A version of this article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Americans have become so used to police misconduct and controversial shootings dominating the headlines lately that it's easy to forget that in some other countries it's extremely rare for the cops to shoot people. This difference is especially stark in the UK, which shares a language and a love of the same premium cable shows with the US. Though there are certainly controversies related to policing in the UK, the country's cops do not even normally carry guns, which naturally cuts down on the number of shootings and deaths.
To bridge this transatlantic divide, VICE UK's Joe Bish recently called up our US-based crime editor, Matt Taylor, and asked him to explain why law enforcement in America has become so controversial over the past few years.
VICE: OK, first off: Could you explain to me the difference between state police, sheriffs, federal police, etc?
Matt Taylor: At the most basic level, in terms of your interaction with them or how they appear to most Americans on the street, state police, and local cops or sheriffs aren't that different. They all carry guns and wear vaguely traditional police garb. Federal police aren't visible in the same way. There are various law enforcement entities at that level—US Marshals, FBI—but no "federal cops" per se.
Right. It kind of sounds like everyone has a gun. Does this apply throughout, from chiefs to detectives to beat cops?
Just about every cop in America seems to carry a gun. In the case of chiefs or higher-level officers like detectives, the gun and holster we see on beat cops might not be present or visible. For instance, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton—that job is actually a step up above "chief"—doesn't carry one, or at least not one we can see. His is more of a political role.
What's the wage gap between, say, a commissioner and a lowly street-based police officer? Is the disparity the source of any internal concern within the police force?
It's pretty substantial, but probably not as enormous as you might think. Certainly not on the same level as, say, the gap between low-level workers and CEOs at most American companies and corporations. Even regular beat cops can do well in certain locales. I grew up on eastern Long Island, in East Hampton, essentially a resort town, and getting a job as a cop out there is a ticket for life, from what I'm told. One can easily earn well above the median salary in the US thanks to a healthy local tax base, lots of valuable real estate, etc. Police unions are a powerful force in American politics, or at least they were. Their influence is fading, as is the case with most organized labor organizations in the United States.
But coming back to New York, it's not unusual to see the police union and other related groups sparring with the mayor over everything from money to civilian deaths.
In the UK the "us and them" divide between the police and public doesn't seem to be quite as extreme as in the US—depending on where you go, of course. There's obviously controversies, but they tend to get hushed up, whereas American police seem to scream and shout about how wronged they are. Do you think this is part of the overall sense of patriotism that's more prevalent in US society? As in, people who are protecting the great nation commanding more respect?
It probably is, yeah. As I think you're alluding to, we tend to love us some guns and the strong men who wield them in America. That sort of John Wayne mentality extends from a worship of the armed forces—even when they do terrible things to civilians and each other—and cops. The mantra is that white Americans love and respect cops—that they feel safe around them. Whereas blacks, Latinos, and other minorities have been trained by our culture to be leery.
Cops have become "others" in a new way over the last year or so, I think. Whereas in the 1990s and 2000s many police shootings—and there were many—of people of color stoked controversy, something about the killings that began last summer—with Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson—has touched a chord. You can probably go back to Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 for the spark that got this uproar going, even though [his killer, George Zimmerman] wasn't an actual cop, just a rogue neighborhood watchman.
For more on police, watch our doc, 'Radley Balko on the Militarization of America's Police Force':
Well yes, I was going to say: This cop mentality seems to extend to everyone with even a vague sense of authority. Mall cops, security guards—everyone has mace or a gun or a Taser. Where does the weaponizing of the everyman come from, and why is everyone so unreasonably aggressive?
Good point. I think it's partly what we see in terms of shootings in America generally, right? Lots and lots of people shoot and kill each other every year, and cops aren't even involved in many of those incidents.
As far as that mentality—that weaponizing of the everyman—I'm reluctant to point the finger at some cultural bogeyman like video games or movies. I do think we mythologize violence, and also generally have a disastrous mental health system that means men—and it's almost always men—who shouldn't have guns, or maybe shouldn't even be on the street, are out there and armed. In the 80s and early 90s, when American crime rates were high, you could make the case that gun ownership was wise, or at least reasonable. But violent crime has plummeted in the United States over the last two decades.
There's something also about how individualistic our culture is—the capitalist, Manifest Destiny impulse—that seems to encourage individuals to stock up on weaponry. Like, that cops and the army are militarized to the point of absurdity isn't enough. We need a gun in our house, too.
How in danger would you say the police are generally? The excuse most often touted after a civilian death is that the officer in question "feared for his life." How statistically veracious is this?
It's been steadily getting safer to be a cop in America. We had 27 cops die because of felonies—i.e. people breaking the law—in 2013, according to FBI stats. That was down from 2012 and 2011, and the lowest total in about 50 years, if I'm recalling correctly. The number for 2014 is likely to be higher when the FBI releases it, but the fact is that police are very rarely killed by civilians, whereas police killings of civilians in 2013 was at a two-decade high of some 450 people [461, to be precise].
Why do you think it seems to be disproportionately black males involved in these police killings?
Racism is obviously central to American culture and history, and still very much a part of everyday life. And the legacy of formal, systematic discrimination means blacks are still disproportionately likely to be poor and living in cities where cops feel like they can do whatever they want. Even if an individual cop isn't bigoted, they might be interacting with black and brown people way more than white people. As far as black males, I think Americans are trained by TV news and pop culture to fear them, or at least be leery of them in a way they aren't anywhere else.
What is policing like in small-town America, where the race divide isn't so prevalent?
It's a more casual affair, in a lot of ways. Whites in suburbia and rural areas often know individual cops and have relationships with them. Using my own weird background in a resort town on eastern Long Island by way of example, it's not uncommon to hear about people ducking traffic tickets because they went to high school with the cop in question. But when you have mostly white police forces in mostly black areas, as in Ferguson, as in North Charleston—the site of the horrific incident [the shooting of Walter Scott] a couple of weeks ago—is when you seem to run into the most trouble.
At the beginning of the month Eric Harris, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma by a 73-year-old reserve police officer. Why is a senior citizen allowed to be a reserve police officer, and why is he allowed to carry both a gun and a Taser?
I suspect it has something to do with austerity; that is, just as the EU has forced governments to cut back, many local and state governments have reduced spending after the financial crash and may have started to lean on volunteers more often. But again, we have a gun culture—deputizing random men to take up arms is part of our history. You saw it in old Westerns like High Noon, and apparently you still see it now.
We have "community support officers" here in the UK, but they have no powers of arrest, and certainly don't carry any weaponry to the level of Tasers. More a sense of presence than action.
Gotcha. That sounds so reasonable and British!
Aside from these racially aggravated killings, what other scandals do the police in America tend to suffer from?
So there are non-killings that are still cases of brutality; beatings are common. Rodney King being one of the most notorious, back in 1991. And then there are corruption cases; in the US we have something called civil asset forfeiture, where cops can seize goods from criminals and, in some cases, they pocket cash, drugs, etc.
Like nightclub bouncers?
Right, except in some cases lots of cops are involved. Philadelphia has had big issues with this, as have other cities. It's got to the point where the Feds have recently begun changing the rules a bit to discourage cops from seizing stuff.
Christ. Final question: Have you ever had any run-ins with the police and, if so, how did you find them to deal with?
I have, but mostly in the context of driving rather than on the street. And I was incredibly privileged because I'm a) white, and b) from an upper-middle class background, which really does seem to make a difference in police encounters. Since I've been in New York City—about four years—I've basically had zero interaction, because cops don't aggressively patrol gentrified neighborhoods inhabited by white creative-class types, like Williamsburg and the East Village. They spend their time in neighborhoods like Flatbush, East New York, and other parts of the city that have higher crime rates and are the sites of a lot of police brutality.
A friend of mine got arrested by a plainclothes cop in Williamsburg a year or two ago—despite working in media and having a relatively elite background—likely because he's brown and they assumed he was taking part in a drug deal of some kind.
Sounds like a total shitshow. Thanks, Matt.