, including Star Trek.
Also in 2013, Iceland police shot a guy for the first time ever. Meanwhile, Germany and Australia had six cop-related deaths, and some people in Canada are currently scandalized that they've been averaging an estimated 25 deaths a year. Even accounting for population, and even if we go with the FBI's conservative (read: bullshit) statistic of 400 or so killings a year, US cops are still insanely prolific in this area. So what's the difference? It's not like these other countries don't have crime, racism, or police corruption -- shit, Europe probably invented those things.
But more importantly, they've also had troubles with guns. Like America, most of the countries we mentioned have had big gun massacres in the past 25 years. Unlike America, they've actually done something about it. In Australia, for example, 35 people were killed by a mentally ill gunman in 1996, and they reacted by immediately passing stricter laws that forced gun owners to surrender some types of firearms. We'll remind you that this is a country where saying "But what if a giant crocodile shows up in my living room?!" isn't bullshit.
Fifteen percent of Australians now live in bathtubs.
For Canada, it was a 1989 massacre that made them create a registry of gun owners and require extensive background checks, plus a 28-day wait before you can hold your precious death dispenser in your hands. School shootings in Germany (2002) and the UK (1996) made them heavily restrict and outright ban the sale of handguns to regular people, respectively. And it's working! According to a Harvard study, America's murder rate is 15 times higher than countries with tighter gun laws -- Australia had 13 gun massacres in the 18 years before they changed the law, and none in the 18 years that followed. Gee, it's starting to look an awful lot like having fewer guns around means having fewer gun-related tragedies.
And of course, that also changes the disposition police officers have toward you. English bobbies can afford to go on patrol with basically no means of self-defense except tasers and those pointy hats, but American cops are trained to be afraid of us because we might have guns. And obviously we can't just get rid of our guns now, because they are dang cool and awes-- uh, protection. We need them for protection, yeah. Lord knows the cops aren't going to help you in an emergency; they're too busy shooting people who might have guns.
Holy shit, guns are turning America into a fucking John Carpenter film.
9/11 And Drugs Gave Cops A Literal War Mentality
It wasn't weird enough that 9/11 changed the weather and inspired countless tacky cash-ins. It also made our cops suck more at their jobs. That is, of course, unless you consider "beating people up for no good reason" a vital part of an officer's obligations. Between 2001 and 2007, cases of police brutality went up 25 percent compared to the previous seven years. In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee released a report concluding that, after 9/11, cops across America suddenly started acting like '80s movie high school bullies ... only, you know, with guns. And the reason for this change? Because they feel like they're in a war, and all's fair in war and love.
"In our case, the love of beating people up."
We'd previously seen the same phenomenon during the height of the "war on drugs" -- cops felt like they were on a holy crusade against evil, so if they had to falsify evidence, lie in court, or shoot the occasional unarmed suspect, that was OK. The end justified the means. The UN report found the same "climate of impunity" in post-9/11 officers. Suddenly, the crowdfunding campaigns to help cops accused of rape and those cop message boards that fill up with racist comments after every shooting make a lot more sense. They defend the indefensible because everything goes when you're at war. If they dressed differently, we'd call them fanatics.
This war mentality is a lot more harmful this time around, for a couple of reasons. First there's the fact that after Al Qaeda's attacks, a lot of Americans who might have gone into the police force ended up joining the military, forcing police departments to boost recruitment efforts and accept people they might have otherwise turned down (knuckleheads, basically).
And not the fun kind who can do sound effects with their mouths.
It was a lot like they being drafted into a war -- the higher-ups don't care much if you're a whackjob as long as you can get the job done. This coincided with a shift in the way law enforcement agencies work. The military stepped up to fight terrorism under President Bush, and the police departments said, "Yeah, well, we can do that too" and tried to become more like the military. Now they have not only the attitude but also the gear to act like soldiers, and what do soldiers do? They shoot people (usually of a different skin color).
Police Aren't Trained To Wound; They're Trained To Survive
When LA police shot and killed a homeless man for supposedly reaching for one of their guns in March, a witness asked why they didn't just shoot him in the leg? After all, we see that all the time in movies -- the bad guy is running, and the hero cop will shoot him in the shoulder or expertly graze his side to stop him without having to fill the "killed a dude" paperwork later.
However, that isn't how cops are trained in real life. Officers are not taught to wound; they aim for center of mass, which is your torso, fatty. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, shots to the torso are much easier to make, and hitting the thing you want to hit is hard as hell.
"Nice head shot, Michaels."
"I was aiming for the dick."
Hollywood has led you to believe that a) a handgun is basically a more compact sniper rifle and b) cops are cool, collected, crack shots. The reality is pretty much the exact opposite. Handguns aren't terribly accurate, and most cops can't shoot worth shit. Of the 364 bullets NYPD officers fired in 2006, 103 hit their target, which works out to 28.3 percent accuracy, up from a tack-driving 17.4 percent the year before. In 2012, NYPD officers fired 16 times at a gun-wielding lunatic, hitting him 10 times (flawless marksmanship by normal standards), but also injuring nine bystanders in the process. Which is impressive, because we count only six missing bullets.
So why don't they train officers to fire their damn guns? They do, but shooting slowly and controlled on a range doesn't help much when you're panicked (adrenaline does wonders for shooting accuracy) and fearing for your life. And that's the second reason cops are taught to shoot to the torso: If you do that, it's less likely that the other guy will shoot you in the face. We have this image of a hero cop jumping in front of bullets, but the extremely understandable fact is that police are trained to survive. It's drilled into their heads from day one that underestimating a suspect could be fatal, because anyone could be carrying a hidden switchblade.
And this is why the only thing the cops did correctly in the Walter Scott shooting was handcuff the dying guy. Because that's what they are trained to do. Cops have to be prepared for every possible scenario that could end with a police casualty -- including "the other guy turns into a Walking Dead extra," apparently.
Police Have Almost No Accountability
The most infuriating thing about these cases is that we don't even pretend to hold these cops responsible for shooting unarmed black men. A grand jury didn't even think Darren Wilson should have a for-realsies trial to answer for shooting Michael Brown. It would be one thing if he had gone to trial and been found innocent -- the justice system didn't even give us the courtesy of a show trial.
The closest thing he'll get will probably be when he's on season 352 of The Apprentice.
A statistical study of grand juries found that they vote to go to trial 99.99 percent of the time, so why didn't Wilson get the same treatment, if not because of racism and legal chicanery? Well, that study applies to the average citizen, but if you look at just police-related cases, it's pretty much the exact opposite -- juries virtually never send cops to trial. Part of it is that cops are given a wide legal latitude when it comes to self-defense, but it's also because people (and juries in particular) are conditioned to believe cops. Our whole justice system is based on trusting authority figures, so when a cop is put on the stand, it's like dogs and cats living together. Utter madness.
But at least Wilson's case passed fleetingly in front of a jury. Most reports of police misconduct don't make it that far. Only eight percent of all the incidents of brutality, bias, and civil rights violations reported by civilians in the US are sustained, and only one percent in New Jersey, where presumably even the mobsters have more accountability. Like, if Big Carlo keeps punching people for no reason, someone would at least tell him, "Hey come on, cut that out."
"We're mobsters, not monsters."
And adding to that bias, we also have the bias of treating criminals like ... well, criminals. We might rationally understand that stealing some cigarettes means fuck-all in the broader scope of the case, but most people will automatically put the cop's version of events ahead of the victim. You could practically hear the support for Michael Brown evaporate when the convenience store footage was released, even though it had no relevance to the shooting whatsoever.
We've got some issues, y'all.
While you're here, also check out 5 Things I Learned as a Cop (That Movies Won't Show You) and 7 Bizarre Ways You Didn't Know 9/11 Changed the World.