The Growth of the American Police State
In the present essay, Kløvning offers an in depth overview of the rising American police state.
Among the many violations of the rights to life, liberty, and property Americans have experienced in later decades, the increasing degree of police brutality has played an especially scarring role. Every year, over a thousand people are killed by the police, and every single day there are new victims who lose their lives or get raped, beaten, tortured, or robbed by police officers. Congress and the courts have been complicit in this development, allowing the vast majority of cops accused of misconduct go without punishment or financial liabilities and providing them with increasingly larger budgets and more powerful military equipment. Looking at the bigger picture of police brutality in the United States, one may recognize commonalities with more totalitarian and repressive States like Russia and China, and that may be where the US is approaching if it does not soon change its course. In this article, I’ll attempt to diagnose how widespread the issue of police brutality is in the United States based on relevant research and stories, delineate some theories of how it came to be, as well as make a couple suggestions of what could be done to slow or perhaps even reverse this trend.
No Duty to Serve and Protect
If the police were ever intended to serve and protect the populace, they’ve at this point strayed far from that purpose. In at least two judgments by the Supreme Court (DeShaney vs. Winnebago and Town of Castle Rock vs. Gonzales), as well as various local cases (i.e. Warren v. District of Columbia, etc. ), cops were deemed to be under no obligation to protect citizens even if the threats were apparent. Professor Darren L. Hutchinson of University of Florida School of Law proclaims that
Neither the Constitution, nor state law, impose a general duty upon police officers or other governmental officials to protect individual persons from harm — even when they know the harm will occur. Police can watch someone attack you, refuse to intervene and not violate the Constitution.
This is not to say that one is to blame police negligence for every single violent activity that occurs in such a populous region as the United States, but it should certainly make us question their alleged raison d’être of serving and protecting the people.
If negligence were the only thing police could be scrutinized for, however, Americans wouldn’t be in so much danger from them as they are today. Every day, new stories are released showing police officers misusing their “authority”, either in the form of robbing beating, tazing, raping, terrorizing, or even murdering the very people they proclaim to serve and protect, most negatively impacting black and Latino communities . “In recent years”, reports Constitutional Attorney John W. Whitehead,
Americans have been killed by police merely for standing in a “shooting stance,” holding a cell phone, behaving oddly and holding a baseball bat, opening the front door, running in an aggressive manner holding a tree branch, crawling around naked, hunching over in a defensive posture, wearing dark pants and a basketball jersey, driving while deaf, being homeless, brandishing a shoehorn, holding a garden hose, and peeing outdoors.
Police also have a tendency to aggress especially fiercely against those with mental disabilities acting abnormally. The 26-year-old Jamarion Robinson, diagnosed with schizophrenia, for instance, had his apartment raided and about 76 bullets sprayed into his body with sub-machine guns and Glock pistols by police officers serving a warrant in 2016, killing him, followed by the police handcuffing his dead body. In another incident, cops mistook a man’s seizure at a store for a crime, leading them to tazer and arrest him. Similar incidences include Kelly Thomas and Keith Vidal.
According to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, mentally ill people are up to 16 times more likely to die in an encounter with a police officers than those without such a condition, and 25% of police shootings in 2017 involved someone with such diagnoses despite making up a far smaller minority of the general population ! This indicates, asserts Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), that “Despite being on the front lines, some officers do not have the training to recognize nor appropriately respond to a mental health crisis.”
A common objection is that these are outliers and that one shouldn’t generalize them so to vilify all cops, so how often do they really occur, and what happens to the ones who commit them? According to a study by Bowling Green State University (BGSU), 5,545 sworn (non-federal) law enforcement officers were arrested in a total of 6,724 cases between 2005 and 2011. The most common offenses charged for, they contend, were
… simple assault (13%), driving under the influence (12.5%), aggravated assault (8.5%), forcible fondling (5.2%), and forcible rape (4.8%). Slightly more than one-half of the cases (54%) ultimately resulted in job loss for arrested officers
The authors categorize five types of police crime : sex-related, alcohol-related, drug-related, violence-related and profit-motivated. I’ll here primarily focus on documenting their statistics on that relevant to sex, violence, and profit since the others are to a large degree victim-less “crimes”. Of the 1,475 sex-related crimes cops were arrested for, there were “422 forcible or statutory rapes, 352 cases of forcible fondling, and 94 sodomy arrest cases”. As if that wasn’t outrageous enough, almost one-half of the known victims were children. Fortunately then, the likelihood of officers losing their jobs increases by a factor of about 2.8 if convicted for a sex-related crime.
