A hot-button topic in the last few years is the use of excessive force in policing, and what to do about it. Since 2020, following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, public outrage has brought this question to the forefront of public policy. RSnake spoke with former police officer and cybersecurity expert Frank Artes to find out more about the current state of policing.
Police Brutality in the U.S.
Although there have certainly always been police who do their best to uphold the laws of the land, underprivileged and minority communities have been the target of excessive force used by police since the late 19th century. These communities included the poor, Jewish and Eastern European immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and the African American community.
The Black community has likely been on the receiving end of police brutality for the longest. A 1929 survey showed that while Black people only represented 5% of the population, they were victims of police killings 30% of the time. This problem remains today. From 2015-2022, Black people were killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial group.
In addition to inequities in policing, the Black community has also faced injustice in the prison system. Even after slavery was abolished in 1865, a loophole in the 13th Amendment allowed forced labor as punishment for criminal acts. In the late 1800s, many Black people (usually men) were arrested and charged with petty offenses which could include failing to show respect. Once convicted, they were leased to private companies and forced to work in plantations, coal mines, and rail yards, among other places. While this practice is no longer used, Black people continue to be incarcerated at a higher rate than others.
With such a long history of problems like these, it is not surprising people are demanding change. However, the solutions to these inequities are complicated.
The topic of police corruption is intertwined with police brutality. The police carry a certain amount of authority that can be used for positive or negative purposes.
Artes explained that from his perspective, the majority of police officers want to do good. “By and large almost all of them are there literally (as quirky as it sounds) to help other people, and this is the career they wanted to do because of that,” he said. He explained that in some cases, people left higher-paying work for the police force because of their desire to help society.
Artes allows that like in other careers, there are officers who are “there because of the power trip, because of the status.” But in his experience, these officers are not the majority.
In 2019, USA Today discovered that at least 85,000 police officers had been “investigated or disciplined for misconduct” in the U.S. since 2009.
From 2009-2019 there were an average of 67,000 police officers in the U.S. Consequently, the 85,000 officers who were investigated or disciplined represent just over 1% of the entire police force in the county.
Whether this is because the vast majority of police officers do their jobs well, or corruption goes unchecked is harder to determine. Police unions play a role in keeping disciplinary records private. Making records public could have negative consequences for the officers involved. However, without reporting, it is impossible to define problems. Some states make certain types of records public, especially related to the excessive use of force, but rules vary from state to state.
The media plays a role in shaping the public’s perception of corruption in policing. Strong focus on sensational cases like the killing of George Floyd can give the impression problems are wider-spread than they actually are. Although there are those who would say the media does not do enough reporting on these issues.
In order to solve these problems, it’s important to gather accurate data. It is difficult to resolve a dilemma that can’t be accurately quantified. Currently, police departments submit data to the FBI voluntarily. As a result, in 2019, only about 40% of departments across the country had done so.
Another often discussed solution is demilitarization. In 1997, President Clinton signed legislation allowing the military to sell or give equipment to the police. From that time on, police departments have been able to access heavy-duty equipment such as grenade launchers, helicopters, tear gas, armoured vehicles and more. Some research has shown that more militarized police units kill more suspects.
Changing regulations around use of force is another proposed solution. Some research found that departments had fewer incidents of suspect death when they required officers to try de-escalation before using force, used guidelines to determine the type and amount of force needed, or issued a verbal warning before using deadly force, along with other strategies.
Other countries have also grappled with similar problems and tried a number of solutions. In Peru, the police culture changed when more women were hired. Some countries, like El Salvador and Georgia, fired whole departments; this type of change only works when it’s followed by ongoing external accountability.
Legislatures in the U.S. have been scrambling to solve issues related to the excessive use of force in policing with varied results.
Defunding the Police
In the protests that rocked the country in 2020, calls to defund the police were frequently heard. Some cities like Portland and New York did cut funding to police departments. However, some of those funds have since been restored.
Critics say the cities cut funds without any real plan in place. The fact that cities have restored some funding may be proof the initial cuts were too drastic.
This article from PBS Newshour points out that people in underprivileged communities weren’t the ones calling for the police to be defunded. They didn’t want the police presence gone, but reformed.
The Illinois SAFE-T Act
The Illinois SAFE-T Act was signed into law in 2021. It introduces a number of reforms to policing and the justice system in the state. These changes include requiring police officers to intervene if they believe another officer is using excessive force, stopping police departments from acquiring military-grade weapons, and expanding officer training on de-escalation and use of force.
Another aspect of the act that prohibited the use of cash bail has caused considerable controversy. The act stated that judges could order dangerous offenders to be held without bail, but asked for other offenders to be released without cash bail. This was presumably added to address concerns that people with less money often have to stay in jail until trial, while more affluent people escape those
A judge ruled this aspect of the act unconstitutional in 2022. As a result, cashless bail is currently not in effect in the 65 counties that challenged it, but is being implemented in the remaining counties in the state.
RSnake discussed the issues surrounding cashless bail with Artes. While Artes didn’t agree with the idea of cashless bail as proposed in the SAFE-T act, he did concur that high bail bonds are problematic. “Can we do something with bond so it’s somewhere within the realm of what the average person might have in surplus cash?” he asked. “What can we do to find a balance in there for society?”
Police Morale Post George Floyd
Police departments across the country have been affected by changing attitudes to their work. Artes explained he saw morale suffer a great deal in his department after the protests in 2020.
“You saw mass resignations. And unfortunately, you were seeing mass resignations from the people you wanted to keep in the police department,” he said. “You’re trying to arrest somebody and everybody else is jumping in between you and telling you that you can’t do it, and there’s cell phone cameras in your face from all directions. You’re there because somebody called 911.”
Artes himself resigned because most of his friends in the department had already left.
Staffing shortages in police departments are becoming a critical problem in many cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Austin. There are multiple reasons for these shortages, but resignations due to low morale are an important factor.
Police vs. Peace Officers
Some states make a distinction between police and peace officers. Artes, who worked in Texas, explained the difference. “A peace officer’s job is to restore the peace,” he said.
In Texas, peace officers are only required to make an arrest in two instances, in cases of family assault and when ordered by a magistrate (judge) to do so. Otherwise, they can use their discretion to determine when to make an arrest and when to let someone off with a warning, or similar.
RSnake and Artes discussed the idea of “legislating from the police car.” In Artes’ opinion, this already happens to some extent, depending on the state. He explained that when he first began policing, sodomy laws were still in effect in Texas, and his class of cadets was explicitly told never to arrest anyone under this law. Artes said he appreciated the leeway he had to make humane judgement calls.
With some people recommending demilitarization of police, the issue of gun control in the U.S. is closely entwined with other debates around policing.
Artes explained that in his experience, his ability as a police officer to carry a gun saved his life, and other people’s lives.
RSnake raised the issue of gun control compliance, citing that few people complied with new rules. Artes believes that instead of restricting certain types of firearms, it would be better to ensure every gun owner is trained and carries insurance.
RSnake also discussed this issue with Josh Castell, an entrepreneur with a new company that aims to implement gun control at the cash register instead of in the courtroom. Castell believes the right to bear arms is fundamental to liberty in the U.S., but proposes a capitalist solution to public violence. He is working on a system to use customer data (that many companies already collect), to enable store owners to deny sales to people who might be a danger to themselves or others.
Societal change doesn’t happen overnight, and problems like police brutality and corruption will likely take years, if not decades, to solve.
Artes stressed that the ideal police officer isn’t a robot. “We want the human being as a police officer,” he said. “A person who can use their humanity and understand the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.”
While it’s important to focus on the problems, it’s equally important to remember that police officers are also human beings, and, according to Artes, most of them are trying to serve society.
Listen to the full conversation now!