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Killers on the Road

The Whack ‘Em and Stack ‘Em Mentality of American Cops

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Police work continues to be a relatively safe occupation. In the 1970s, an average of 220 officers died each year. In the 1980s, 185 officers were killed on average, with the average number dropping to 155 in the 1990s. The number of police deaths continues to decline, year by year. According to the publication Officer Down, there were only 95 “duty related” officer deaths in 2013. Forty-two of these fatalities were vehicle related. Another 14 deaths resulted from heart attacks while on the clock. Only 27 cops died from gunfire last year and several of those were shot by other cops.

Craig Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, contends that “law enforcement remains the most dangerous occupation in America today, and those who serve and make the ultimate sacrifice are true portraits in courage.”

This is nonsense. Compared to the daily perils of being a retail clerk in a 7-Eleven or toiling on a construction site, let alone working on a trawler in the Gulf of Alaska, logging in the Pacific Northwest or working in a deep mine, policing is a fairly invulnerable trade.

But as vividly recounted by James Bovard in a piece for CounterPunch this week, it has probably never been riskier to be pulled over by a cop on one of America’s roads. Bovard writes:

“Killings by police are not a negligible proportion of the nation’s firearms death toll. Shootings by police accounted for almost 10 percent of the homicides in Los Angeles County in 2010, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent and criminal law professor, compiled a database of police shootings and estimated that in the United States in 2011 police shot more than 1,100 people, killing 607.”

The public apprehension that cops are often borderline psychotic, hair-trigger-ready to open fire on the slightest pretext, virtually immune from serious sanction, is growing apace, fueled by such incidents as the dog slaughter on an interstate in Tennessee. CNN featured grainy film of the episode taken from one of the police cruisers.

James Smoak plus wife Pamela and son Brandon were traveling from Nashville along Interstate 40 to their Saluda, NC, home on New Year’s Day when they noticed a trooper following them. In Cookeville, about 90 miles east of Nashville, the Smoaks were pulled over by the trooper and three local police cars. The cops ordered them out of the car, made them kneel and then handcuffed them.

At this point the Smoaks family implored the police to shut the doors of their car so the two family dogs couldn’t jump out. The cops did nothing. Out hopped Patton the bulldog. A cop promptly raised his shotgun and blew its head off, amid the horrified screams of the Smoaks family.

Of course, the cops later said Patton was acting in a threatening manner and that the uniformed shot-gunner “took the only action he could to protect himself and gain control of the situation,” but the film seems to show Patton wagging his tail the moment before he was blown away.

Why were the Smoaks stopped by the four-car posse? Mr. Smoaks had left his wallet on the roof of his car at the filling station, and someone phoned in a report that he’d seen the wallet fly off of a car and fall onto the highway with money spilling out. Well, Mr. Smoaks won’t make that silly mistake again.

Scroll through some Middle America websites and you’ll find much fury about what happened to Patton, as an episode ripely indicative of how cops carry on these days. Here’s “Police State in Progress,” by Dorothy Anne Seese writing in the sparky Sierra Times. The Times bills itself as “An Internet Publication for Real Americans.”

After relating the death of Patton, Seese brought up other recent police rampages:

“A couple of months ago, a woman was shot to death in her car at a drive-through Walgreens pharmacy for trying to get Soma by a forged prescription. The officer who shot the woman—who had a 14-month old baby with her in the car—claimed self-defense because the woman was trying to run over him. However, the medical examiner found she had been shot from an angle to the left and rear of her position in the driver’s seat. Self defense? The officer is under investigation for second-degree murder and has been fired from the Chandler police department. However, a child is motherless, a man has been deprived of his wife and companion, the mother of his child, because his wife tried to get a drug with a phony prescription. Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s daughter did the same thing and got a slap on the wrist. It seems the law now considers everyone guilty until proven innocent, with people in high places excepted. The number of horror stories increases daily in Amerika.”

There was a time when “Amerika” was a word solely in left currency. Not anymore, if the conservative, populist Sierra Times is any guide. Check out its Whack’em & Stack’em feature about killings by cops and you’ll sense the temperature of outrage.

This is a revised version of a story that originally ran in the January 2003 print edition of CounterPunch.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.