More Americans Are Killed by Cops Than Die in Foreign Wars

Can we convince conservatives to take the problem of police violence seriously?

Welcome back to What Went Wrong?, a weekly newsletter about the failures, inefficiencies, and screw-ups that define 21st-century American life written by Harry Cheadle. In this edition we’re going to explore why cops in the U.S. are so violent.

Why the Police Kill So Many People

A recent attempt to count the number of Americans killed by law enforcement in an average year came up with a shocking finding:

Police officers kill about 1,700 Americans every year. In other words, police killings have made up about one out of every twelve violent deaths of Americans between 2010 and 2018. That’s including American military deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere during that window. Indeed, more Americans died at the hands of police officers during that period (about 14,400) than died while on active military duty (about 9,400).

That’s from a report that came out last week written by Lyman Stone, and it’s interesting for a few reasons. First and foremost it’s an indication of how deep the problem of police violence in the U.S. runs. Everyone knows police officers kill many people, sometimes for no good reason, and sometimes those people become posthumously famous in the most gruesome possible way when their deaths are particularly shocking or are captured on video—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo. The victims, both the famous ones and the ones you don’t hear about, tend disproportionately to be Black.

But no single entity accurately tracks how many people are killed by cops each year; Stone’s number is an estimate drawn from several sources. If it’s anywhere close to accurate, we should regard police killings not as a series of scandals but an epidemic, a profound systemic problem as serious as a nationwide crime wave.

As Stone points out, the number of police killings has gone up even as society in general has become less violent, and fewer cops have been killed. This suggests that while you can mount a variety of defenses for an individual death—the cop thought it was a gun, the unarmed man did not comply, etc.—as a whole there’s no good reason police officers should kill so many people. The statistics support the argument that too often, cops feel empowered to act with impunity. Along with many others who have studied the problem, Stone places the blame largely on police unions, which have successfully made it very hard to fire officers (as I've written about previously), or otherwise hold them accountable for egregious misconduct.

The other reason the report is interesting is that Stone is a conservative, and the outlet that published it, The Public Discourse, is the journal of the right-wing Witherspoon Institute. That means Stone would like to abolish not just police unions but all public-sector unions. On this and many other things, I disagree with him. But even in these polarized times, bipartisanship is the best path to change; the recent achievements of the criminal justice reform movement wouldn’t have been possible without conservative support.

So I emailed Stone, who lives in Hong Kong, not just to ask about his report but also what kind of arguments about police violence might appeal to his fellow conservatives. Here’s our email exchange, which I’ve lightly edited:

How frustrating was it while you were doing this work that the government doesn't track police killings nationwide? Why isn't this something the feds do? 

It was very frustrating. We really need a central, mandatory-reporting-based database of all deaths in police presence, and an accounting for some details about those deaths. However, the flagship federal report on policing, the Unified Crime Reporting system, still doesn't achieve even close to 100% compliance from police departments. A nice first step would be to require police departments to complete the UCR, and strip states of access to federal funds related to justice programs if they don't achieve 100% reporting compliance. We should also fund UCR audits to ensure high-quality reporting.

Were you surprised by your findings when you dug into the data?

Surprise implies expectation, and I came into this topic with no clear expectation. I honestly had no prior [expectation] about whether police killings were higher or lower than historically. I just felt it was something which should be known, and I was irritated that nobody had already done the legwork. And when it was done, honestly the story I found made sense: higher police killings in the 1960s and 1970s, then it declined, then it rose in the 2000s, and it's been stable or fallen a bit since.

“We need some more strike-breaking Republicans”

The part of your report where I felt you were especially careful was interpreting the data on race. What do you think is the most accurate way to frame this problem: Is it that the police are killing too many people in general, or is it that they are killing Black people at especially high rates?

Police kill too many people in general, and an excessive share of those they kill are black. I think we have a problem both of racial inequity in policing and also excessive force in policing, and they combine multiplicatively. Some policy changes will address both problems, some only one. Simply as a matter of practicality, the policy reforms for tackling violence generally are both better-demonstrated and also probably easier to implement than policies to alter the racial attitudes of police officers.

You place the blame for the rise in killings on police unions, and I'm a pro-union guy in general but I think you're correct about the damage these unions can do. You write, “They’re teachers’ unions, but with tanks and endless get-out-of-jail-free cards,” and I'd add that they have immense political power both through endorsements and through the threat of (illegal) work slowdowns, which is every politician's worst nightmare. As you point out, even generally anti-union Republicans include carve-outs for police unions when passing right-to-work laws. Do you think there's a political path to “busting” these unions, or limiting their power? What would a politician need to do?

Calvin Coolidge, no progressive, became famous and popular among Republicans because he broke a Boston police union strike [in 1919]. We need some more strike-breaking Republicans, I think. The political path to breaking the police unions is the same path to breaking any union: steely-eyed resolve, a blithe disregard to the criticism of union allies, and a clear awareness that your objective is to fundamentally degrade the political capacity of a specific set of institutions. Accept the recall campaign and win the recall election if necessary.

But of course, I want to go much further than fairly weak “right to work” rules: I believe any public servant who attempts to form a cartel for the purpose of pressing governments for policy changes should be immediately dismissed. Public workers already have voice in their workplace via their votes; they do not need a union, which provides them effective double-votes in public policy debates versus other people. This is especially important since public unions do a lot of lobbying unrelated to their issue areas, and provide explicit support to political parties who may then not actually deliver on union concerns. So I guess I would say, there is no “path” in the sense of an easy five-step process. There's just a grueling political fight that must be fought and won: damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

You're pretty dismissive of reforms that don't include eliminating unions. What about the idea that's been brought up lately of creating new agencies that could respond to mental health situations or make traffic stops—things that cops do now, but which you don't actually need an armed agent of the state to do? 

I think that a lot of police officers would actually appreciate not having to go on wellness checks, mental health calls, and traffic stops. Police unions and police departments might oppose removing traffic stops, since that's a lot of revenue for departments. Which is why I think an important step is a “no fee/fine revenue” rule: all revenues from enforcement should go to some non-police pot of money, like public education, or infrastructure, or parks and rec, or even a local-level rainy day fund or business enterprise fund. Or even flat tax rebate to people! The point is, we can't have departments trying to generate revenue by pulling people over.

Once we've stripped the revenue interest, I think it'll be an easy sell to transfer traffic enforcement from justice to transportation authorities. A lot of it can be automated anyways. We could also probably pay traffic enforcers less, and expect them to work more years before retirement, especially if we didn't expect them to engage in dangerous pursuit. But yes, I favor policy changes to make sure that the police force can focus on police work.

“If conservatives experienced police the way black people did, more would simply see the police as yet another tentacle of the overweening administrative state invading our lives and needing to have some of its tentacles chopped clean off.”

One thing that interests me is that you come at this from a right-of-center position. (Do you self-identify as a conservative? I feel like your politics are hard to hang a traditional label on.) Libertarians have of course been making arguments for reforming the police for a long time, but I would say that their arguments haven't become mainstream positions in the GOP. What do you think is an effective argument for reforming the police that would convince conservatives who aren't on board?

I would identify as “very conservative.” Let me offer a nice string of trigger phrases and survey cues to establish where I'm coming from, and just to demonstrate the “very” part: abortion is murder, immigrants should learn English, entitlements should be cut, taxes should be based more on consumption and less on income (and should also be lower), the traditional family is the bedrock of society, religious faith is essential to the good life, most people benefit from having some kind of hierarchy and order in their life, parents should instill discipline in their children, the government can legitimately use police and military violence to ensure order at home and abroad.... I could go on. I think people often see my politics as difficult to pin down because I'm also committedly and publicly anti-racist, anti-fascist, pro-immigration, environmentalist, support a variety of government economic interventions, not anti-intellectual, and I speak educated-pluralist-white-person-ese (a language I don't think immigrants should be forced to learn!) pretty fluently. And an important part of conservative politics reaching back literally hundreds of years and continuing today is 1) some hesitancy or skepticism towards unions generally but especially 2) open war on public sector unions.

As it happens, being a Kentuckian, I'm pretty pro-private sector unions since coal companies have spent a century defiling my homeland, mistreating its people, and defrauding their workers. But I'm happy to be engaged in an overt effort to abolish public sector unions completely. I stand with figures as diverse as FDR and Calvin Coolidge in thinking that public servants are public servants. I'm willing to make exceptions for workers in “business-like” enterprises of the government (like municipal sanitation, which in some areas literally is a private company). But for core functions of the government like the bureaucracy, the police, education, etc, I think we need not just right-to-work, we need to actually braid a whip and cleanse the temple of those who exploit the public purse, pervert the policymaking process, and do so at the expense of overburdened taxpayers, abused and underserved children, and beaten and murdered innocents.

My critique of the police, then, is just the natural extension of a very old and well-worn conservative critique of public sector unions. Added to that critique is a Burkean sensibility: reform is the vaccine of revolution, and like all conservatives I abhor the very idea of revolution, preferring to keep whiffs of grapeshot as rare as possible. I worry that the police are turning into a dangerous force which threatens to incite revolutionary activities if not reined in, even as I have absolutely no confidence in the ability or willingness of American police to actually crush a revolution if one were to occur. Finally, I simply think that if conservatives experienced police the way black people did, more would simply see the police as yet another tentacle of the overweening administrative state invading our lives and needing to have some of its tentacles chopped clean off.

“While I've been publicly anti-police union and calling for demilitarization for a while, my wake-up call has been living in Hong Kong.”

Why haven't Republicans pushed harder on police reform? Is it that very few Republicans run cities and so the issue isn't often discussed? Is it a kind of identity-politics thing where Republicans don't want to criticize law enforcement? 

Conservatives correctly argue that order is a prerequisite for liberty to actually exist in a meaningful way. It doesn't matter how free the laws are, if you get shot by criminals for walking outside your house, you are not free. Conservatives view the “order vs. liberty” tradeoff as a false dichotomy: without sufficient liberty, order becomes intolerable and revolution ensues, leading to disorder. Without sufficient order, liberty cannot manifest in a real way.

Furthermore, humans have memories. A lot of conservatives remember the violences of the 80s. A lot of younger progressives don't. The lack of experience of that crime wave leads a lot of progressives to be irrationally optimistic and think today's relatively low crime rates will just always exist. But likewise, a lot of conservatives wrongly synonymize “order” with “letting the police do whatever they want to do without accountability.” I think we are beginning to see “order becoming intolerable.” For sufficient order to guarantee liberty to remain, we must reorganize the order we maintain, and thereby prevent revolution. Add in that the brunt of maintaining order has not in recent years mostly landed on conservatives, and you just get a perception mismatch: the order doesn't feel intolerable to most conservatives yet. We aren't feeling the pain.

And honestly, while I've been publicly anti-police union and calling for demilitarization for a while, my wake-up call has been living in Hong Kong. Seeing the same arguments trotted out here where the police are being used to destroy a nascent democratic society has been eye-opening and led me to re-examine the U.S. police situation. My hope is that this re-examination can be useful for American conservatives. But I also should clarify, I'm not anti-cop. I actually think we need more police. Academic research is very clear that when more police are out patrolling and walking the beat, crime falls sharply. We need more police, but we need them to be able to focus on community intervention, walking the beat, and preventing crime, not just waiting for calls so they can roll in hot to a dangerous situation. More police with less political clout and better rules.

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Top photo of some cops in 2013 by Flickr user matthrono.

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