There were also 961 cases of police arrested for domestic violence, 1/3 of which led to job loss. In many of these, the victims were their spouses or boyfriends/girlfriends, in which case they were less likely to be convicted, whereas “The simple odds of an officer losing his or her job after being arrested for a crime relating to officer-involved domestic violence are greater when the relationship with the victim is more distant.” This is an especially important point given that police families are far more likely to experience domestic abuse than the general population. The National Center for Women and Policing report that “Two studies have found that at least 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10% of families in the general population.”
Profit-Motivated Crime and Civil Asset Forfeiture
Profit-motivated police crime consisted for the most part of “unclassified thefts (16%), false pretenses (theft by deception) (12.5%), drug offenses (11.9%), robbery (6.4%), thefts from buildings (5.8%), and extortion or blackmail (5.3%).” About 67% of the officers arrested here lost their jobs, and 57.4% of them were ultimately convicted.
Civil asset forfeiture has been an especially useful tool for profit-motivated purposes at least since the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act amended the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in 1983 as a measure in the War on Drugs allowing police and the FBI to seize assets from drug rings and the like in order to make it unprofitable. The authors of the BGSU study show, however, that “Drug-related police crime often involves drug trafficking, facilitation of the drug trade, and shakedowns of citizens most often associated with the trade of cocaine and crack.” In other words, the police themselves have become part of the very drug trade they were suppose to clamp down on, and are using their “authority” in order to steal and profit from it (not to mention that the CIA were likely involved in the imports of cocaine leading up to the Iran-Contra scandal).
Of civil asset forfeiture in general, there are usually under $2 billion in assets seized every fiscal year, but in some years, such as FY 2012 ($4.2B) and FY 2014 ($4.5B) it increases significantly. In over 80% of these cases, the property owner is charged with no charge whatsoever, but may still never get back his/her property either due to being turned down by the courts or because it’d likely be more expensive to fight to retain it than the property itself was worth. Hence we get headlines like “I Called Police for Help and They Stole My Car.“ According to Criminal Defense Attorney Thomas J. Melanson,
Unfortunately for property owners, the government has a relatively low burden to proceed in a civil forfeiture proceeding, and the owner must timely and affirmatively act to recover the property. Because of these aspects, many people consider modern civil asset forfeiture laws as some of the most serious assaults on private property rights. Using these laws, the government can seize an individual’s car, home, cash, and other property without ever charging or convicting him of a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture in which property is confiscated by the government after the owner has been found guilty in a court of law, in civil forfeiture the property owner may never be charged or convicted of a crime and may still never regain his property [his emphasis].
Murder and Police Conduciveness to Criminal Behavior
The authors of the BGSU study contend that an important reason why police crime occurs relatively frequent is that “Police work is conducive to all sorts of criminal behavior, largely because of plentiful opportunities provided by the nature of the work and police-citizen interactions.”
But if this was the only explanation, wouldn’t it occur about as frequent in the United States (on a per capita basis) as in other nations? This is clearly not the case. The FBI purport about 400 annual police killings to be “justifiable”, but according to sites like KilledByPolice, the total number killed by police annually is at least 1,100 (1,166 in 2018 and 299 so far in 2019). In his Battlefield America, Whitehead (2015, p. 173) asserts, “Compare that to Germany, a nation of 80 million, where police killed all of eight people. In Britain and Japan, with a combined population of 191 million, the police didn’t kill anyone.” If the statistics by KilledByPolice for recent years had been consistent over time, approximately as many Americans could be said to be killed by police in under four years as in terrorist attacks worldwide between 1995 and 2016 (3658).
