U.S. Police Officers Kill Primarily Because They Are Attacked, Not To Disrupt Crime

03/24/2015 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

In spite of the steady decline in violent crimes, law enforcement in the U.S.A. is becoming significantly more violent. Compared to other developed countries, such as Germany or Great Britain, disproportionately more arrest-related deaths occur in the U.S. Additionally, in the treatment of suspects, a racial disparity is evident; disproportionately more black males get killed by white police officers. Political exploitation of "crime" and militarization of law enforcement are factors that contribute to the status-quo and may explain why most arrest-related killings by the police are not a result of attempting to disrupt crime, but in defense of attacks, perceived or real, against them.

Killings By Less Than 5 Percent Of Law Enforcement Agencies Already Exceeds 400 Annually

A surprisingly high number of arrests occur in the U.S.A. annually. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), of the Department of Justice, reports 98 million arrests from 2003 to 2009, equaling approximately 16 million arrests per year. If we were to disregard the fact that most arrests are repeat offenses, this would mean that approximately five percent of the U.S. population is getting arrested annually.

The high number of arrests is complemented by the number of "justifiable homicides" committed by law enforcement. Approximately 753 law enforcement agencies contributing to the FBI's "Justifiable Homicide Database" (which is less than five percent of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. A.), report killing over 400 per year: 401 in 2011; 426 in 2012; and 461 in 2013, to be specific. The database does not include the remaining 96 percent of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. The state of Florida, and New York are missing from the database altogether. Even though, for example, 67 "justifiable homicides by police" were recorded in 2012 in Florida; 66 in 2011; and 53 in 2010 . The nationwide numbers, additionally, do not include homicides committed by law enforcement that are outside of the realm of "justifiable homicide" as defined by the FBI.

The BJS reports that "the number of justifiable homicides has increased by 25.4% from 500 in 1999 to 630 in 2008." The increase in violence mirrors the weapons that law enforcement uses to kill: increasingly more often, shotguns were used in the killings: 29 times in 2009 versus 46 times in 2013, equaling an increase of approximately 57 percent in four years, or theoretically by 14 percent each year, if the increase is distributed evenly.

In a couple of years, we may have more accurate data on "justified homicides," as on December 18, 2014, President Obama signed the "Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013," a bill introduced by Congressman Robert C. Scott. The bill requires state and federal law enforcement agencies report the deaths of individuals in their custody to the Department of Justice. How effectively this law is going to be enforced, and its outcome, remains to be seen. However, either way, the new law is one important step in the right direction.

Police Officers Kill Because They Are Attacked, Not To Disrupt Crime

Crucial to understanding the big picture associated with law enforcement in the U.S. is the following: a high number of the homicides committed by the police are results of "attacks against the police" and not of attempt to "disrupt a crime." Moreover, the BSJ report confirms a disparity between "justifiable homicides" committed by the police versus citizens: Citizens killed suspects primarily to "disrupt crime" (See Figure 52b) whereas police officers killed to thwart attacks. This accounted for 64 percent of "justifiable homicides" committed by the police in 2008 (See Figure 52a).

The question that we have to ask ourselves is: Why is there such a high incidence of attacks against the police in the U.S.A? The perceived and/or real attacks may be explained by the overall militarization of law enforcement as illustrated by the excess military equipment that the police receive, or the increased deployment of SWAT teams. Militarization is generally accompanied with a combat-culture; a culture that is clearly not suitable for community policing. An entity that is supposed to protect members of its community, instead of waging war on them, will most likely trigger mistrust, and vice versa, which then can lead to offensive behavior. Minor incidents then can lead to bigger problems, such as homicide.

Disproportionate Killing Of African American Males By White Police Officers

Racism is another factor that law enforcement in the U.S.A. is struggling with. The recent "Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department" revealed chilling accounts of biases and racial prejudice against African Americans that included, but was not limited to, targeting African Americans with tickets and fines to raise revenue. Ferguson is certainly only one of many such examples across the country.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that a disproportionately high number of the killed are African American, 31.8 percent versus 42.1 percent white, even though African Americans represent only approximately 13.2 percent of the U.S. population (2013). White officers reportedly killed the majority of the whites and 68 percent of the people African Americans who suffered arrest-related deaths. In instances where the circumstances of the killings were listed as "undetermined," 77 percent of the killed were black.

Another concerning issue with law enforcement in the U.S.A. is the racial make-up of the police force. In a country where diversity is supposed to be valued and many policies and procedures are theoretically in place to ensure equal opportunity and diversity in hiring, the U.S. police force substantially lacks diversity. For example, approximately 67 percent, or two thirds of Ferguson, Mo., is African American; however, of the 53 commissioned police officers, only three (approximately six percent) are black. Even though, diversity is a key factor that needs to be addressed within the U.S. police force, it alone is not going to solve all of the problems.

Lack of diversity within the police force is also common in other countries, such as Germany, but does not automatically lead to circumstances as in the U.S. On the other hand, the police force in Wisconsin, for example, is representative for its population, but faces similar issues as other localities in the U.S. where diversity is lacking. However, diversity is still a key factor that needs to be addressed in the U.S. for obvious reasons.

Comparison -- Arrest Related Deaths In Germany And In Great Britain

The U.S.A. is, however, not only a dangerous place for suspects, but also for police officers. Seventy-six police officers were killed in the line of duty in 2013, 95 in 1212, 72 in 2011, 56 in 2010 and 48 in 2009.

In the last ten years (2003-2013), the number of police officers killed in Germany consistently stayed within 0-3 annually. Between 2001 and 2014, the police annually killed between 3 and 12 (12 is the highest data provided by civil liberties organizations) people. German police officers were so traumatized after they killed, only one third were able to go back to their previous duty. Many switched to desk jobs.

Hardly anyone was killed by the police in Great Britain. British police fired their weapons three times in 2013, but fatally shot no one. In 2012, only one person was fatally shot the entire year. Foreign Policy reports that "[b]etween 1900 and 2006 [106 years] only 67 British police officers were killed... excluding Northern Ireland." After adjusting for the population differences, the numbers are considerably higher for the U.S.A.

Tough On Marginalized Communities, Not "Tough On Crime"

Police officers in the U.S.A. are not better or worse than in Germany or Great Britain. What determines the conduct of an average police officer is the political and organizational climate in which they operate.

Law enforcement in the U.S.A. has been extensively utilized to further political agendas through soundbites such as "tough on crime," even though the United States, in fact, is not "tough on crime," but rather tough on marginalized communities. "Tough on crime" would mean preventing crime from happening in the first place, from which the society as a whole would certainly benefit. It would require progressive public policies - programs that help diminish poverty, racial disparity, social injustices and such. "Tough on crime" has certainly nothing to do with the demonization of minority communities, or the for-profit Prison Industrial Complex that have been destroying families and communities in the U.S.A.