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Right now (June 2020), sparked by the murder of George Floyd, there have been a wave of protests against police brutality towards black Americans. In these very protests, there has also been a massive outbreak of police brutality towards protests, often seemingly instigated by police towards peaceful protestors.

Given that these protests are receiving international attention, and were sparked by the murder of a helpless man by police officers, why is there not more effort by law-enforcement organizations in the US to prevent excessive force being used right now?

I am not asking why police brutality happens in general in the US. Rather, I want to know why the police are putting themselves into optically a very bad position, to the point where many organizations are cutting ties with the police, legislation is being discussed to regulate police action, and one city is actively beginning to dismantle their police department. Politically it seems that police leaders should be incentivized to act with extreme caution towards protests in order to avoid increasing the negative attention they are receiving.

On the level of individual officers, while typically in the US it is rare for law enforcement to be charged and convicted for excessive force or brutality, we have seen the officers responsible for George Floyd's death charged with murder, and several officers involved in brutality towards protestors fired, suspended, or even arrested and charged for this conduct. So while an officer might expect that typically acting in this manner carries few consequences, right now it is riskier for a police officer to use excessive force.

Here is some speculation on my part about what the answer could be:

  • Police leadership can't effectively curtail excessive force, because it is too baked into the practices/culture of their department, so even if they issue directives designed to minimize it, these directives just aren't working
  • The people using excessive force just don't see the cost-benefit analysis the way I've laid it out, and aren't worried about facing consequences
  • The protests happened too quickly for the public pressure to translate into pressure on police not to use excessive force, but the behavior of police towards these protests may change going forward as the backlash against excessive force becomes more and more well known
  • I have made some major error in my analysis

I know that the answer will be complicated, given that I am talking about a large number of distinct law enforcement agencies and departments, and clearly they are all responding in vastly different ways to these events (some police departments are joining protestors and there is no indication of any police brutality at all). Nonetheless, given the intense attention one might naively expect far less excessive force than what has actually occurred, given it seemingly is against the police's interests to act in this way.

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    What exactly constitutes "excessive" force to you? I'm asking because, the very fact that protests are being allowed to happen despite a global pandemic that has caused the complete closure of most of civil society under threat of law enforcement response, could be cited as evidence that force is actually being scaled back rather dramatically from what it would be expected to be for other public gatherings. – Joe Jun 10 at 11:55
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    OP: Any answer on this question that doesn't talk about the role of unions is rather incomplete, because it is an enormous part of the issue and problem. I would go as far to call it the primary hurdle to change, which is why complete dismantling of police agencies is gaining steam among left wing activists. – eps Jun 10 at 14:13
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    @Dave you can see the reason for the close votes by clicking "close" to see how other people voted. Everyone has chosen to vote to close for a reason specific to this community (can't see which sub reason on my phone, but I'm guessing it's for pushing a viewpoint). – Joe Jun 10 at 16:31
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    The question also fails to explain in detail the rationale for the claim of a "broad pattern". The United States has approximately the population of all of Europe, and media coverage tends to be both herdlike and sensational, not proportional to the actual frequency of events. (For instance, I have never seen CNN cover an auto accident, while MH370 seemed to be the only topic for weeks on end.) – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jun 11 at 5:30
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    Finally, it seems several people raise an objection as to my posting this in good faith, and believe I am pushing forward a viewpoint. I struggle to understand this. I know that my using the phrasing "murder" to describe what happened to George Floyd may attract politically charged attention, but honestly I can't really see how, other than the political context, it is wrong to say somebody was murdered when a video recording of the entire incident exists and clearly shows a helpless man being strangled to death in front of many witnesses. – Davis Jun 11 at 17:54
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One data point seems to be the 75 year old who was seriously injured when he was knocked backwards by police. When the policemen who did this were suspended the entire squad resigned from the Emergency Response Team (but not their day jobs) in protest.

John Evans, president of the local police union, told the newspaper: "Our position is these officers were simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia to clear the square.

This suggests that excessive violence is such an ingrained part of police culture that they simply cannot understand the civilian point of view. To them it is simply a part of their job and therefore not "excessive".

(Edit: those wanting to argue that this doesn't count because of provocation should see this question.)

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    This answer draws its conclusion from a single incident, when the question as worded is more broad. – Ogre Psalm33 Jun 11 at 19:54
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    @OgrePsalm33 yes it does, which is why it starts with "One data point...". In the absence of other evidence even a single data point can provide useful iformation. – Paul Johnson Jun 13 at 9:08
  • I second the religious ogre's pointing out that using a single data point is not a good way to answer this, but I also believe the conclusion that 'violence is an ingrained part of police culture' is not proven by your example. I'd take the resignations to be more about police backing their own, right or wrong, from persecution; ie not that they all like the use of violence, just that they feel they need to stand united when they see people attacking them. This can still be a problem, but it's a different type of problem then what you claim, which I feel leads to a flawed conclusion. – dsollen Jun 15 at 15:32
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Did you ever watch the TV show "Cops?" I watched a lot of it. My take-away was that even in non-high-stress situations, cops have little tolerance for anything from "perps," except "yes, officer," "no, officer," and "just tell me what you want and I'll gladly do it, officer." Anything else, and you'll likely find yourself handcuffed on the ground with a knee in your back, if not on your neck. [Perp: anyone who makes your life the least little bit difficult.]

The encounters I have had with cops over my 77 years -- none those situations were any where I was suspected of a crime, other than traffic offenses -- is that they are not the brightest, best educated people in the world. Some may be, but most real police I've observed, personally and on TV, are not. Seeing and responding properly to gray areas and fine distinctions seem not to be in their repertoire. Watching a cop prod a suspect into some kind of behavior where the cop can use physical force was very maddening for me. That happened a lot on that show.

Someone else here noted people who become cops have an ease with physical confrontation. I'd say they probably have a proclivity toward it, and maybe even a desire for it.

My point is that unless we are willing to structure the job in such a way as to attract to the field of law enforcement people with above average intelligence who have a well-rounded education, we will continue to get what we have always had in that field -- people who are comfortable getting physical with you with very little provocation, people who relish bossing you around, and people with no tolerance for hearing you voice a difference of opinion.

Yes, I know there are some very fine people in that field. I do not doubt many have a helping attitude toward their job. Still, I'm all but certain the research shows that the higher the entrance requirements in law enforcement, the better the outcomes when officers interact with the public, even "perps."

The old adage still holds true: you get what you pay for. If we were willing to invest the necessary resources, we could screen out applicants to the field like the cop who killed Mr. Floyd. If we don't we can't, as simple as that.

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    This answer could be improved with better sources. For example, it could compare the level of education for police officers in the US (apparently 6 weeks to 6 months, apparently sometimes by the Israeli military) with the one in other countries (perhaps 3 years and with a different focus). It could look for research that correlates and possibly links these differences with police violence. Are officers with better training less likely to become violent? Is that correlation or causation? As it stands, this is just an extended "I've seen a TV show and officers are dim" comment. – gerrit Jun 9 at 7:23
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    @gerrit I thought this forum is about politics, not psychology. – Askar Kalykov Jun 10 at 14:29
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    I'd disagree that you get what you pay for, we pour absurd amounts of taxpayer dollars into police departments, usually millions or billions more than any other public service. – emma Jun 10 at 20:05
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    This is entirely unsubstantiated anecdotes, and a "reality" tv show is not a citation: what makes it onto the show will be heavily biased in favor of what makes for good television, not a representative sample of what happens. – Jared Smith Jun 11 at 15:50
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The answer to this question is more a matter of psychology than policy. There are a few psychological factors to keep in mind:

  • Police officers (and protesters as well) are enmeshed in a tense situation, and often lack a proper perspective on their own behavior. It's a kind of tunnel-vision in which an officer is focused on himself and those immediately around him, and cannot separate from the immediacy of his situation. He might revert to training and habits that are inappropriate to the greater situation; he might get angry or offended and act accordingly, disregarding context. The larger the crowds, the larger the tensions, and the more likely someone will lose perspective.
  • Police wear uniforms and masks, which increases the 'us vs them' mentality and the sense of personal anonymity within their ranks. This (per group polarization) tends to produce a more cynical, jaundiced view of outsiders and a tendency towards more aggressive, risky behaviors.
  • Police have a hierarchical structure which can place officers in situations where they are ordered to do something that goes against their normal inclinations or conscience. Orders are sometimes given without a proper understanding of the conditions on the street; officers are sometimes obliged to carry out orders without a proper understanding the intentions behind them. This can lead to confused and inappropriate actions.

Add that in the modern age of ubiquitous video devices protests become a near-perfect panopticon. Police and protesters are concentrated into an area filled with cameras and cell phones, all recording away; any transgression by police is captured in the moment and quickly distributed. It's inevitable that police violence of some sort will be captured, because it's statistically impossible that all officers present will be capable of calm, cool, deliberate reflection.

This is not an excuse for police violence, and in fact we should always keep in view the distinction between officers who lose their focus and officers who deliberately use excessive force to dominate citizens. The latter are far more worthy of punishment than the former. The point is that much of this boils down to how people respond in the heat of the moment, where policy is a distant and abstract ideal.

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    All of this is also true for e.g the police in the UK, yet violence there is rare compared to the US. – Martin Schröder Jun 8 at 16:56
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    @ReinstateMonica-M.Schröder: True, and I suspect that's because group polarization effects are much stronger in the US (for historical and cultural reasons). That makes the problem harder to address through formal policy. – Ted Wrigley Jun 8 at 17:11
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    I would say "less common" rather than completely rare, especially at public order events. However, the UK has an independent police complaint authority and separate non elected prosecutors, so police are at least investigated and criticized. – pjc50 Jun 8 at 17:26
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    One reason it's different in the UK is that so many people in the US carry guns. As a Brit I was once stopped for speeding in the US and was completely taken aback that the police behaved as if I was likely to have a gun. The presence of guns creates an assumption that violent force might be needed. – Michael Kay Jun 9 at 7:07
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    An even bigger reason it's different in the UK is that the police put avoiding harm to people fairly high on their priorities, if stopping a crime against property is likely to cause harm to people, they will hang back. They will not "light 'em up"... Not that many of these situations even seem to involve any kind of crime prior to the police attacking, but the fact that UK police put people's safety above stopping crimes says a lot. – ThomasRedstone Jun 9 at 13:14
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There are a few things that keep putting fuel on this fire.

  1. The media likes to sell, and violence is exciting. There have been over 700 protests.[1] But only around 20 have ended up in violence.[2] Of course it can depend a lot on definitions of violence and protest. But many protests are peaceful. (That does not mean we should not do something about the ones that are not.)
  2. Police in the US are held accountable on some level, but it's also clear that level may not be acceptable. However, there are arguments on both sides that say police need to be able to use force to protect the innocent. The other side says that they should be held accountable for the force they use. One thing is certain, the level of force highlighted in the media right now seems to be excessive.
  3. US culture and that of say the UK is not the same. Many feel the use of "some" force is acceptable to protect innocent lives and property of others. However, where "some" stops and "way too much" starts has always been a very hard line to find. And that is ingrained in every part of US culture. The question of Reasonable vs. Excessive is just very hard to define on such a grand scale. For example "more force" may even seem acceptable in a neighborhood that is more of a warzone than a place to live. Small neighborhoods with murder rates higher than the entire rest of the state. But that can be very hard to understand even 200 miles away where there hasn't been a murder in 50 years.
  4. Then we look at the news/media cycle. Now instead of a person's actions being judged by locals that might have some idea what's going on, they're being judged by everyone. This has some good and bad side effects. After all, what is a farmer in Idaho really to know about life in a crowded, high crime urban area? But that is the lens we're judging people with right now. So the police officer may not think that they are acting outside of norms, and yet they are judged in the national spotlight by many people that have no idea what life is like in that part of that town.

So all that together means first "broad pattern" and "excessive force" are probably not well defined and what you're left with is "Why is there force by police towards protesters in spite of international focus on this use of force?"

That's much easier to answer. Because policy, superiors, or fear, the police on the street to feel that the use of force is needed.

P.S. IMO if you're looking for a problem to tackle it's that. Why do police feel they need to use force. What is making them feel that way? I don't know many cops, but none of them I know start their day with "yay I am going to go hurt people". They start their day with some version of "I want to help people and stay safe doing it." SO the question becomes where have we failed, that police feel unsafe, at a protest (or in general).

P.P.S. Just to be clear, I am not trying to make an excuse for any police officer that uses excessive force. I am just trying to point out that it's very complex and that protests you are seeing in the US on the international stage do not usually reflect even a small part of those complexities.

P.P.P.S. I know that it is very hard for any European to understand just how big and diverse the US actually is.[3][4] In a lot of ways this is a result of growing through that diversity and is a mechanism used on a large scale to address some of the issues (like inequality) that come from that diversity.


References:

  1. USA TODAY: Tracking protests across the USA in the wake of George Floyd's death
  2. NJ: These are all the cities where protests and riots have erupted over George Floyd’s death
  3. Pew Research Center: In views of diversity, many Europeans are less positive than Americans
  4. Washington Post: A revealing map of the world’s most and least ethnically diverse countries
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    @Davis if every video in that repo is legit excessive force, that is 88 out of 700 that's more then 10% and is disturbing, but even a quick glance at the material shows protesters grabbing police guns. One of those videos even shows police using what I assume is pepper spray to set up a perimeter, then stopping to help one of the people that got sprayed flush their eyes and face. Other videos show "normal arrests" It will be interesting to see of those 88 videos how many are actually excessive force. – coteyr Jun 9 at 1:58
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    @coteyr this twitter thread (much harder to navigate, unfortunately) is currently at 430 incidents of police brutality or other egregiously improper behaviour twitter.com/greg_doucette/status/1270170367357845504 – llama Jun 9 at 3:08
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    "I am not trying to make an excuse for any police officer that uses excessive force". Well, that's exactly how your post looks like, after trying to redefine what "excessive force" is. And your text is needlessly condescending toward "Europians". – Eric Duminil Jun 9 at 7:28
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    Europe is bigger and more diverse than the US by any conceivable metric but if you invent some silly subjective metric like "If you called up two people at random in a particular country and ask them their ethnicity, what are the odds that they would give different answers" which wholly depends on the American definition of ethnicity, or ask them a question where every US citizen knows the desirable "melting pot" answer and which says absolutely nothing about the actual situation of ethnic minorities in the countries mentioned then that's something to feel good about I guess. – Douwe Jun 9 at 13:26
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    Respectfully, your first hypothesis is not supported by your evidence. Source 1 does not list # of protests but rather cities in which multiple protests have been staged. Source 2 only defines "violence" including rioters (but not police brutality against peaceful protesters). In my city, we have had multiple recorded incidents during separately staged protests where police began using riot tactics against peaceful protesters. We also had a young girl die from tear gas - something which has unfortunately not been picked up by the media and authorities are trying to sweep under the rug. – DanK Jun 9 at 14:39
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I don't think it is a complicated answer.

Police rarely get charged with using excessive force. This is partly systemic, because in the U.S., District Attorneys need the police to testify in their cases, and they cannot risk angering the police and losing testimony, or making the police look bad, which would also complicate their cases.

If prosecuted, which is rare, juries will typically acquit. This is because juries sympathize with police saying "I feared for my life" or "It was within policy for the department." The "reasonable man" standard applies (see Graham v. Connor) and the police go free.

If convicted, which is extremely rare, punishment is minimal.

The most common result of an excessive force case is a civil settlement. Police officers are immune from civil settlements (see "qualified immunity"), so the city pays.

In short, there is no penalty for the crime, so there is no reason not to do it.

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  • Qualified immunity is qualified, not absolute, and it only applies if you're suing for a fedreral civil rights violation so it's not quite correct to simply say "Police officers are immune from civil settlements". – D M Jun 11 at 11:38
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    @DM several of the answers to another question suggest that qualified immunity is interpreted in such as way as to be practically absolute. At least in cases where is applies. – Jontia Jun 11 at 12:21
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Defining and using an appropriate level of force in a high pressure situation is really challenging and requires good police training and organisational support. This doesn't excuse deliberate abuses of power but it does make abuse harder to distinguish from poor police practice or mistakes in the heat of the moment.

Some complicating factors:

  • Complexity of the situation. It's far harder to arrest someone in a crowded demonstration than on an empty street. Bystanders can easily get pulled into violent situations in a riot without initiating violence themselves.
  • The presence or suspicion of the presence of weapons. Are guns widely available? Are protesters carrying items that could be improvised into weapons? Are the police armed? This is the single biggest reason I'm glad I live in a society where guns are very restricted. It's also the strongest argument against using the military for policing.
  • The organisational culture and level of training of the police. Changes to these will require a lot of time and effort.
  • The trust or lack of trust between protesters and police. Protesters against police brutality are less likely to trust police they encounter during protests.

Using a level of force that all observers will deem appropriate is impossible. Some hawkish observers will support draconian levels of force if they protect property and non-protesters and will criticise policing they regard as insufficient. Others will prioritise the right to protest with minimal interference even when a minority of protesters cause property damage. Observers will also be more likely to support tolerant policing if they are sympathetic to the aims of the protest.

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This question is loaded with several different unrelated problems. It could be answered much better if it'd be split in separate parts.

To answer this question directly, considering exactly how it is formulated: because nothing in police job description says that their behavior should change in any way because of "international focus" or any "international attention". Police works for its own citizens, not to please international community.

Of course they should improve, considering police brutality and complaints about it in USA didn't start just yesterday, but not because "international community" says so, but because their own citizens are displeased instead.

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  • I am not meaning to imply it's part of police officers' jobs to care about national or international attention; rather I am suggesting this attention makes it in the officers' best interests not to act with excessive force. When the news cycle doesn't cover it officers' misconduct is systematically underpunished. But with the pressure of scandal, it is less so, and in particular now. Essentially, my question implies this ought to change the behavior of the police because it creates a much harsher than usual penalty for misconduct. – Davis Jun 11 at 19:48

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