From this it’s clear that America is unique in the scope of violence and crime committed by police officers, so how has it ended up like this? There are many reasons, but some of the most important ones may be their increasing militarization (from an “if you have a hammer, all you see is a nail”-kind of reasoning); that they’re often being trained up to believe that there is no such thing as “excessive force”, and that they may, therefore, “justify” pretty much all initiation of violence, and that they’re unlikely to suffer any consequences for their actions.
The Militarization of the Police
Regarding the economic incentives inherent in a State police force, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises points out  that “one cannot apply to a police department or to the office of a tax collector the well-tried methods of profit-seeking business,” and thus “with regard to the performance of bureaus no method for establishing success or failure by calculation procedures is available.” Without such a feedback mechanism, there’s no non-arbitrary way to determine how many police officers should be designated to which areas and events, what type of and quantity of equipment they should have, etc. in order to most efficiently “serve and protect” the citizens if that were really the goal.
This point is especially important for understanding the recent militarization of the police in the United States. Former Assistant Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts claims, for instance, that
Today 17,000 local police forces are equipped with such military equipment as Blackhawk helicopters, machine guns, grenade launchers, battering rams, explosives, chemical sprays, body armor, night vision, rappelling gear, and armored vehicles. Some have tanks.
The Economist additionally reports that this trend accelerated especially after the 1990 version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which “allowed the Defense Department to transfer military gear and weapons to local police departments if they were deemed ‘suitable for use in counter-drug activities.’” Furthermore,
Between 2002 and 2011 the Department of Homeland Security, established after the attacks of September 11th 2001, disbursed more than $35 billion in grants to state and local police forces. In addition the “1033 program” allows the Defense Department to distribute surplus equipment to local police departments for use in counter-terrorism and counter-drug activities. The American Civil Liberties Union found that the value of military equipment used by American police departments has risen from $1 million in 1990 to nearly $450 million in 2013 .
When one questions why the police would ever need this equipment, some common answers are that it allows them to do their job “more efficiently” and that they could be necessary in cases of highly unlikely scenarios occurring. The prevalence of such arguments clearly illustrates the significance of Mises’ point concerning the lack of economic calculation in this industry (as in all State-operated industries), and thus why there’s no non-arbitrary manner to determine the appropriate allocation of resources, though one doesn’t tend to see these arguments presented so often in many other countries to justify such expansions of power except in totalitarian countries at the level of Russia and China and beyond.
Additionally, SWAT teams that may more easily violate the third and fourth amendments and utilize far more dangerous force than usual police forces (after all, they’re called Special Weapons and Tactics) are not scarcely designated. According to one estimate, SWAT teams break into about 40,000 homes a year, an average of 110 a day. Roberts comments on these findings:
Last year did you read in your newspaper or hear on TV news of 110 hostage or terrorist events each day? No. What then were the SWAT teams doing? They were serving routine warrants to people who posed no danger to the police or to the public.
Many military-like organizations and agencies have also been turned against American citizens multiple times since the mid-1900s. The Ohio National Guard was unleashed on students protesting the Vietnam War at the Kent State University on May 4, 1970, killing four and injuring nine. The FBI and ATF both took part in the Siege of Waco in 1993, utilizing tanks and tear gas in order to bring down the church of the Branch Davidians, and killing about 75 people in the process, including 25 children. The year before, the two agencies similarly went against a family at Ruby Ridge after Randy Weaver refused to become an informant for the ATF, killing his wife Vicki Weaver and their son Samuel. Though these are significant incidences in isolation, however, they’re minute in comparison to the aggregate of killings and other forms of brutality performed by various local and state police departments in the latest few decades.
The Myth of “Excessive Force”
After a Minnesota resident had come across a crime scene where a 20-year-old had been shot in the back by the police, he became curious about what instructions the officers had received regarding the use of force, and attended two classes of law enforcement training in order to investigate. “From my personal experience,” he claims,
these trainers consistently promote more aggression and criticize hesitation to use force. They argue that the risk of making a mistake is worth it to absolutely minimize risk to the officer. And they teach officers how to use the law to minimize legal repercussions in almost any scenario. All this is, of course, done behind the scenes, with no oversight from police administrators, much less the public.
As [Bostain, holding one of the lectures] said in the training, ‘Right and wrong are about morality, reasonable and unreasonable is about the law, and that is where we are focused.’ This meant a wounded officer from Texas was criticized for refusing to take an intermediate distance shot because there were civilians in the suspects background. To my horror, Bostain followed up to that particular video with a statistic indicating most officers shot to death never shot back.
Based on his notes, MintPress News reports that “Bostain argues there isn’t time for logic and analysis, encouraging officers to fire multiple rounds at subjects because ‘two shots rarely stops ‘em,’ and outlines seven reasons why ‘excessive use of force’ is a myth.”
Some Seattle officers even filed a lawsuit claiming restrictions on their use of such excessive force violated their constitutional rights in their field of work, and in Plumhard v. Rickhard, the 6th Circuit deemed the murder of drivers and passengers by police “not unreasonable” as a measure to terminate high-speed chases. According to 50 U.S. Code §1520a, biological and chemical agents may also be used for “Any law enforcement purpose, including any purpose related to riot control,” where a biological agent is defined as
any micro-organism (including bacteria, viruses, fungi, rickettsiac, or protozoa), pathogen, or infectious substance, and any naturally occurring, bioengineered, or synthesized component of any such micro-organism, pathogen, or infectious substance, whatever its origin or method of production, that is capable of causing—
1) death, disease, or other biological malfunction in a human, an animal, a plant, or another living organism;
(2) deterioration of food, water, equipment, supplies, or materials of any kind; or
(3) deleterious alteration of the environment.
Note that, according to this law, cops can use these for pretty much any purpose in the name of “law enforcement”.
To illustrate the logical endpoint of this mentality of the “myth of excessive force”, one may recall that the Chicago Police Department were conducting torture on over a hundred black American citizens from 1972 to 1991. Such activities appear unfortunately not to be limited to the American-owned Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba or other foreign military prisons like in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
Some journalists have also observed that many American police officers are being trained up in Israel, or domestically by the Israeli security forces like the Israel Defense Forces. Alice Speri of The Intercept argues, for instance, that Israel is “one of the few countries where policing and militarism are even more deeply intertwined” than in the United States, and that U.S. police officers thus are “essentially taking lessons from agencies that enforce military rule rather than civil law,” further enforcing their military mentality. A couple police departments, like in Northampton and Vermont, have, however, canceled their training trips amid such scrutiny.
Unlikely to Face Punishment or Financial Liabilities
In addition to being trained up with such a mindset, a lack of consequences for their misdemeanors naturally means there’s less of a deterrent to keep officers from committing such crimes. Though, as shown in the BGSU study above, many officers are indeed arrested, the authors concede that “We do not have any data on police officers who engaged in criminal activity if their conduct did not result in an arrest,” meaning that one should, if anything, take their numbers to be only a conservative estimate of the actual scope of the problem.
According to an investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper, as much as 96% of the allegations of civil rights violations by police officers between 1995 and 2015 were declined by federal prosecutors. According to the newspaper, there were up to “12,703 potential civil rights violations turned down nationwide out of 13,233 total complaints from 1995-2015”, while “For all other crimes, prosecutors rejected only about 23 percent of complaints.”
Some, such as Jim Franco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, argue in their defense that “Maybe they’re not taking the cases because they’re not good cases. It could be 96 percent of the time. Do you know how many false complaints are made against police officers?” Given the commonality of police brutality and the tendency of the courts to side with police officers, setting the standards incredibly high for litigation, however, it’s extremely dubious that up to 96% of these allegations were made up. Around 5-10%, perhaps, but one must be quite the police apologist to legitimately contend that up to 90-96% of these allegations were completely unreasonable and that the statistic thus doesn’t indicate any systematic problems.
Even those who actually are prosecuted are highly unlikely to be held financially liable. As Whitehead (p. 113) puts it, “Police officers are more likely to be struck by lightning than be made financially liable for their wrongdoing,” referring to a study by the New York Law Review reporting that “governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”
A Department of Justice report also found that up to 84% of police officers had witnessed others in the department using excessive force (62.4% seldom; 21.47% sometimes, often or always) and that “A surprising 6 in 10 (61 percent) indicated that police officers do not always report even serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson of Chicago also admitted that some officers “look the other way” on misconduct by their colleagues. He further explains that “The reason it’s so difficult to change police cultures is because the leadership changes so often. Every three years you have to start over again.”
Some police departments, however, go even further than merely covering up such incidents by negligence. The San Francisco-based media broadcaster KQED documents that
Last year, while state lawmakers were considering a landmark bill to open up previously confidential police misconduct records to the public, the city of Fremont quietly destroyed a large archive of papers, cassettes and computer files documenting over four decades of internal affairs investigations and citizen complaints. It is not known if the destroyed records covered officer-involved shootings.
They claim further that “There’s no evidence Fremont violated any state laws or its own policies, but few other Bay Area cities have been as aggressive in purging police files.” One may shiver from this in recalling certain passages from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” It doesn’t matter at which level of government it occurs on, just that having the ability to relinquish oneself from all or most consequences of misdemeanors is almost guaranteed to be utilized, and all whistleblowers are doomed to be targeted, harassed and vilified for trying to expose it – anything may be granted if it means maintaining or expanding one’s power and influence. It’s no wonder that (according to the DoJ report),
about one-quarter (24.9 percent) of the sample agreed or strongly agreed that whistle blowing is not worth it, more than two-thirds (67.4 percent) reported that police officers who report incidents of misconduct are likely to be given a “cold shoulder” by fellow officers, and a majority (52.4 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that it is not unusual for police officers to “turn a blind eye” to other officers’ improper conduct.”
Shannon Spalding, for instance, a whisteblower from the Chicago Police Department, recalled that “It’s no secret that if you go against the code of silence, and you report corruption, it will ruin your career.”
The Psychology of Authority
There are numerous psychological experiments that can help us better understand how this feedback mechanism with a lack of consequences may impact officers psychologically to commit increasingly more devastating crimes. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance, college students were divided into prisoners and prison guards, where the latter group had no meaningful supervision to restrict their treatment of the prisoners lest they went over “the line”. According to the experiment’s official website,
The guards were given no specific training on how to be guards. Instead they were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners. The guards made up their own set of rules, which they then carried into effect under the supervision of Warden David Jaffe, an undergraduate from Stanford University.
Professor Philip Zimbrado, who orchestrated the experiment, further documents that
Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.
The exact same principle appears to also apply for the police: When you attain the opportunity to violate people’s persons and their property without suffering any consequences for it, you’re more likely to do it.
When the French military was repressing terrorist independence groups like the FLN (Eng: National Liberation Front) in Algeria without much meaningful oversight, they eventually turned to torture as a means of acquiring information about the suspected terrorists’ accomplices. Their tactics were later adopted by the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
Another relevant psychological experiment is the Milgram Experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1961 in order to investigate why – and the degree to which – people can do unethical things in obedience to perceived authority figures. To the subjects, it was presented as an experiment about the effects of negative punishments like electroshock on learning, but the real reason was to see how much electroshock they were willing to give other humans. In reality, there were no electroshock, but rather prerecorded tapes of screaming and the like used to give the subject the impression that there were. Whitehead documents (p. 170-2),
Despite the fact that many subjects were visibly uncomfortable (nervously laughing, etc.) with giving painful shocks to another human being, twenty-six out of forty participants continued shocking people up to the highest (450-volt) level, labeled “XXX,” on the machine. No subject stopped before giving a 300-volt shock, labeled “Intense Shock” despite the fact that the person in the next room expressed severe agony and health concerns. All of the subjects were voluntary participants. When a participant expressed unwillingness to administer the next shock, experimenters prodded them to do so by asking them to “Please continue” or stating: “The experiment requires that you continue.”
He further explains how this experiment may be applied to understand police brutality and the like: “For example, a SWAT member who believes a raid is unconstitutional will likely not defy orders from his superiors because compliance was engendered in him in the training process.” The [Milgram] study concludes, Whitehead quotes, that
At root, the fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetuators are helpless and ignorant of their actions. It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious as virtuous.
