SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why Are Americans Killing More Cops?

“Tough on Crime” Sentencing Laws Come Home to Roost

It sounds like the plot of the dystopian movie “Robocop”: policemen are getting shot like they’re going out of style.

Violent crime in general is decreasing. But more cops are being killed in the line of duty. According to the FBI, 72 police officers died under fire in 2011. That’s up 25 percent from 2010 and up 75 percent from 2008.

“The 2011 deaths were the first time that more officers were killed by suspects than car accidents, according to data compiled by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The number was the highest in nearly two decades, excluding those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995,” reports The New York Times.

According to a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “In many cases the officers were trying to arrest or stop a suspect who had previously been arrested for a violent crime.”

Why this spike in cop killing?

Experts blame a variety of factors for the carnage: the economic depression, low manpower due to budget cuts, policies that assign more cops to the most dangerous neighborhoods, and more aggressive patrolling of those areas, including “stop and frisk” stops of people the police deem suspicious. Maybe.

I think something else is missing in analyses of cop shootings: the motivation of the shooter.

Corporate media outlets cite the shooters’ prior records in order to imply: once a violent felon, always a violent felon. Sometimes that’s true. But not always. There’s more to it than that. Like law-abiding citizens, criminals employ rational decision-making strategies.

Harsh sentencing laws are killing police officers.

Imagine that you’re on parole in California, one of 24 states with “three strikes” sentencing laws. Let’s say you have two prior felony convictions. It doesn’t take much. One California man earned a “strike” for “violent assault”; he landed 25 years to life for stealing pizza from some kids. In Texas, a handyman who refused to refund $120.75 for a shoddy air conditioning repair landed his third strike; the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his sentence to life in prison with possible parole. And you can get two (or more) strikes from one criminal incident.

So imagine yourself in this situation:

Maybe you’ve got drugs in your automobile. Or you’re clean, but you’re not sure about what your passengers might be carrying. (In a car, one person’s contraband is everyone’s.) When you see flashing lights in your rearview mirror, you must choose:

Pull over and cooperate, knowing that you’ll get life behind bars?

Or do you take a terrible chance, shooting the officer and making a run for it? Harsh mandatory sentencing laws like “three strikes” make killing a cop a free gamble. Who knows? You might escape. If you get caught, the sentence will be no worse than if you’d done the right thing.

A joint study by the Long Beach Police Department and California State University—Long Beach found that “in the Los Angeles area (where there is a higher concentration of repeat offenders and three-strikes prosecution has been more actively pursued), there is a notable increase in…resisting and assaulting officers, and a significant increase (113% between 1996 and 2001) in two- and three-strikes crimes with a police officer victim.” A 2002 study by the National Institute of Justice found that three-strike laws “increase police murders by more than 40 percent.”

Another factor that authorities and “tough on crime” politicians fail to consider is how the increased militarization of civilian police forces dehumanizes them in the eyes of the public. Police outfitted in riot gear respond to peaceful protests attended by families with swinging batons and pepper spray. Traffic cops dress like they’re patrolling the Sunni Triangle rather than the suburbs, scowling at the taxpayers who pay their salaries as they sweat under their Kevlar vests.

When Princess Diana died, millions of Americans wept. Be honest. How do you feel when you hear that a cop has been shot to death? Odds are that you feel nothing at all.

During the first few years of the occupation, British officials ordered their forces to assume a less aggressive posture toward Iraqi civilians than their American counterparts. The Brits went light on the helmets and body armor, wearing uniforms that made them seem more like, well, policemen. Many eschewed sunglasses.

British casualty rates fell. Looking human, it turns out, is safer than protecting yourself. The thing is, killing is hard. The more human you appear, the more relatable you are, the harder it becomes, the guiltier your killer feels. Which presumably makes them less likely to kill again. (To make killing easier for its soldiers, the U.S. military deliberately reduces the available resolution on night-vision goggles, scrambling the appearance of the enemy to make him look alien.)

The more aggressive our policemen act, the more they look like military occupation troops than civilian peace officers, the easier it is for a gunman pull the trigger.

Remember this article the next time you get pulled over. Ask yourself: how do I feel? Odds are, the answer will involve a mixture of fear and contempt. Then imagine what you’d do if you were one arrest away from life in prison—and you had a gun.

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)

8 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why Are Americans Killing More Cops?

