To Protect and Serve

I don’t like dealing with police. I picked up this prejudice, which I feel is an intelligent way of dealing with police, from lots of experiences that came out of the decade of protest in the mid to late 1960s and the early 1970s. I saw how police dealt with kids that hung out around the McCarthy for President office in my hometown during the summer of 1968, and I saw it while protesting in Washington, DC, during the May Day demonstrations in 1971. Everyone saw it on their TV sets and read about it in newspapers during the Democratic Convention in 1968. It was called a police riot in 1968.

When policing became more organized across the US with the law and order crusades beginning during the presidency of Richard Nixon, and mass incarceration began following the wars on drugs that morphed under Reagan, more reliable evidence was added to the observations about policing in the U.S. and mass incarceration.

Police became a militarized force with the end of the Vietnam era. SWAT teams proliferated and police became identifiable, mostly, with military outfits and buzzed heads that were reminiscent of the military. Body builders also seemed to make it into the ranks of local police forces during this same period. These stereotypes do not fit all police.

Then, police killings of Black and brown people began to make it into the national consciousness, if anyone cared to look. Stop and frisk policies in minority communities and outside of minority communities were the order of the day. Who can forget the outrageous beating that Rodney King suffered at the hands of the police? It was impossible not to pay attention!

All stereotypes? I don’t think so, as the shootings of Black and brown people, particularly Black and brown men escalated across the US. With the advent of cell phone cameras, shootings and beatings by police began to be recorded on camera, and it seemed as if an incident had to be accompanied by a photograph or video to be credible.

Police killings of civilians were under-counted so much because of the vagaries of regulations covering the reporting of those deaths. The Guardian (“US police killings undercounted by half, sturdy using Guardian data finds,” October 11, 2017) began a project called The Counted in 2015, which

attempt[ed] to track police killing throughout the US. The project was intended to help remedy the lack of reliable data on police killing, a lack that became especially visible after the 2014 unrest in Ferguson put policing in the national spotlight.

The Guardian reporting in The Counted project was based on a study from Harvard University.

Other federal databases, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) arrest-related death count and the FBI’s supplementary homicide reports were similarly criticised for severely undercounting police-related deaths.

In 2016, according to The Counted Project (“Young black men again faced highest rate of US police killings in 2016,”  Guardian, January 8, 2017):

Black males aged 15-34 were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers last year, according to data collected for The Counted, an effort by the Guardian to record every such death. They were also killed at four times the rate of young white men.

Racial disparities persisted in 2016 even as the total number of deaths caused by police fell slightly. In all, 1,091 deaths were recorded for 2016, compared with 1,146 logged in 2015. Several 2015 deaths only came to light last year, suggesting the 2016 number may yet rise.

With the political system moving to the far right, the impetus for more law and order agendas seems where the society is heading. Seldom, if ever, are police held accounted for on or off-duty killings. The mantra that the officer, or officers, felt threatened is all that is needed to justify police killings. It happens with such alarming frequency that it often appears that the so-called rule of law falls by the wayside when the police don badges.

Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.

“There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility,” David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Vox’s Amanda Taub. “And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction.”

If police are charged, they’re rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated (“Cops are almost never prosecuted and convicted for use of force,” Vox, November 14, 2018).

Here, at CounterPunch, we name names: The names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice stand out among the many Black and brown men and women killed by police.


Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).