One may draw parallels between many contemporary American police officers and the Blackshirts, Brownshirts, Gestapo, Stasis, and so on, in terms of equipment, tactics, and use of violence. Though this may be charged as an exaggeration, we’ve seen above that that concern for such similarities isn’t completely unreasonable.
Challenging the Behemoth: What Can Be Done?
When considering potential solutions to injustices in the world, especially those perpetrated by the monopoly on the initiation of violence, it can be easy to be struck with pessimism from the difficulty of trying to alter it. H.L. Mencken, for instance, asserted that “I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.” It is clear, however, that if one doesn’t stand up for one’s own or others’ rights, it’ll be far easier for the “authorities” to violate them.
Enlightening people on the scope of the issue may at least be a start. Investigations into the scope of the issue as done by the BGSU study, KilledByPolice, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper, and USAToday’s review and publication of records of over 85,000 officers investigated for misconduct, for instance, could help make the public more aware of the seriousness of the issue. This article was also written for this purpose, to provide a coherent and comprehensive understanding of its scope and causes, based on the studies conducted on the issue and the myriad of anecdotes being published at both mainstream and alternative news sites. Another route to educate people on the issue is through popular culture like music. Some excellent examples of this are Rob Hustle’s “Call the Cops” and “Good Cops“, and Blooded the Brave’s (Kyle Reese) “Man Down” and “The Fallen“. To say the least, in order to fix a problem, one at first needs to acknowledge that the problem exists, and that’s the first step that education plays here.
One policy suggestion could be to privatize the police and to terminate their contracts with military agencies in acquiring rest-over military equipment. With the police privately owned, they’d have to follow the dictates of the profit- and loss system lest they were to incur financial losses, and would thus have a non-arbitrary means of economic calculation that could likely significantly mitigate the degree of police brutality as well as incentivize them to actually “serve and protect” communities. This isn’t some purely “ivory tower” theorizing either. There have actually been some prominent attempts at this already. In Great Britain, for instance, TM Eye has become the country’s first de facto private police force, which focuses on intellectual property crime but also offers services in preparing both criminal and civil cases for the courts and prosecute in the criminal courts privately. According to the Daily Mail, TM Eye had caught 400 criminals by early February 2018, with a 100% conviction rate .
Reason Magazine also documents the history of private police forces in San Fransisco, from the 1800s to today. When their customers were asked why they relied on private cops rather than public they answered that they had “trust issues” with the state police, as well as them taking too long to arrive at the scene, and that the private actors offered “Faster service” and “personal touch”, as well as that they “Protect our clients and customers” and “become familiar with the businesses and potential problems”.
Another example is the city of Detroit, Michigan, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and had the highest crime rate in Northern America in 2019. In 2000, an ex-military paratrooper founded the security company Threat Management Center and has now over 5,000 private citizens and 100 businesses as clients, bringing in about $2 million in revenues every year. Though Vice contends that “The impact of private security on the crime rate in Detroit is unclear,” the customers of TMC and similar organizations at least acquire security that they likely wouldn’t have received otherwise, allowing businesses to prosper without too much concern for robberies, and private citizens to feel safer at home and in the streets.
A common objection to the suggestion of privatizing the police is that it would lead to a disparity in protection between “haves” and “have-nots”, but the Reason magazine argues that
They should remember that if these customers had to rely on the government, nobody would receive these additional services at all. Even though the San Francisco Police Department now has around 2,000 officers and a budget of upward of a half-billion dollars per year (a staggering $250,000 per officer, which does not include the amount taxpayers spend on pensions or on other hidden costs going directly to police, jails, and the sheriff’s department), the mere act of incurring these costs does not mean that citizen needs are automatically met .
In a study on private policing, David Sklansky of Standford University similarly concludes that
Private security firms furnish tangible evidence about what some people want but are not receiving from public law enforcement, and the legal regime governing private security — deconstitutionalized, defederalized, tort-based, and heavily reliant both on legislatures and on juries — offers important opportunities to test some of the most persistent proposals for reforming criminal procedure law.
Privatizing the police wouldn’t fix all the problems, of course, as there would still be many immoral laws that they would enforce (such as those against victim-less “crimes”), but it’d likely significantly decrease the militaristic mindset and tendency to escalate situations to utilize violence against (potential) criminals or suspects. One would also expect that some organizations would be less ideal than others in serving the purpose of security, but in contrast to a State cartel, competition would incline those with the best quality and lowers price to get out on top, unless the State were to interfere with the private market. Another caveat with this suggestion is that – as a top-down solution – it may be quite unlikely to be implemented on a large scale as politicians generally would have to give up their relative control over this function, and that many police departments may lobby against this change as they’d be disadvantaged if they’d have to follow the dictates of the profit motive to stay afloat. The examples of private police that have been actualized hitherto, however, offer some insight into how it could work on a larger scale and why it’d be advantageous, as well as some hope for such a trend of decentralization.
As mentioned earlier, claimed Mental Health First Aid that police had insufficient training in dealing with mentally ill people. They’re therefore offering training programs directed to mitigating such fatal misunderstandings. On their website, they write that,
Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety is an actionable public safety training program that gives police officers a simple, effective way to intervene during any mental health crisis, from an immediate crisis that endangers the public or the officer to non-crisis situations, like approaching someone who is exhibiting symptoms of a mental illness or overdose.
It equips every officer with the necessary skills to recognize the symptoms of mental illnesses and substance use, engage the person in crisis, de-escalate the incident and connect the person to needed care.
The course has also helped many officers in their personal lives by providing strategies to help themselves, their families and their partners.
Ultimately, Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety’s goal is to prevent tragedies, decrease the need for arrests and incarcerations for people with mental illness, reduce repeat detentions and help police officers connect with appropriate resources that can help.
A similar training program is Crisis Intervention Team training, lasting for 40 hours in total and is taught in every state except West Virginia. The program aims “to teach participants increased empathy,” Psycom reports, and includes “techniques on how to de-escalate a situation. Police in the program also listen to recordings of voices similar to those that someone with schizophrenia hears.” Such programs may help “deprogram” the militarized mindset of the police and mitigate the “excessive force as a myth”-mentality, decreasing the likelihood of police brutality occurring, especially as a result of misunderstandings of those with mental illnesses.
Is there anything private American citizens may do to contribute to mitigate the growth or reverse the trend of police militarization? John W. Whitehead (2015, p. 257) claims there is. He encourages Americans to “act locally but think nationally.” More specifically,
The greatest impact can be had at local governing bodies such as city councils. Join together with friends and neighbors and start a Civil Rights Oversight Committee. Regularly attend council meetings and demand that government corruption be brought under control and that police activities be brought under the scrutiny of local governing bodies and, thus, the citizenry.
He also mentions a notable example in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014, where “Community activists actually went so far as to storm a city council meeting”, after the police shot a homeless man, “and announce that they were performing a citizens’ arrest of the police chief, charging him with ‘harboring fugitives from justice at the Albuquerque police department’ and ‘crimes against humanity.’” Whitehead also suggests cities and states to federal laws that “violate the rights and freedoms of the citizenry,” and reports that several states have already said that they won’t comply with the National Defense Authorization Act “which allows for the military to indefinitely detain (imprison) American citizens.” “[W]hen and if you see such federal laws passed,” he urges, “gather your coalition of citizens and demand that your local town council nullify such laws.” He’s optimistic enough in the prominence of this suggestion to assert that “If enough towns and cities across the country would speak truth to power in this way, we might see some positive movement from the federal governmental machine.”
