Updated: Oct 18, 2021
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, America has moved from staying indoors and being overly cautious in quarantine to marching to the streets to protest Floyd’s unjust death, letting go of overt civility both physically and virtually with the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps the most common question is “How could this happen?” followed by “What can we do to prevent this?”
The US criminal justice system can be broken down into three main systems: our police force, the court justice system, and punishment for crimes, which often falls under the prison system. In a series of articles, we will break down the US criminal justice system- its history, its faults, how it compares to other countries, and what reforms can be made to it.
The history of southern police forces in the United States emerged directly from what were known as “slave patrols.” Slave patrols had three duties: to capture runaway slaves, to act as a form of “organized terror” to deter slave revolts, and to provide a way of punishment for slaves that broke plantation laws.
Today, the rapid growth of police forces around the country in the 1830s is usually presumed to have been a byproduct of urbanization; however, it was more an economic tool of social order rather than crime control. The strong governmental or even private police force could be manipulated at the will of businesses, used to keep workers in order, thus allowing further exploitation and inequality to be enforced upon these workers. During this time, workers were often working 70 hours per week, in extremely dangerous conditions. Private and public policing was used to intimidate and stifle potential rioters, such as the Haymarket Affair.
The Haymarket Affair is one of the most important labor riots in history: starting off as a peaceful rally for an 8 hour work day, police violence against workers and the death of one soon turned into a massacre as an unidentified person threw a dynamite bomb. The labor movement only grew, directly influencing what we now celebrate as May Day, and politics as a whole. But by pushing their intimidating presence through social control, police forces and those who manipulated them characterized alcohol consumption and social and political noncompliance as characteristic of a “dangerous underclassmen” of people.
But this “dangerous underclass” was largely composed of poor immigrants and minorities, especially freed Black people. This biased ideology has manipulated Americans and police forces to this day by pushing the belief that there are people who are inherently dangerous, thereby requiring more policing than others. These stereotypes reveal minorities as brutal savages instead of real people who are merely a product of their social and environmental backgrounds, factors that can instead be reformed rather than demonized and over-policed.
Modern problems with the US police system are the result of corruption on all levels: socially, structurally, and legally. Social biases such as race, age, class status, gender, religion, and disability have and continue to be a leading factor in who is more policed, who is incriminated, and who suffers more from the hands of police brutality. According to a study published in 2016, almost half of those killed by police were disabled, many of them being Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC), such as Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Freddie Grey. Structurally, the US police force is decentralized and hyperlocalized, meaning its operations and standards differ based on city to city, county to county. Police forces, politicians, and the US as a whole are notorious for their lack of accountability and reprimandation of police abuse of power. But these nationwide practices are not a global trend, and rather a reflection and perpetuation of core faults within the US policing system.
It should be known that the United States police shoot and kill more people than any other developed country, and the United States is known as the incarceration capital of the world, with 2.3 million incarcerated. Both as a culture and in action, American police forces are far more aggressive and violence prone than their neighbors above and across the pond.
No other developed country comes even close to the recorded number of people shot by the US police- in 2019, a staggering 1,099 people were killed by American police, only to be followed by Canada having the second highest number of fatalities at 36 people. For comparison, the average American police officer trains for 21 weeks, whereas Canadian officers only train for 3 weeks more, at an average of 24 weeks. Canada’s police system is argued to be the most similar to the US, and though differences between these police systems can be subtle, that makes them even more important.
For example, Canadian police are centralized, so they have a more uniform and comprehensive standard, and have their own independent agencies, much like the United Kingdom and the HMIC, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire. Psychological examinations are extremely commonplace in Canadian training, but it is up to each individual police force for American police trainees to conduct such examinations. In the UK, the rate of people dying while in police custody is six times higher in the US than in the UK, while almost all police officers in the United Kingdom are unarmed. The reason why it is so hard to compare countries is because of the plethora of factors that could influence all aspects of policing, its culture, and their practices.
Here is a look at the 2017 fiscal year expenditures for police in each of the aforementioned countries: Canada spent 15.14 billion Canadian dollars (or approx $11,159,012,700), the United Kingdom spent 17.5 billion pounds (or approximately $21,726,250,000), and the United States spent approximately $115 billion locally and statewide funding police. Under that budget, you could end homelessness, hunger, and provide free college for all in the US while still being under America’s police budget. By using these funds to invest back into communities, especially marginalized ones, we could erase the stigma and precedent set by police and the American public concerning the historic “dangerous underclassmen” of people and their criminal “habits.”
It is vital to examine the social and political context of the development of the American Criminal Justice system, to see how and why our current system is the way it is, and to see the multitude of layers that this corruption has reached. In the next installment of this series, we will go into depth of how practices in the courts and the justice system as a whole have proved to actually be a barrier for people seeking justice.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on police brutality and its history?:
“As we’ve all known, police brutality isn’t a new phenomenon. This might be a bit controversial, but I think that it is prudent to understand that as we stand for what’s right and advocate for police accountability and change, we recognize that while police often target the African American community more than other races, the issue of police brutality shouldn’t be a ‘black vs. white’ issue. It’s about race, and the systemic racism that exists, but white people experience police brutality, as well. Maybe not as much as the African American community, and maybe not as brutal, but it’s more about the system. And how the system does not hold police officers accountable, because of ‘qualified immunity’ that was established in the 1982 Harlow v. Fitzgerald court case. This we need to change.” Grace Edwards, Rising Senior at Watkins Mill High School, Gaithersburg, MD
“The police in America abuse their power and do not care for their citizens like they should. And as a Black woman in America, it means that I have to be cautious all the time. I may be walking alone with my hoodie on and suddenly I am suspicious to others AND the police”. Fifi Fadé, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD