Police Violence: Institutionalized Terrorism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The list of Americans killed by the police this year continues to increase with no end in sight. Many are familiar with the sad stories involving Breonna Taylor, Tyree Davis, Daniel Prude, Rayshard Brooks, Sean Monterrosa and Michael Forest Reinoehl. As of Sept 6, 2020, the police had killed 781 people; Wikipedia offers detailed profiles of many of these killings.

Last year, police killed 1,004 people and, as a recent Harvard study found, between 2013 and 2017, 5,400 were killed by the police. Going further, it found that “Black people were on average three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Of the total fatalities, 2,353 (42.83%) of those killed were white and 1,487 (27.07%) were Black.”

The findings of the Harvard study are compounding by a recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Based on information from more than two million 911 calls in two US cities,” it noted, “ … white officers dispatched to Black neighbourhoods fired their guns five times as often as Black officers dispatched for similar calls to the same neighbourhood.”

The ACLU offers a sobering assessment of this situation in “The Other Epidemic: Fatal Police Shootings in the Time of COVID-19.” It warns:

The report finds fatal shootings by police are so routine that, even during a national pandemic, with far fewer people traveling outside of their homes and police departments reducing contact with the public so as not to spread the virus, police have continued to fatally shoot people at the same rate so far in 2020 as they did in the same period from 2015 to 2019.

It confirms the Harvard findings, noting that “approximately 46 percent of fatal police shootings kill white people, who account for roughly 60 percent of the U.S. population. Another 24 percent of fatal police shootings kill Black people, who account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population.”


Killings are but one – and the most extreme – expression of the violence that are an endemic feature of American policing. The Dept. of Justice identifies five levels of “officer response.” They are:

Officer Presence: No force is necessary. The mere presence of an officer is suitable to deter crime or diffuse a situation. Considered the best way to resolve a situation.

Verbalization: Force is not physical. Officers use calm, nonthreatening commands, e.g., “Let me see your identification and registration.” May increase volume and shorten commands in an attempt to gain compliance (“stop” or “don’t move”).

Empty-Hand Control: Officers use bodily force to gain control of a situation. There are soft techniques (grabs, holds, joint locks) and hard techniques (punches and kicks) used to restrain an individual.

Less-Lethal Methods: Officers use less-lethal technologies to gain control of a situation. These can be in the form of blunt impact such as using a baton or projectile to immobilize a combative person. Chemical: chemical sprays or projectiles embedded with chemicals to restrain an individual (e.g., pepper spray). Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs): These devices discharge a high-voltage, low- amperage jolt of electricity at a distance (e.g., Tasers), officers may use conducted energy devices to immobilize an individual.

Lethal Force: Officers use lethal weapons to gain control of a situation. This is the last and most severe response in the continuum and should only be used if a suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or another individual.

Most illuminating, key words in each level of “response” suggest implicit violence at the root of police enforcement: “deter,” “commands,” “force,” “control” and “threat.” None of these “responses” ostensibly involve violence but each can be infused with malice aforethought. In each response, violence could be either directly expressed or implied.

Excessive force is an endemic feature of police practice. In a series of reports by the DoJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Contracts between Police and the Public,” for 2008 (released in 2011) and 2015 (released in 2018), police violence is detailed. Excessive use-of-force involved being pushed or grabbed, kicked or hit, sprayed chemical/pepper spray, electroshock weapon (stun gun), pointed gun, threatened force, shouted at resident and cursed at resident.

For 2008, it noted that approximately 1.4 percent of Americans who had contact with the police experience some level of use of force from police officers. Making matters worse, of those who did have force used against them, 74 percent felt that the force was excessive.

For 2015, it reported that “an estimated 21% of U.S. residents age 16 or older — about 53.5 million persons — had experienced some type of contact with the police during the prior 12 months.” It then noted, “this was down from 26% of residents in 2011.” It found that nearly half – 48.4 percent – experienced “recent police-initiated contact.” It details this as follows:

The majority of those who experienced the threat of force (84%) perceived the action to be excessive, as did most of those who were pushed, grabbed, hit, or kicked (78%), or had a gun pointed at them (65%). Handcuffing was the least-likely police action for residents to perceive as excessive (28%)

These assessments have to be looked at skeptically. The actual level or amount of violence committed by law-enforcement officials is unknowable because the police – and government agencies at every level that oversee them – don’t want Americans to know the actual violence.

In a 2018, United States Commission on Civil Rights reported, in “Police Use of Force,” that “the Department of Justice surveys every law enforcement agency in the country to collect data on the use of force, but not all such agencies offer data of the DOJ …” It went on to assert: “Not only is the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data incomplete, but studies have shown that it may also be selectively reported.”

Nevertheless, police officers can be exposed to more potential traumatic events than the general population. Such events including natural disasters, rape, horrific accidents, suicides and vicious assaults. But they can also involve “contempt of cop,” bullying and “duty-related shootings.” Incidents that met the FBI Uniform Crime Report definition of violent crime made up only around 1 percent of calls for service.

Officer.com – which promotes itself as “Law Enforcement’s leading source for News …” – reports based on an uncited source: “… a recent study on police use of force indicated that force was used in just 1 of 1,167 cases. Less than 1 in 1,100 calls for service, and less than 1 in 120 criminal arrests resulted in police use of force.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that in 2017 about 13 per 100,000 police officers died on the job. This pales against the death rate of farmers (24 deaths per 100,000), truck drivers (26.9), and trash collectors (34.9).


According to Vox, there are more than 600,000 police officers in more than 12,000 local police agencies operating throughout the country. It notes, “the officer corps has gotten more diverse over the years, with women, people of color, and LGBTQ officers making up a growing share of the profession. “

However, it warns, “the officer corps remains overwhelmingly white, male, and straight.”

Police are hired disproportionately from the military, trained in military-style academies that focus largely on the deployment of force and equipped with lethal weapons at all times.

Many within American law enforcement see their role as the embodiment of the “warrior” culture. Many believe that police work is inherently violent, and that officers are the last opportunity for law and order in an increasingly dangerous society. In this world, police are alone, even reviled by the public — their actions misunderstood and the threats they face underappreciated.

Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, a Louisville police officer who was shot during the raid at Breonna Taylor’s apartment, allegedly wrote to his fellow officers: “YOU ARE LOVED AND SUPPORTED by most of the community. Now go be the Warriors you are, but please be safe! None of these ‘peaceful’ protesters are worth your career or freedom.”

In 1997, the Dept. of Defense introduced 1033 program has given $7.4 billion worth of military-grade surplus equipment to U.S. law enforcement agencies. More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies are enrolled in the program. The equipment that’s been off-loaded from the military to local authorities includes office equipment, clothing, tools and radios as well as what is known as “controlled equipment” like rifles and armored vehicles.

One of the most peculiar features of the 1033 program is that the DoD does not provide training to those who receive controlled equipment. Rather, each agency must train and certify itself.

To meet this challenge, a host police consulting firms have emerged to fill the void. Among them are RealWorld Tactical, Blue Shield Tactical Systems,

Precision Rifle Workshop, Dynamic Solutions Training Group and Security Systems International. As one report notes, they “charge departments thousands of dollars to teach tactics more suited for war than for civil society.”

To expect fundamental changes in policing, the militarized or warrior culture – one underwritten by a bloated military-industrial complex – must be ended. And this is, sadly, not being considered.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.