The United States has become increasingly similar to a police state since the mid-1900s, especially after the WTC attacks on 9/11. American cops are now more militaristic both in terms of mindset and equipment; have largely been exempted from prosecution and financial losses when accused civil rights violations; and have no longer any obligation to “serve and protect” communities if they ever had. Congress and the courts have largely sided with the police in this development, and either directly or indirectly encouraged a larger prevalence of police brutality due to the lack of consequences and discipline for misconduct. The result is that over a thousand Americans lose their lives every year, as well as many more who are robbed, tazed, beaten, raped, or otherwise tortured either in public or in detention. Additionally, up to 110 families have their homes raided by SWAT teams every day. Though it may appear impossible to reverse this trend, however, all hope may not yet be lost. Whitehead cites Professor Orlando Patterson: “Who were the first persons to get the unusual idea that being free was not only a value to be cherished but the most important thing that someone can possess? The answer in a word: slaves.” The first step is to acknowledge that one is enslaved, and to educate people about what is going on. From there, one may take action, and the more people involved, the higher the likelihood for change. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe points out ,
for the power of every government, even the most despotic one, ultimately rests on opinion and consent. […] If this consensual willingness were absent because the orders of the state rulers were considered illegitimate, even the seemingly most powerful government would be rendered ineffectual and collapse, as the recent examples of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet Union have illustrated.
Thus, putting pressure on local and state governments to end corruption in the regional police departments; nullify unconstitutional federal laws; and privatize the police, could potentially make a significant improvement on this issue, though people will differ in the degree to which they consider this is likely to work and to what extent. Though one would would wish you could just ignore and walk away from cops harassing and targeting you, the odds are that that may be your last move.
Americans: Rise up, stand for your rights and take assert your freedoms, before it’s too late.
- Further examples include Riss v. City of New York, Keane v. City of Chicago, Morgan v. District of Columbia, Calogrides v. City of Mobile, Morris v. Musser, Davidson v. City of Westminster, Chapman v. City of Philadelphia, Weutrich v. Delia, Sapp v. City of Tallahassee, Simpson’s Food Fair v. Evansville, Silver v. City of Minneapolis and Bowers v. DeVito. Credit to Kasler, P. (1992) Police Have No Duty To Protect Individuals, https://www.firearmsandliberty.com/kasler-protection.html for putting this together.
- For more documentation on this, see: Smith, B. & Holmes, M. (2014) Police Use of Excessive Force in Minority Communities: A Test of the Minority Threat, Place, and Community Accountability Hypotheses, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/sp.2013.12056 and Human Rights Watch (1998) Race as a Factor, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/cases/katrina/Human%20Rights%20Watch/uspohtml/uspo17.htm
- Though as much as 1/5 of Americans report experiencing some mental illness at least once a year, only 4% say they experience significant illnesses that impede their daily activities, where those in the latter category are far more likely to end up in fatal misunderstandings with the police.
- The term “crime” is most likely used by the study’s authors to mean violations of statutory law. Where I use it, however, it’s mostly meant in the sense purported by Lysander Spooner (1875): “Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another,” https://mises.org/library/vices-are-not-crimes.
- Mises, L. (1944) Bureaucracy, https://mises-media.s3.amazonaws.com/Bureaucracy_3.pdf, p. 123
- For a more comprehensive understanding of how the American government has exploited crises like wars, economic crises, and terrorist attacks to justify such expansions of power, see my article Why the State Revels in Crises; Higgs, R. (1989) Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government; and Higgs, R. (2012) Delusions of Power: New Explorations of the State, War, and Economy.
- The conviction rate may be defined as “the number of convictions, including the plea bargains, as a percentage of the total number of prosecutions undertaken within a given area or for a given time.” I.e., how many people are charged for the crimes they’re prosecuted for.
- In addition to this answer, one should also note that luxury goods tend to eventually become commonplace goods if innovation and competition are allowed to proceed unhampered. Nearly everyone has phones and computers in the Western world today, for instance, but it wasn’t always like that. In the beginning, they had extremely high prices and low quality in comparison to today, but they eventually became increasingly more accessible for the common man. For more detail on this point, see the quote by Mises in my article Causes to the Reduction of Child Labor During the Industrial Revolution.
- Hoppe, HH. (2007) Democracy: The God That Failed, p. 263-4, though in a somewhat different context (i.e., why a foreign government likely wouldn’t invade a stateless society).
About the author
Stefan M. Kløvning is a Norwegian high school student studying economics in his spare time, with aspirations of eventually taking a PhD in economics and afterward contributing to growth in the private sector. He’s a follower of the Austrian School of Economics, drawing inspiration mainly from Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard