Americans are two to three times more at risk from death by cop than anyone anywhere else on the planet.
By Anatole d’Ecotopia
Photo by Chris Fuller
Much is made of the phrase “American Exceptionalism” — but for most of the country’s history, it was really just exceptional for one thing: Being the first — perhaps only — country to ever be both created and defined by legal documents — not religion, not language, and not ethnicity. The creation of a country, a nation, in such a way remains a stunning achievement of 18th rationalism and humanism.
But whatever else might be said of America’s character as a nation (or occasional lack of it), Americans have a well-earned reputation for being highly inventive. And over the years, we have found new and inventive ways to be even more “exceptional”.
One of the ways America has made itself truly exceptional is by way of being the only major country on the face of the planet that has neither free nor universal healthcare. COVID-19 might’ve made it easier for us to kill ourselves… but we were already doing it anyway.
We’re also fairly exceptional for our willingness and capacity to potentially kill everyone else on the planet… but now that the entire planet is in a mutual death pact of uncontrolled climate change, that particular exceptionalism amounts to little more than the ability to shorten the time required for humanity to finish murdering itself.
But very few American institutions have done a better job of encapsulating America’s murderous exceptionalism than community policing as it is practiced in America. The continuing wave of protest sparked by the police murder of George Floyd has in turn sparked a worldwide response in the resistance to institutionalized racism. “Black Lives Matter” is no longer just a rallying cry… it has become a global movement.
This same wave of protest has also resulted in calls for the defunding and even outright abolition of police forces. But, unlike “Black Lives Matter”, the police abolition movement is virtually nonexistent outside the United States.
Because when it comes to murderously out of control cops, we’re Number One… with a bullet.
Only three other countries — China, India, and Russia — have larger police forces than the United States. To put this in better perspective, bear in mind that two of these countries have the highest populations and highest population densities in the world. Adjusted for population density, the United States is almost as heavily policed as China and India put together.
For additional perspective, let’s not forget that China is an ostensibly Communist, Neoauthoritarian state and Russia is a formerly Communist country that has simply collapsed into classic (and classically corrupt) authoritarianism — nothing “neo” about it — much as the United States is itself in danger of collapse under the continued ministrations of Donald Trump and his corruption.
The only thing worth emulating about these other large police forces is that (a) they are relatively well-trained and (b) they are under varying degrees of federal-level oversight and administrative control. U.S. cops, on the other hand, are subjected to virtually no effective administrative or regulatory oversight at any level, and entry-level requirements for joining U.S. metropolitan police forces can fall as low as being nineteen years old, having completed a GED, and having achieved that advanced age absent a criminal record. The results presently speak for themselves.
The desire to outrightly abolish, rather than reform, the institution of community policing is almost uniquely American because the frustrations leading to this desire exist in little greater measure anywhere else on the planet. A Wikipedia list of killings by law enforcement officers across 62 countries and several years shows an average “death by cop” rate for the years and countries listed at 483, with the U.S. weighing in at 1536.
The same list shows rates of police murder per 10 million of population. Excluding statistical outliers like Venezuela (5K+ cop killings / population 29M), the average rate per 10 million comes in at 23… with the U.S. listed at roughly twice that.
Taken at face value, this would tend to show Americans somewhere around two to three times more at risk from death by cop than anyone anywhere else on the planet… outside of Venezuela. This is probably an exaggeration… but not by much. It is no exaggeration at all to say that Black Americans are at least twice as likely to suffer the fate of George Floyd as White Americans. What this means is that, for many among us, police abolition is no mere matter of politics or ideology; it is an attempt to deal with an existential threat.
To the issue of defunding, versus abolition, there are really no credible arguments against it. The combined funding for the ten largest police departments in the United States for fiscal 2020 weighs in at fifteen billion dollars. That’s over half the cost of putting a man on the moon in 1970 dollars. That’s fifteen billion that could be spent on community services, infrastructure, or — god forbid — healthcare services in the midst of a global pandemic. What we are getting for those dollars, besides a greater likelihood of being shot dead in the street, is questionable… to say the least.
But however much might be said in favor of abolishing American policing, in terms of saving both money and lives, it is not — as a political reality — going to happen. The case for reform, on the other hand, has never been better or more pressingly urgent.
For some idea of what that reform might look like, let’s look back at that depressing worldwide “death by cop” list — and take a look at the bottom of the list. That 483 average cop killings per country doesn’t just include extremes like Venezuela PD’s 5,287 kills. It also includes countries for which the fatality rate is near, or close, to zero. As incredible as it may seem to an American citizen, there are actually places in the world where the cops don’t kill anybody.
So, assuming avoiding death by cop is a desired outcome (you’d think so, but you can’t please everyone), what are the countries in question doing right that we’re doing wrong? What do the United Kingdom and Poland — at one fatality each per 20M, Japan — at one fatality per 50M, and Denmark/Iceland/Switzerland/Belgium (no police murders at all), all have in common?
Low Firearm Dependency
The majority of on-ground police in the UK and Iceland are not armed. Police in Japan, while armed, receive extensive hand-to-hand martial arts training, are expected to use firearms as a last resort, and can face substantial penalties for failing to do so. Any one of the firearm-related complaints filed against Derek Chauvin before he choked the life out of George Floyd would have removed him from service in any of these countries.
High Levels of Training
The minimum training/education requirement for a police officer in the UK starts with a three-year undergraduate study program that needs to be completed before any consideration of becoming an officer. Comparable requirements in Japan can extend to six years. Poland, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Belgium all require at least two years of similar training, frequently leveraging the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training. Derek Chauvin’s highest academic achievement was a food service course taken at a junior college in preparation for working at McDonald’s. Once again… the results speak for themselves.
In every one of these cases, there is either extensive oversight or outright federal/federal-equivalent level control of police forces. What little oversight existed at the Federal level in the United States was done away with by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017. Let’s be clear: The United States no more needs a nationalized police force than it needs a Space Force. But there is a desperate need for national policy… and national leadership.
None of this is to say that a country like the U.S. can be expected to model policy on small, wealthy, racially homogeneous ‘socialist shithole’ utopias like Denmark — any more than it should model policy on outright authoritarian states like China or Russia.
What we are saying is that there are reasons for the near-exclusively American voices calling to abolish police. There are reasons we are now a month into continued protest against systematic and institutionalized racism… and against police violence used as a tool to further that repression.
And there are reasons why discussions of legitimate reform are tabled… in favor of the pandering tokenism of speculating which U.S. female politician of color will be invited to join Joe Biden’s ticket, ignoring the near-certainty of it being Kamala Harris — who certainly meets the “woman of color” criteria, but also meets the same criteria as the recently self-disqualified Amy Klobuchar — chumminess, as a former DA, with a law enforcement community that can expect the bare minimum of reform effort… if any meaningful reform effort at all.
But chumminess and tokenism is no more going to clear the streets of protest than Donald Trump’s incompetent authoritarian bluster — only legitimate reform is going to do that.
There is not, there never will be a “Global Police Abolition Movement”. But the purely American movement to remove American policing… that’s going to be with us for a long, long time.