The Facade of the American Police Force

By Hannah Rajalingam

If you’ve been watching the news at all since May 2020, you probably know about Derek Chauvin, the infamous police officer that killed George Floyd. Initially, protests seemed achingly repetitive in calling for an end to police brutality, especially racially biased brutality. It hurt to see each shooting under slightly varying headlines and different victims names and watch nothing happen. But as the summer of 2020 picked up, cries to defund the police began to grow. And as we transitioned into 2021, there were some towns that took up that call, though not exactly in such a way the protests might have implied.

We have often viewed police as protectors against crimes. Someone to call when a robbery occurs, a drug deal is made, or when a murder occurs. But this idea of violence being the main thing police deal with has frankly never been accurate. The New York Times article “How Do The Police Actually Spend Their Time?” points out that police only spend about 4% of their time responding to what the FBI considers violent crime (which is stricter than most state’s definitions). The New Orleans Police Department spends slightly less than 16% of their working hours responding to crimes involving gun violence, homicides, non-fatal shootings, domestic violence calls (non-violent crime), and violent crimes combined. Chances are that police will more often than not be used in place of social workers. They’re called when a mentally ill person is having a breakdown (such as Nicholas Chavez). They’re called to mediate potential “situations.” Consistently, they’re rarely called to the incidents we associate with being a police officer. We’ve dangerously created an idea of police as our frontline soldiers, illustrating this idea of the daily violence police officers encounter. This idea has trickled down heavily into police training.

As stated in the article “We Train Police to be Warriors — and Then Send Them Out to be Social Workers” by Vox’s Roge Karma, of the national average of the 840 hours police spend in training before receiving a badge and gun, 168 of them go to use of force and firearm skills. 42 hours go to criminal investigation, 38 to operating an emergency vehicle, 86 to legal education, 13 to domestic violence, 10 to mental illness, and 9 to mediation/conflict management. In this breakdown of policing hours, it seems that the design of having 1/5th of their training on firearm skills but only dealing with a fraction of that percentage of gun violence on the job is alarming. And this disparity repeats itself numerous times when looking at local departments such as the Sacramento Police, which only faces 3.8% of violent crime. Christy E. Lopez accurately described the issue when she said “The spectrum of skill sets we are currently asking police to embody is simply not realistic.” As a society, and consequently in police training culture, the skill set necessary to become an officer appears quite narrow, but in actuality the level to which we rely on the police to deal with everyday occurrences is unrealistic, at least without modifications to their current training structure.

In this, police have come to regard the people they are supposed to protect as criminals. With such a severe lack of conflict resolution or mediation training, it’s unsurprising, yet still disturbing, to find that cops rely heavily on their firearms to “diffuse” situations. However, the rate at which it occurs is shockingly scary. In the past year alone, 926 people have been fatally shot by police. The total count of black people killed makes up 26.6% of police shootings currently. 22% of the people that have been shot by police had mental illnesses. All of these statistics present a horrifying reality of the effect the police have on our society. The disproportionate amount of black people is due to a prevalent racial bias that BLM protests have recognized and fought against having in the criminal justice system. The one-fifth of mentally ill people shot by police shows how the lack of mental health training, overuse of weapons by police, and the catch-all job of police has left the most discriminated members of society the most vulnerable to the hands of police as well. And through all this, it’s evident that with such a low rate of reported violent crime, the legitimate threats police face on a daily basis couldn’t have warranted such a large gross body count. Yet we still fund the police as if they’re on the “front lines” daily.

The use of force in policing has been a controversial and fatal issue, especially in recent years.

City averages from 1977 to 2017 show that the average budget spending for police has increased by 1.2%, meaning millions every year. Comparingly, the same cities only budget 3% for parks and 5% for housing. This continuous rise in police spending can be linked to calls for “law and order” by politicians, the 1994 crime bill which allots federal aid for police spending, and the ‘60s “war on crime”. Law and order cries often ignored the underlying issues like poverty and proximity, recognized influences for higher crime rates in certain neighborhoods. Instead they inspire a view of heavy policing and criminals constantly being put away in order to ensure “safer streets”. The 1994 crime bill, while expanding budgets for police, has waned federal aid for social services and antipoverty programs. And the ‘60s “war on crime” coupled with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Law Enforcement Assistance Act, purveyed Johnson’s idea of urban police as “frontline soldiers” and turned low income, POC neighborhoods into targeted areas for arrests. Collectively, these bills and ideals have viewed police as soldiers, warriors, even milital and the people as the criminals that endanger the people. Quoctrung Bui and Emily Badger sum this up in their article “Cities Grew Safer. Police Budgets Kept Growing“ when they write “police budgets have grown, just as Americans believe the problem of crime has. This sense of threat, often racialized, has been constant for 50 years”. And with this, the consequent assumption that we need exorbitant police budgets to combat this “threat” has grown as well.

With all that’s wrong with the deeply flawed American police system, it’s difficult to imagine how it could change. Fortunately, there is an exemplary city to look towards here in the US. Cincinnati, Ohio 2001: Timothy Thomas (19-year old male) was killed by CPD after resisting arrest for a minor offense. Following this incident the CPD began collaborating with the Department Of Justice to improve their department, one that typically received hundreds of public complaints yearly. The collaboration centered around creating transparent police-civilian interactions and creating a mental health training program. From the year of the shooting to 2007, Cincinnati officers have seen use-of-force incidents nearly cut in half from 1,200, and from 2003 to 2007 they saw public complaints drop from 783 to 64. These improvements can be attributed to a better understanding by police on ensuring peaceful interactions with civilians and their better understanding of mental illnesses and how that can play into a person’s behavior in high stress situations. Cincinnati has shown how on a smaller scale it is possible for police departments to implement positive changes to counteract the root causes of high police-related deaths in the US.