The emergence of America’s militarized police force appeared long before the alleged murder of Missouri teenager Michael Brown by police that made headlines over the summer. In June 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that the federally-funded acquisition of military weaponry and equipment resulted in an often extreme and unjustified use of force. “We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs,” said Kara Dansky, senior council with the ACLU’s Center for Justice in a press release issued by the organization.
This absurd level of force is used to stop just about everyone, including innocent civilians. On Aug. 9, Brown, an unarmed teen, was shot to death by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. According to St. Louis’s local Fox affiliate, KTVI, what began with Wilson responding to a report of a liquor store robbery in the area, ended with a brief altercation through the window of the car that resulted in the officer’s gun discharging. Brown and a friend began to flee the scene. At this point, the police account differs from the testimony of witnesses: Warren asserted that Brown tried to steal the officer’s gun. By contrast, multiple witnesses said that Brown was first shot while fleeing, and then repeatedly shot while stumbling towards the officer with his hands raised.
Whether or not Brown chose to rush towards a man who was firing a gun at him from several feet away is not the issue. The number of shots fired at Brown’s body is completely unjustified. Even if Brown was somehow posing a legitimate threat to Wilson, six bullets—the number found in Brown’s body by the official autopsy, according to The Washington Post—is too many. One shot would have been more than enough to incapacitate him.
The Brown case isn’t an isolated incident, but rather the most recent iteration of a phenomenon that is distinctly American. No other nation has a comparable rate of police firearm use, and deaths like Brown’s—which with six shots exposes an unnecessary amount of force—is in no way an acceptable form of law enforcement, and it is by no means necessary.
We can see the uniqueness of this problem in statistics from British news weekly The Economist: “Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero. In 2012, the figure was just one. Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans.”
Why is the U.S. the only developed nation in which police officers routinely overuse lethal force? And why are they equipped with weaponry that so inaccurately matches the force they are often met with? The New York Times reported that many police departments are receiving weapons that were used in the Iraq War, and The Washington Post reported that the Los Angeles school police department received 61 M16 rifles. This influx of sophisticated weaponry isn’t only in the big cities: The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that police in Bloomington, Georgia—a city with a population of under 3,000—acquired four grenade launchers.
The effects of this tolerance for violence has consequences that extend beyond the casual, unnecessary shootings of suspects, especially minorities. Having such an overbearing police force that acts unjustly can cause massive social unrest. This unrest raises crime rates, which the police ironically fail to deal with properly. We can see this cyclical effect via the unfortunate social phenomenon of rioting, which the reaction to the Brown case also epitomizes.
The safety of a nation cannot be measured by the strength or boldness of its police force. Regardless of one’s position on measures to limit police authority, it must be agreed that we need to change how police officers are viewed in America. A badge is indicative of an obligation to protect citizens and detain criminals humanely. It is not a license to kill, and we should stop pretending that it is.