  1. Ted,

    “According to a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, ‘In many cases the officers were trying to arrest or stop a suspect who had previously been arrested for a violent crime.'”

    Time for boring old journalism to kick in. Doesn’t this seem like a profoundly vague statistic? “In many cases”? Surely a cop-killing is examined down to the microscopic level. I’d be very interested in knowing the exact percentage. My guess is that it’s so close to 100% that it makes your conclusion about the suspect having nothing to lose unbreakable.

    It’s interesting (to me, at least) to notice the parallel between 9/11. When 9/11 happened, a few people asked “Why? What, exactly, were the motives for this?” They were shouted down pretty damn quick. I still remember the fellow employee who looked at me like I was out of my mind for asking such a question. Eventually, though, the question did have to be addressed. 9/11 happened because the U.S. hypocritically interferes with the world, blathering on and on about democracy, the rights of man, and all that jazz, while we destabilize countries, fix elections, and so forth. There is blood on our country’s hands all the way to the armpits, but we act like we’re the purest, noblest, gosh-darn-bestest people there is.

  2. And, sorry. Hit send in error.

    The point I was making was that the cops, similarly, seem to not understand why they are now the subject of a similar sort of backlash as the one that caused 9/11. Until they start honestly putting their own house in order, the number of killings will probably just continue to increase.

  3. The military tries to perform as a police force in the many nations occupied by the multinational state that operates from Washington, D.C. In some of its territory, namely, that territory once referred to as the domestic and now known as the homeland, the police force is being used as a military force.

    The functions of a police force and a military force are very different: one will destroy civil society to attain a military objective, and the other’s violence must be constrained in order to protect civil society. The death of hundreds is referred to as acceptable collateral damage in a military context but those same deaths of innocents to make a single arrest should not be acceptable in a police context. The arrest of David Koresh in the Waco incident is an example of use of military force where a police action would have been adequate. There was no need to kill the children to save them from their alleged abusers.

    This is further complicated by the movement of individuals between these two cultures resulting in a blending and loss of identity and purpose.

    Military fighter pilots can not make a transition to being commercial airline pilots because the character traits selecting him for doing one job disqualifies him for the other. Those who have been trained to shoot first and ask questions later will have difficulty in a culture that should demand that questions be asked first, while shooting is deferred to later, if not at all.

  4. “To make killing easier for its soldiers, the U.S. military deliberately reduces the available resolution on night-vision goggles, scrambling the appearance of the enemy to make him look alien.”

    This is an interesting assertion, Ted. Can you share the source, please? (Not arguing with you, genuinely interested.)

  5. @Ted
    Those are some interesting studies from California you quote. But given that correlation does not prove causation, they’re little more than a jumping off point. Do you know if they purused it further, or simply left the results in the wind, as it were?

    @alex
    “9/11 happened because the U.S. hypocritically interferes with the world, blathering on and on about democracy, the rights of man, and all that jazz, while we destabilize countries, fix elections, and so forth. There is blood on our country’s hands all the way to the armpits, but we act like we’re the purest, noblest, gosh-darn-bestest people there is.”

    We haven’t agreed on much, especially lately, but I would be remiss were I not to commend you for how entirely accurate this sentiment is.

  6. Thank you, Whimsical. That was very gracious of you.

    Liebchen, the practice Ted is describing goes back to, at least, WWI. The soldier is trained to shoot a circular target, then an oval target, then a silhouette of a humanoid shape. By then, they’ve been gradually conditioned to shoot a person. We now do this with Nintendo.

  7. Cops have been showing their enthusiastic pummeling of peaceful non-violent Occupiers. This has to have an effect on the populations that normally live with high daily violence.

    If the people who are only trying to make a public statement in a park are being abused, what chance does a person who sees militarized police attacking people in their neighborhood have against this demonstrable insensitivity? Their calculation has to switch from flight to fight at some level of police aggression. Lightly armed people have repelled heavily armed invasions in numerous countries, such as Vietnam and now Afghanistan, albeit at high costs to both sides.

    This violence can escalate if the populations occupied are not respected as citizens. Low intensity civil war is a bad option. It should not come to be seen as a lesser evil.

  8. This reminds me of the Star Wars movies where the stormtroopers can’t shoot anybody, but Han, Luke, Chewy, and Leia kill dozens of stormtroopers even though they are wearing all that body armor. It’s because the stormtroopers look alien while the rebels look normal, there is actual phychology to this.