Culture Wars/Current Controversies

How Common is Police Brutality in the United States?

This is a peer reviewed article published last year by the British Medical Journal on the subject of police brutality in the United States and how frequently it occurs. The researchers summarized their findings as follows.

“US police killed or injured an estimated 55 400 people in 2012 (95% CI 47 050 to 63 740 for cases coded as police involved). Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics had higher stop/arrest rates per 10 000 population than white non-Hispanics and Asians. On average, an estimated 1 in 291 stops/arrests resulted in hospital-treated injury or death of a suspect or bystander. Ratios of admitted and fatal injury due to legal police intervention per 10 000 stops/arrests did not differ significantly between racial/ethnic groups. Ratios rose with age, and were higher for men than women.”

Read the entire article here.

According to this study, 1 in 291 arrests/stops by police results in a hospital treated injury.

Radley Balko is a journalist who specializes in criticizing excessive police conduct. I generally trust his work because he’s able to address the issue from a critical perspective without being fanatical or hysterical. He estimates that 1 in 4 police shootings of civilians are probably unnecessary or unjustified, while admitting it’s impossible to answer the question with complete precision. That would mean that about 250-400 police shootings in the US per year are for dubious reasons. Assuming that’s an accurate number, it would be a serious enough matter, but it would pale in comparison to the 15000 homicides carried out annually by civilians.…/why-its-impossible…/…

This is an article from a police magazine that argues that shootings that turn out to be unjustified may not have seemed so at the time.…/washington-post-overwhelming…

The other side of it is that many or at least some police could certainly fabricate the details of the shootings they were involved in (like so-called “throw down” killings where police kill someone and place weapon on them). There are also likely cases of “murder by cop” that go unreported altogether, although those tend to happen in high crime areas where it’s often impossible to figure out what happened. For instance, some urban districts in the US have clearance rate in the single digits on homicides.

I tend to lean towards the view that police shootings of civilians under dubious circumstances are like school shootings in that, yes, they’re terrible and highly publicized when they happen, but actually rare considering the actual number of police/civilian encounters and/or schools there actually are. Excessive police behavior of a non-lethal nature seems to be a more pervasive problem. That could likely be curbed by making a range of reforms like the police chief in Salt Lake City has made:…/chris-burbank-salt-lake…

However, an even more widespread problem is the issue of overcriminalization, which even many traditional law and order conservatives like the Heritage Foundation and right-wing benefactors like the Koch Brothers have taken notice of. Yes, the cops occasional commit outright murders of civilians, even if this is not as common as many anti-police activists claim. Yes, non-lethal police brutality is far more common. Yes, there are also racial disparities involved, although this has to considered within the context of higher crime rates in some minority communities. While these are serious matters, it is not enough to simply focus on the need to “reform police” or “reduce racial disparities.” It is necessary to attack the police state root and branch by recognizing that it is overcriminalization that largely fuels excessive police conduct.

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