Opinion

The toxic culture of American police

When officers are trained to be at war with the citizenry, collateral damage is the inevitable result

A viral video recently recirculated showing how a Maryland police officer dealt with a groundhog that was blocking traffic back in 2018. After seemingly trying to shoo it across the road, the officer suddenly pulled out his gun and shot the animal dead. Bystanders, expecting some kind of cute interaction they might post on The Dodo, were horrified.

In the annals of American police brutality, shooting an inconvenient groundhog is barely noteworthy. But it is an example of the culture problem in American police departments. Cops are trained to be in a constant state of fear, to view all interactions as fraught with extreme danger, and to always be ready to use violence as a first resort.

It all starts with training. As Isaac Scher writes at Insider, American police training is notoriously lax, has no standardization across the country, and often relies on garbage science. The vast majority of time is spent on weapons training and defensive tactics, with little instruction in de-escalation or diplomacy. There is little screening for racist attitudes or extremist affiliations; instead departments rely on implicit bias trainings that are proved not to work.

For example, departments across the country have hired Dave Grossman, an ex-military motivational speaker who has invented a crackpot doctrine he calls "killology," to train their officers, and he conducts private trainings the public can attend as well. As shown in the documentary Do Not Resist, his seminars instruct attendees that they are "at war" (citing false statistics that America is crawling with terrorists and violent maniacs), that they should be in constant terror for their lives, that officers should feel no remorse for killing someone, and that if you are not ready to kill on a moment's notice, "you should not be carrying a gun." He exhibits a morbid fascination with killing that borders on fetishistic — in one seminar, he said that after killing someone you will have the best sex of your life.

It should come as no surprise that many American cops have a hostile occupying army's view towards the citizenry — like the Ohio cop who shouted "blue lives matter" at bystanders who had just witnessed the police killing of Ma'khia Bryant this week.

The warped American police mindset comes out even more clearly in a 2014 episode of the documentary series The Norden. The filmmakers take LAPD police captain Peter Whittingham on a tour of the Nordic countries to see what he thinks of those countries' police departments. Whittingham is a Black immigrant from Jamaica, which provides at least some control on racism as a factor, and he gives every impression of being a decent person who honestly believes in the importance of good policing.

But Whittingham is constantly shocked and disturbed by what he sees as the softness of Nordic policing culture. In Finland, he laughs when he learns that arrested persons are called "customers." "We call them suspects," he says. In Sweden, he is disturbed that police trainees are allowed to attend class in normal clothes, but also surprised at how long their training is. "Two years! And I thought six months was a long time," he says. In Norway, he is horrified to learn that police are unarmed normally, and have to get special permission to use a firearm. "I don't understand the rationale for any police department that tells me that I am to be deployed in the field, not knowing what to expect, and I have to keep my gun locked up in the car." (The rationale is: Norwegian police killed just four people between 2002 and 2016.)

Now, as I have argued before, it would no doubt be impossible to fully replicate the Nordic policing model so long as America is swimming in 400 million guns. Shootouts really do break out all the time in the U.S., and there really is a risk that any random person on the street could be armed.

But that said, policing is not that dangerous of a job even here. Policing ranks 22nd on the list of most deadly jobs — being a garbage collector is more than twice as risky; being an aircraft pilot or flight engineer nearly four times as risky; and being a logger almost eight times as risky. And of those police deaths on the job, about 40 percent of them are caused by transportation accidents.

Police apologists always want to have it both ways on this question — arguing that police deserve wide deference for the risks they bravely face, but also that hair-trigger use of force is justified because police need to keep themselves safe. But if someone is really entrusted with the use of violent power to "protect and serve," there is no justification for offloading that risk onto the public by pulling out a gun every time an officer feels the slightest threat.

Because often the threat is entirely imaginary. Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor sounded genuinely contrite when he was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison for killing Justine Ruszczyk after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in 2017. Ruszczyk simply approached Noor's patrol car with her hand up, and Noor seemingly panicked and opened fire. "The moment I pulled the trigger, I felt fear. The moment I walked around and saw Miss Ruszczyk dying on the ground, I felt horror," he said at the sentencing hearing. "I've lived with this and will continue to live with this. It is my burden. I wish I could relieve that burden others feel of the [loss] I've caused … I will think of Miss Ruszczyk and her family forever."

When police departments instruct their officers that they are basically at war with their fellow citizens, collateral damage is the inevitable result. Wherever one comes down on the police reform question, there is no reforming this culture. It must be torn out by the roots.

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