I have 700 words to address corrupt police unions, systemic racism, the lack of trust in minority communities, and the arms race between the police and many of those they attempt to arrest. Today I will focus on the last two problems, which, I fear, will prove intractable for the foreseeable future.
“Night watchmen” in colonial towns carried no weapons, but in Southern states, as early as 1704, armed militias were enlisted to kidnap and terrorize runaway slaves and return them to their masters.
Northern cities continued the policy of unarmed civilian patrols until New York Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt issued handguns in 1895. City police, starting with Boston in 1838, carried only clubs, just like London’s Bobbies.
Even when freed slaves moved north, Blacks have suffered discrimination and police violence to this day. Peter Baker describes what happened in Chicago’s police interrogation centers starting in 1992: “Blacks were beaten, shackled to steaming hot radiators, electrocuted, raped with sex toys,” and forced to confess crimes they had not committed.
Today, 90 percent of London’s police are still unarmed, and even in a city that is 40 percent nonwhite, only two people in a population of 9.3 million have been killed by police this year. In stark contrast, the U.S., according to The Washington Post, has averaged 1,000 police killings each year since 2015.
More and more Blacks are purchasing and training with guns — an increase of 58 percent this year. The National African American Gun Association now has 30,000 members and 75 chapters nationwide. A more militant Black Gun Owners Association is also recruiting aggressively.
British police believe that if they carried arms, they would appear as a military force in their communities. In stark and dangerous contrast, American police forces have been increasingly militarized.
Alarmingly, in July of this year, the Senate rejected a bipartisan House bill that would halt the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments. What sort of message does an armored vehicle send to communities, especially those that have been terrorized for decades?
In Germany, police train for 130 weeks compared to 19 weeks in the U.S. They graduate with a bachelor’s degree, after attending various university classes, including law, ethics and Muslim culture. Norbert Zohn, a Muslim living in Germany, praises the cops: “Their presence leads to calm. They make you feel safer.” Most American Blacks say the opposite.
An American journalist visited a German police academy, and the imperative of the day was “Don’t Shoot.” Col. Uwe Thieme told her: “We tell our officers that you are not a good guy if you are shooting. You are a good guy if you are not shooting.” In 2018, German police killed 1.3 citizens per million, while the U.S. rate in 2019 was 35.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Americans had interpersonal trust levels as high as Europeans (currently 58 percent), but now only 38 percent of us say that we have faith in others. Significantly, while 77 percent of whites trust the police, only 36 percent of Blacks do.
The Huffington Post’s Michael Hobbes reports that “in 2006, at the height of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, 4 out of 5 Black adolescents said they had been stopped by the police in the previous year — compared to just 1 in 10 whites.”
Across the country there are fewer 911 calls from minority communities, primarily because people there don’t trust the police to respond humanely. When police start criminal investigations in these communities, potential witnesses refuse to testify for fear of incrimination.
Criminologist Wendy Regoeczi explains: “Police can say ‘we can protect you’ until they’re blue in the face, but if people don’t have faith in those statements, they’re not going to say anything — and for good reason.”
Trust once lost takes a long time to restore, and even more intractable is America’s attachment to guns. These problems must be solved before there is any hope for a reduction in police violence.
On Nov. 12, the Latah County Human Rights Task Force will sponsor a Zoom panel on “Biases Regarding Race and Ethnicity.” For more information go to www.humanrightslatah.org.
Nick Gier is professor emeritus at the University of Idaho. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.