10 Problems the United States Police System Needs to Address

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Police shootings in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland have stirred up racial tensions, we’ve witnessed a rise in SWAT raids in recent years, and we’ve seen an increasing amount of military hardware end up in the hands of police departments – equipment that wasn’t really ever intended for local police work, and equipment police aren’t trained to use. Some people have begun to blame the police and have, perhaps unsurprisingly, started to lose faith in the system.

The one thing that many people forget is that the police are human, and are working within a human built system. Most police officers are just trying to protect and serve — they would never consider discriminating against another person due to their race, and they try to responsibly deescalate situations whenever possible instead of resorting to violence. However, there are problems endemic to law enforcement culture, and many institutionalized problems that affect the work police do. No matter how good a police officer tries to be, it’s hard to make the world a better place while working from within an imperfect system. Law enforcement is something society will always need, and we are grateful to those who protect and serve, but the current system has issues it needs to address.

10. Steroid Abuse

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One thing we definitely don’t want is for the people who protect and serve to be messed up on drugs while they’re on the job. Unfortunately, due to the physical rigors of the position, many policeman and even firefighters are turning to anabolic steroids to get the edge they need. This is a problem the police themselves have acknowledged and are currently trying to get a handle on. Some are concerned that roid rage could cause officers to act aggressively, and could account for some of the officers who are involved in dubious events with citizens. The problem is that steroids are hard to test for.

Higher-ups are told to look out for signs of drug abuse and order screenings if they’re suspicious, but the signs of steroid use can often be harder to spot. To make matters worse, there’s evidence that this is a systemic problem. One example in New Jersey involves a Dr. Colao, who was known for providing illicit steroids to policemen and firefighters throughout the city. Authorities grew suspicious when many policemen who should have had no reason to even know him were incredibly concerned about his death. An in-depth investigation found that nearly 250 policemen were getting steroids through medical conditions the doctor helped them fake, and that several of these men were either involved in lawsuits for the way they treated the public while on the job, or had gotten in trouble for domestic abuse or other bad behavior while off the clock. To make matters worse, since they went through a shady doctor instead of a drug dealer, taxpayers were footing the bill.

9. No Central Authority

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In a piece published in The Washington Post, a former police officer named Sunil Dutta explains what he believes to be the biggest problem with law enforcement today. The big reason essentially boils down to a complete lack of any central authority. Some police departments are paragons of their community that make the world a better place, but others can get away with doing a poor or outright terrible job because there’s no oversight to stop them. The United States has some relevant federal laws, but in many respects states are allowed to make their own decisions. This means that states are going to have their own law enforcement offices and departments. As far as Dutta is concerned, this wouldn’t be a problem — in fact, he supports state run police departments.

However, he goes on the explain that they aren’t really run by the state. There are county, local, municipal, state and federal police, and even different branches within these branches that sometimes find themselves either redundant or working at cross-purposes. This confusing mess means that not only can you expect to find inconsistent law enforcement behavior from state to state, but within state borders as well. And, if your local police department is corrupt, it’s hard to say who — if anyone — has the ability to do anything about it. Aside from straight up replacing the police with the National Guard, the whole town would have to decide that they’ve had enough, and such a vote would be no easy task.

8. Institutionalized Discrimination

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Jokes about black people being targeted by police officers are about as old as the police themselves, but there may be more truth to it than some people like to imagine. Now, it’s important to remember that most police officers are not racist, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sometimes pressured into discrimination. Sometimes we learn of these incidents because brave officers step forward, but it’s hard to imagine how many times there are instances of racism encouraged by superior officers that we don’t hear about. Take a case in St. Louis, where a police lieutenant was fired after a six month investigation because he had been ordering officers under his command to specifically target minorities, even going so far as to say “Let’s have a black day” and “Let’s make the jail cells more colorful.”

There’s also the controversial stop and frisk program, designed to combat crime in the big city. Most people know that the program was implemented in New York, was considered controversial because it was unconstitutional, and was eventually ruled as such by the courts. However, many people don’t realize that the program was also attempted in other big cities, such as New Jersey and Boston. In every single city it was found to disproportionately target minorities to an absurd degree and was also more than likely to be targeting innocent people in the first place. The departments involved in these practices, despite trying to defend their programs, haven’t been able to show positive results from their efforts.

7. Officer Related Homicides Aren’t Tracked

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The federal government has tried to get police departments to track officer related homicides, but departments have gone to an incredible effort to drag their feet on the issue. Officer related shootings are hardly tracked at all in the country, and almost never by  police departments. The problem again stems from a lack of central authority in the police system. The FBI puts together a yearly report of national homicides, and tries to include what data it can on police shootings, but they know they’re missing a lot of numbers because many simply aren’t reported.

The FBI encourages the police to report all shootings whether they’re considered justified or not, but only a very small percentage of departments around the country actually submit the data. This makes proper analysis of our police departments and the job they’re doing around the country very difficult. Some people believe that even the departments that do report the numbers are only reporting homicides that fit under some strict definitions, so even some of the reporting departments are leaving numbers out. This means that while the official FBI number released every year is only several hundred to around a thousand, it could actually be quite a lot larger.

6. Stun Guns Are Often More Dangerous Than Actual Guns

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There was a time when people thought that if we could find a non-violent weapon to replace standard firearms, police violence would no longer be a serious problem. This idealism came from a good place, but it led to an extremely quick adoption of the Taser among many law enforcement departments, and stun guns have caused no shortage of trouble since their inception. At first people thought it was a safe alternative to shooting people, and many officers were carrying one along with a gun in order to have options during confrontations. Now, however, many departments are only giving Tasers to their most trusted officers, and are suggesting their men carry pepper spray instead. This may stem partly from how dangerous Tasers can actually be, but also due to how they’ve been abused.

There’s not much standardization when it comes to police training, so many officers aren’t learning how to use these weapons properly. In one example, a Taser was used on a child and caused permanent damage. This has happened on more than one occasion, and much outcry has been raised in recent years at police using Tasers to subdue children, old people and the disabled. The truth is if someone is in those groups, or has an unknown heart condition, the device can easily lead to brain damage or cardiac arrest, especially if the person using it isn’t well-trained.

5. Skyrocketing Resisting Arrest Charges

Policeman Arrests Driver

In recent years resisting arrest charges have increased greatly, and those in the know have explained that certain corrupt officers will often use this as a smokescreen to get away with using force against a suspect. Nowhere is this more apparent than in New York City, a place that has been in the news due to the events surrounding the untimely death of Eric Garner. The NYPD has long had a fairly solid reputation, but that’s beginning to change, especially when people look at records involving police brutality and resisting arrest charges. An analysis of the NYPD found that in the last five years they’ve had roughly 50,000 resisting arrest charges levied against people, that nearly half of those charges were made by only 5% of police officers, and that roughly 75% of those charges were made by an only slightly larger 15% of officers. The report even found one officer that had been the subject of 10 lawsuits within just two years but somehow still found a job on the force.

The reporter argues that the NYPD needs to put together a much more robust and comprehensive system for dealing with police officers who are abusing their positions and costing the city millions. He argues that with all the money the NYPD spends on crime predicting technology they should be able to afford to look at negative trends within their own ranks, and remove people who are truly a cancer in the body of the police department. But for whatever reason, whether it’s a desire by higher-ups for these men to continue behaving the way they do or simply disorganization, these officers remain on the force and continue to cause problems.

4. It’s Almost Impossible To Indict An Officer

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Many people were furious when the police officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown wasn’t indicted, and then the officer involved in the incident with Eric Garner wasn’t indicted either. People felt that at least in the Eric Garner case the situation was so obvious that there was no way it could end without an indictment. However, the general public doesn’t have a firm understanding of how the process works, and they also don’t realize just how much a police officer is allowed to get away with while performing their duties. To begin with, police officers tend to work with the district attorney on a regular basis, so they probably know them well. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the DA is going to be behaving in a corrupt or biased manner on a conscious level, but if they know the people who indictments are being considered for it will be hard for them to not be somewhat sympathetic. To make matters worse, your average citizen that sits on a grand jury is likely to be somewhat more sympathetic towards police — most people are.

Then, when the actual grand jury begins, the evidence isn’t going to be presented the way it is to a group of people on the Internet. They can’t simply watch the video and decide whether they think, for example, that the officer was the cause of Eric Garner’s death and whether that cause was intentional. There are very specific and very technical legal questions that they have to answer regarding the incident in order to decide whether an indictment is justified. These issues have come up before the Supreme Court, and essentially what matters is whether the police officer’s actions can be considered objectively necessary or justified based on the events at the time. The jurors cannot consider the officer’s personal opinions, nor whether he should have known after reflecting on his actions that he made a bad move. And to make things easier on the officers, if the officer is allowed to testify the jurors can consider the officer’s explanation as to why they behaved how they did in the heat of the moment. In other words, the system is designed to make it very hard for a police officer to actually be indicted for the way in which he performs his duties.

3. Increasing Number Of SWAT Raids

Carl Edwards Gets Schooled By Fort Worth SWAT Team

In recent years we’ve seen an increase in surplus military equipment being gifted to local police departments. We’ve also seen an increasingly alarming number of SWAT raids throughout the country, and they often target the wrong people. These raids have become so common, and are performed with such a nightmarish lack of proper planning and foresight, that people have even taken to “swatting” others that they don’t like. This practice usually involves someone sending in a false report and getting a SWAT raid sent to an innocent person’s home. To the person performing this prank it’s all fun and games, but these raids often have deadly consequences.

Most SWAT raids aren’t attempts to break up violent criminal gangs or rescue people from abusers, but are simply raids on normal homes to search for drugs. Now,  before you go breaking into someone’s house in the middle of the night armed with military gear, you should make sure you absolutely have the right people if at all possible. Unfortunately, the SWAT teams of today seem to disagree with this assessment, as they increasingly find themselves in the news for raiding innocent people’s homes. In one case a SWAT team raided a family home and tossed a flash-bang grenade into a toddler’s crib. The toddler has been struggling to recover in the hospital, and the state has refused to punish the officers involved. It turned out that they had the wrong house, and there had never been any drugs there. In another case, a municipal government paid a record setting 3.5 million dollars to settle a lawsuit that arose after an unarmed man was killed in a raid that uncovered only a recreational amount of cocaine. This combination of ill-planned raids and scared, trigger happy police is leading us down a road where police and citizens alike are afraid of each other, an eventuality that can’t lead to anything good.

2. Internal Procedures Are Flouted

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We’ve already mentioned that you can expect variation in how police departments are operated from state to state and even town to town, but you would at least hope that the department in your city would be consistent with itself. Unfortunately, even that isn’t always the case. Take again the death of Eric Garner. While the officer in question wasn’t indicted, many people are still convinced that it was their chokehold that caused or at least contributed to Garner’s death. In fact, even the medical examiner believed that the chokehold, along with the way the police wrestled with him and Garner’s own poor health, were contributing factors in his death. This led to some discussion in the media as to whether a chokehold was appropriate for the situation.

What’s left out of most debates is that the police officer in question was violating his own department’s rules when he used the move to restrain Garner. While there is no local law against its use, his own police commissioner admitted that it wasn’t allowed according to their department’s internal policies. Despite police authorities promising to look into the situation and give it an internal review, the officer not only wasn’t indicted for his actions but didn’t seem to have been disciplined in any way for flouting the rules of the department he works for. The lesson the officer learned here is definitely the wrong one –- do what you want and you’ll get off scot-free.

1. Many Don’t Want To Be On Camera

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A potential solution to the problem of police violence and misconduct, especially in regards to their interactions with other citizens while on duty, are body cameras that the police wear to record their actions. The camera idea has even been pushed by President Obama, who believes that they may help curb many contemporary issues. However, the idea isn’t without its detractors. Some are skeptical after the Eric Garner incident, feeling that if that was on camera and the officer wasn’t indicted then we might as well not bother. On the other hand, you have police officers who are against them for various reasons — some good, some suspicious.

A congressman in Missouri and current manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, Jeff Roorda, was once a police officer who was fired for falsifying a report to protect a fellow officer. He tried to introduce a bill that would have made it impossible for citizens to get information about an officer involved in a shooting unless they were charged with a crime. Roorda doesn’t want body cameras because he believes cameras on officers are mainly used to catch them on petty uniform infractions. The police chief of Grand Rapids, Michigan also disagrees with their use. He’s concerned that cameras will make people less likely to want to talk to police knowing every word is being recorded, and he also worries about abuses that his own officers could perform by turning them on and recording someone in their own home. It’s a debate with no easy answer, and one that will likely continue for some time.

Read up on more police controversy.
We’ve put together a list of some of the most contentious police shootings in recent history. Or, if you want to lighten the mood, read about 10 of the stupidest ways criminals got themselves caught.

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4 Comments

  1. Good Day,
    Having grown up in South Africa I was used to a very inefficient and corrupt police force. On moving to the US to study I soon realised that even though the police force was a vast improvement there were clearly problems, many of which you have been touched on above. I now live in the United Kingdom and even though the police force is no where near perfect, it has somehow overcome some of the above mentioned issues.
    In a perfect world, the US may ask the UK for some guidance on how to improve things for the population they serve.

    • Was hoping to see something about recruitment in this article, but it is seldom mentioned, let alone studied (as far as I know). I don’t know how the recruitment process works, but it seems as though they let any average joe join the force… they shouldn’t. It takes a rare person to be an officer. A person must display exemplary attributes of the body, mind, and soul. Not to mention a strong sense of moral justice and fairness, which shouldn’t even need to be stated.

      I would argue that most police officers did not choose their jobs out of a desire to “protect and serve”, and only do so on a superficial level. They are in it for the pay, and possibly the power. If it is not a majority, there are at least enough to undermine the force as a whole.

      • The hiring process is extremely long and the pay is not grand. Many cops work side jobs to help make ends meet. The typical starting salary ranges from mid 30s to low 50s depending on jurisdiction. Many departments require a bachelors and most require at least 2 years of college. When you apply there is a fee, anywhere from 20-50 dollars. The next step is typically a written test, then a physical test (different departments sometimes run these in a different order). The results are used to make an eligibility list, sometimes bonus points are given for things like military service. This list determines the order that people will be taken to proceed through the process and is usually valid for 2 years. If/when chosen to proceed, there is a polygraph test, psych evaluation, drug screen, and background investigation. The background investigation requires, every residence ever, every job ever, as well as an extensive list of minutia from your life. Once all that is done, usually takes 4-5 months, a home interview is conducted if they are interested in bringing you on. After the home interview, the detective running all this will turn in a report to the hiring committee who will make a decision. If your list expires and they hadn’t hired you then you have to reapply and go through it all again. Then starts the academy, and it is not unusual for people to fail out. At most written test there are 300+ people trying to get 1-5 openings. Chicago’s 2013 test had almost 30,000 show up. The majority of cops are good people with good intentions and go through this tedious process because they really want it.

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