Read: America is already different than it was two weeks ago
The failures of our law-enforcement agencies and public-health systems are not one and the same. But our orientation toward militarized overpolicing and our slow-footed response to fast-moving pandemics both stem from an inability to adapt our safekeeping institutions to the realities of the 21st century. Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.
Let’s start with law enforcement.
There are many reasons why men and women, a disproportionate number of them black, keep dying at the hands of police—and why, more recently, social media is filled with images of peaceful protesters met with tear gas and rubber bullets. These include a long history of systemic racism among those who wield state violence, overworked officers, and laws that immunize deplorable police behavior.
But in conversations with policing experts, another thing came up over and over again: Too many police are instructed to believe that the 20th-century crime wave never ended.
Between the 1960s and the early 1990s, the violent-crime rate in many U.S. cities rose “to levels seen only in the most violent, war-torn nations of the developing world,” Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at NYU, has written. As American cities became perceived as war zones, police responded by adopting a “warrior” mentality. Then violent crime plunged by more than 70 percent from 1993 to 2018, according to data maintained by the Department of Justice. Although officers routinely face threats that most white-collar workers never will, cops are safer now than at any point in nearly 50 years.
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Policing, however, hasn’t caught up to the good news. “The world has changed dramatically since the most violent years of the 1990s, but police training trails lived experience,” Stephen Rushin, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago, told me. Veteran officers share horror stories about the “mean streets” of the 1990s, and new recruits soak it in. Union leaders stir the pot by claiming that groups such as Black Lives Matter make policing “more dangerous than ever.” The message is clear: Be a warrior, because it’s a war out there.
The warrior mentality encourages an adversarial approach in which officers needlessly escalate encounters. That’s why Seth W. Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, calls the idealization of the warrior “the most problematic aspect of modern [police] policy.” The U.S. has about the same number of police officers per capita as, say, Australia; but adjusted for population, U.S. law enforcement kills 10 times more people. (The prevalence of guns in the U.S. is a factor here.)
Police aren’t just trained to feel like warriors; many are armed for war. After the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department formed a special unit of officers with military-grade equipment called the “Special Weapons Attack Team.” To soften the imagery, the name was changed to Special Weapons and Tactics, but the acronym stuck: SWAT. At first, SWAT teams were used sparingly. But after the announcement of the War on Drugs—another ruinous anxiety born of the late 20th century—deployments soared from 3,000 in the early 1980s to more than 30,000 in the late 1990s. Over time, SWAT itself served as a gateway drug for police militarization, as equipment once reserved for special teams, such as AR-15 rifles, was made available to ordinary officers.