As a kid, I was raised to believe that the police were my friends. If I was ever in danger, any police officer I would find could be trusted to help me. They were valiant, self-sacrificing men who held the weight of society up on their strong shoulders. Their noble duty was printed on the side of every squad car and on the front of every badge- ‘To Serve and Protect’.
I remember the precise moment when the police turned in my mind from trusted protectors into hazards that must be avoided at all costs. It was in the middle of a cross-country road trip with my girlfriend and our friend Alicia. We pulled into a gas station in Brady, TX at around 2 AM to fill up on fuel and coffee. Three squad cars were parked out front, and six officers were standing around inside taking a break from what was no doubt a long night. As soon as the girls and I stepped out of the car, all eyes were on us.
Now I’m a shaggy, bearded chap. My girlfriend has several felted dreadlocks, as did Alicia. We looked a bit like hippies, which was enough to set off alarm bells in the minds of these officers. As soon as I walked out with my coffee, two of them were standing in front of my car, staring at me.
“Sir, do you realize a front license plate is required in the State of Texas?”
I did not. I’d been stopped a few times in Dallas for unrelated things over the last year and not one single officer had ever mentioned the lack of a front license plate as a problem. And this cop wasn’t actually concerned about it either. Within thirty seconds he was asking me if I had any illegal drugs in the vehicle, and then he began pushing for a search. We spent ninety minutes out there in all. The cops patted us down several times, and threatened to call out the police dogs if we did not consent. Unfortunately for them, the dogs were “asleep” at that late an hour and they eventually let us go. But not before doing their level best to pressure me into consenting to a search.
This may surprise some of you, but I have a concealed handgun license. Which, among other things, is a card that certifies I have not so much as a misdemeanor to my name. Despite my lack of a record and the fact that we hadn’t actually broken any law, two cops spent over an hour grilling me in an attempt to trick me into revealing my suspected drug usage. The lead cop (who informed me he had been trained to sniff out lies) asked me if I had ever in my life smoked Marijuana about fifty times.
What incensed them most was that I did not immediately consent to the search of my vehicle. I never carry drugs, but I also never consent to any search. I believe I have a right to be presumed innocent by law enforcement, as well as a right to freedom from unlawful search and seizure. The problem is, no police officers seem to share my belief in the importance of those rights. Thanks to this incident- and three others like it, I no longer feel safe when I see police officers. I know for a fact that any one of them could decide at any time that I look like a criminal. And if they decide that, it is up to me to prove my innocence.
Now then- that’s all one first person account of police wrongdoing. I wouldn’t be typing up this column if I didn’t have specific, factual, systemic allegations to make. And I do. So, mom & dad, here’s my thesis: the American criminal justice system is fundamentally broken. This is not a minor problem. It is not something we can wait to fix. It represents the single greatest abuse of human rights our country is currently guilty of. I’ve divided my argument into three parts.
1. The Police are Not Here to Protect Us
That’s not some pseudo-anarchist ‘rage against the machine’ bullcrap. It is a cold hard fact that you cannot deny or argue with. Despite what is printed on those squad cars and badges, protecting you is not the job of any police officer. My proof for this? The United States Supreme Goddamn Court. In 2005 they ruled:
“…the police did not have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm, even a woman who had obtained a court-issued protective order against a violent husband making an arrest mandatory for a violation.”
This isn’t something I have an issue with. Nor do I believe it represents a problem in and of itself. In most cities, the average police response time is somewhere between nine and eleven minutes. Which is plenty of time for any rapist or axe murderer worth his salt to do whatever evil shit he has planned for you. If some bad person attempts to do violence to me, I am the only person I can rely on to defend myself. That is cold hard brutal fact, and no amount of technology or surveillance drones will ever change it.
Even if a police officer were to arrive on scene in time and choose to risk his life protecting me against a madman, the odds are very good that said bad guy is much more skilled with a weapon than Joe Patrolman. Violent criminals practice frequently with their weapons, while most police officers fire a few hundred rounds per year in training at best. The average cop, in a combat situation, hits about 17% of the time. So yeah- if you’re ever in immediate danger of harm, the odds of a police officer arriving in time to help, being capable of helping and choosing to risk his life to help you are extremely low.
So those are the facts. It isn’t any cop’s job to protect you, nor are most of them competent enough with their weapons to do so. And yet, in spite of all this police in America are more heavily armed than ever before. Suburban cops in Allen, TX troll around with submachine guns. We have tens of thousands of men as well armed and armored as soldiers, but without the training or responsibility to go with it. Even our SWAT teams- ostensibly formed to deal with heavily armed supercriminals- are mainly used to enforce non-violent misdemeanor warrants. In Maryland, only 6% of SWAT deployments were in response to the sort of violent situations those teams were formed to deal with.
If you really want to depress yourself, do a Google search for ‘officers shoot dog’. Hell, I’ll even screengrab the results for you:
There are stories about breaking into the wrong house and shooting animals, shooting caged animals while serving misdemeanor warrants. It seems like every week brings a new story about some cop firing off his weapon just for the sake of seeing it draw blood. When you give a man a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you give a man a machine gun and tell him he’s fighting a war against ‘crime’, everyone looks like a criminal. And it sure doesn’t help that some large departments specifically reject candidates that are too smart to be cops. The reasoning for that move?
“…those who scored too high could get bored with police work and leave soon after undergoing costly training.”
This is in spite of the fact that smarter, less brute force strategies have actually proven far more successful at reducing crime. In New York City, crime keeps dropping even though they’ve had to trim their active force by 16%. I could go on and on about why the militarization of our police is a terrifying trend, but I think I’ve made my point. When you treat police like soldiers, they treat civilians like an occupied enemy population. And no one is safer.
2. The War on Drugs is Fundamentally Racist
As much trouble as my bearded, shaggy self has with cops, I know I have it easy because I hit a jackpot in the skin pigment lottery. Being white is the best protection from the law a person can get. Now I know you’ll probably expect me to go about ‘proving’ this by quoting individual stories of cops murdering unarmed black men in their own homes for no reason after calling them ‘niggers’. But I won’t. Tragic as those stories are, anecdotal evidence is the weakest sort of evidence. I want to prove a systemic problem. And, boy howdy, there’s plenty of facts to support that allegation.
Blacks, whites and hispanics are all equally likely to be pulled over. But ‘equality’ ends there. Blacks and hispanics are more than twice as likely to be searched by the police. And these stops end in police violence 4.4% of the time for blacks, 2.3% of the time for hispanics and…1.2% of the time for white people.
“Police were much more likely to threaten or use force against blacks and Hispanics than against whites in any encounter, whether at a traffic stop or elsewhere, according to the Justice Department.”
White people are more likely to do and possess drugs, but black people are arrested ten times as often for drug related offenses. And the disparity doesn’t end there. If a black person and a white person are caught possessing the same amount of an illegal substance, said black dude is eight times more likely to serve prison time for it. Not only that, they serve an average of sixty percent more prison time than whites, even when both commit the same crimes. African-Americans make up 12% of the U.S., do fewer drugs than white people, but still somehow account for 33.6% of all drug arrests.
Make no mistake about it: the war on drugs represents a disaster for blacks on par with slavery. That isn’t hyperbole. More black men are in prison right now than were enslaved in 1850. And yes, slavery is an apt comparison for what is going on in our prison system right now. Our government currently ’employs’ tens of thousands of prisoners in factories that produce everything from munitions to license plates. They make about 23 pennies per hour, have no unions, no restrictions on overtime, and very little safety oversight.
“What began in the 1970s as an end run around the laws prohibiting convict leasing by private interests has now become an industrial sector in its own right, employing more people than any Fortune 500 corporation and operating in 37 states.”
The only thing that separates these prisoners from slaves is a daily wage that seldom breaks $5. And it’s worth noting that these aren’t all or even largely violent men being forced to work off their debt to society. One million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in our country are non-violent offenders. They’ve never harmed a soul or stolen any person’s property. But they’re forced to labor with precious little rights or legal protections.
This brings me to my last point…
3. American Imprisonment is a Business
If any nation on earth is a police state, it is the United States of America. Despite holding only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s imprisoned people. And it is directly against the stated interests of many state and local governments to make that number go down. An increasing number of our prisons are corporate owned entities. Which means a huge, influential and wealthy business has keeping more American’s locked up in their best interests.
The Corrections Corporation of America operates the majority of our nation’s for-profit prisons. And they recently made an offer to the cash-strapped governments of 48 states. They’re offering twenty year contracts to manage state prisons. And all they want in return is the state’s promise that it will keep incarcerations at a steady level. Among the requirements that those state governments must agree too?
“An assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.”
That is the exact wording from the exact letter the CCA sent out to those governments. In case you’re not quite grasping the whole horror of it…states who agree to these terms will be in breach of their contracts if crime and incarceration goes down. This means it is now paradoxically in the best interest of many states to keep as many people in prison as possible, regardless of whether or not they deserve to be there.
If that doesn’t have the bile rising up in your throat, I don’t know what more I can say to you. Our criminal justice system isn’t a little bit messed up. It doesn’t need a few procedural changes to work better. It is fundamentally broken and corrupt at its core and fixing it is one of the single greatest challenges we as Americans face today.