A Not So Isolated Incident

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Last week police footage went viral of an incident that happened at New Jersey beach. In the video, a 20-year-old woman, Emily Weinman, was punched in the head several times by a police officer while being arrested. The officer’s justification was that Weinman was resisting arrest. Should an officer really need to strike a small woman that is of no real threat? The situation arose from an apparent minor in possession charge, which makes one wonder if escalation and physical force were really required. Those that religiously defend police will tell you that incidents like these are isolated. They may be right if you only saw these stories once or twice a year but when you read the news you see another one…and another one…and another one. How many times can an incident happen before it’s no longer an isolated incident?
The situation in New Jersey makes me think of several other incidents; a Utah nurse physically accosted by an officer for refusing to violate patient rights, a New York man choked to death for selling loose cigarettes, a High School student who was thrown onto the floor by an officer for refusing to leave her seat, the list goes on. These are just the incidents that are recorded, there are those that get less attention or aren’t reported at all. According to the CATO Institute’s Police Misconduct Reporting Project, there were 1,575 incidents of excessive force in 2010. This number likely represents a much bigger problem as many incidents go unreported and there are no government databases to help track them. Over fifteen hundred cases in one year is not an isolated problem, it’s a systemic one. There’s a pattern of police officers using excessive force on the citizens they are sworn to protect.
The use of deadly force aren’t isolated incidents either. According to the Washington Post’s police shooting database, there were 987 people fatally shot by police in 2017. To put that number into perspective let’s compare it to the number of US military members that were killed in Afghanistan within the same year, which was 15. In a year period, police killed over 66 times as many Americans as those killed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. While most of these shooting victims were armed, the presence of a weapon doesn’t necessarily mean that an officer is in danger or that a crime has even been committed. Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by an officer during a traffic stop, had told the officer he was legally carrying a firearm and the officer still decided to end his life. Law enforcement defenders like to point out that Castile had apparently been smoking marijuana prior to the shooting, which would be a misdemeanor under Minnesota law as it prohibits carrying a firearm while under the influence of an illicit substance. However, a misdemeanor doesn’t warrant a summary execution. Neither the Second Amendment nor obtaining a permit protected Castile from the rash actions of a police officer. It’s not unreasonable to assume that others could have been practicing their Second Amendment rights when they were shot and killed by the police.
Excessive force is used as a tool against those that are most marginalized. Minorities suffer higher rates of abuse by police and a large percentage of police shooting victims tend to suffer from mental illness. These groups are the least capable of defending themselves against abuse as they often lack the resources to legally fight back. A study by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that those with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by a police officer. Studies have found that black civilians are more than twice as likely to be unarmed than white civilians if they are shot by police, and are more than three times as likely to be victims of excessive force. These numbers point to more than just one or two bad officers, they point to a problem in training and a systemic problem in policing in general.
The fact is that excessive force and lethal force aren’t isolated incidents. To brush them off as isolated or “not the norm” only works to excuse and enable abuse. To create accountability for our law enforcement, which should be our goal for all tax paid organizations, the prevalence of abuse must be acknowledged. It’s time to stop saying these cases are isolated or that they rarely happen and accept the truth and admit we have a policing problem in our country.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan