Public outcry over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd earlier this year has ignited mass demonstrations against structural racism and police violence in the United States. The protests have reached every American state and spread to countries around the world; they arguably constitute the most broad-based civil rights movement in American history. Protests against the brutalization of communities of color by the U.S. criminal justice system have been growing for years, but the explosive scale of the uprising this spring and summer makes it clear that the United States has reached a national reckoning.
Most Americans now understand that their country needs a radical transformation: polls conducted in early June found that a majority of U.S. citizens support sweeping national law enforcement reforms. But as Americans embark on an urgent public conversation about policing, bias, and the use of force, they should remember that theirs is not the first or the only country to grapple with these policy questions. Many reform advocates and researchers have already begun to look overseas, pointing to countries where police training looks vastly different than it does in the United States: countries where police departments take far different approaches to the use of force or have even disarmed entirely, where criminal justice systems have adopted alternative sentencing programs, and where authorities have experimented with innovative approaches to de-escalation.
Some of these ideas could be adapted for use in the United States. For too long, a culture of American exceptionalism has been a barrier to the implementation of policies that have improved public safety around the globe. Now, the United States’ capacity to heal as a nation could very well depend on its willingness to listen and learn from the rest of the world.
If Americans and their political leaders are to glean useful lessons from the experiences of other countries, they must first examine the practice of policing in the United States and try to define—as precisely as possible—the nature and scope of the problem. The aggressive tactics that U.S. police departments employ today were shaped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. During the late nineteenth century, the slave patrols and militias that had regulated the movement of enslaved people before emancipation coalesced into more formalized police forces, and they continued to enforce the racial hierarchy in a segregated nation. In the second half of the twentieth century, as the country slowly and often grudgingly integrated, police departments honed the tactics of those earlier eras as a new means of controlling and repressing Black Americans. In response to the protests and unrest of the 1960s, police forces developed the kinds of quasi-military techniques that Americans today have seen applied to a new generation of protesters. In recent decades, police departments have systematically harassed Black communities with stop-and-frisk methods and aggressive fines, which municipalities craved to supplement their shrinking budgets in an age of tax cuts and austerity.
This kind of policing does not simply threaten the quality of life in Black communities; it is a matter of life and death. In 2014, ProPublica published one of the most comprehensive analyses to date of racial disparities in deadly police encounters. Its examination included detailed accounts of more than 12,000 police homicides between 1980 and 2012, drawn from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports. During this three-decade period, ProPublica found that young Black men were 21 times as likely to be fatally shot by law enforcement as were their white peers. [Continue reading…]