US cops: armed and dangerous?

Originally published in The Guardian

When Americans read British newspapers referencing “her Majesty”, “his Highness” or “Lord So-and-So”, we bask in the smug patriotic pride of knowing ours is no nation of aristocrats, but a country based on principles like equality before the law and authority granted by merit.

So we’re told. Yet we do have de facto aristocrats, whose authority over ordinary citizens rivals what English royals gave up with the Magna Carta: power to inflict pain on anyone who treats them disrespectfully, power even to kill with relatively little fuss.

If mine were truly a free country, US police wouldn’t wield such immense power or employ such aggressive tactics against their own citizenry – a militarisation of our police forces that started with the war on drugs and intensified after 9/11.

Consider: can you invent a realistic scenario wherein you shoot a man dead; justify it with a story witnesses contradict; confiscate any surveillance video; claim a “glitch” makes it impossible to show the video to anyone else – all while enjoying the support of state legal apparatus?

Police in Las Vegas did that last month, after they shot Erik Scott seven times as he exited a Costco. Cops say Scott pointed a gun at them; witnesses say Scott’s licensed weapon was in a concealed holster, and five of those seven shots hit him in the back. The confiscated surveillance video might settle the question; too bad about that glitch.

At least Costco’s not in trouble for recording police actions. That’s illegal in 12 states, even (or especially) when you record police misbehaviour. Even in states where it’s allowed, officers are wont to ignore the law and go after photographers anyway, and they can always record you with their own dashboard cams.

These aren’t the only powers police wield with relative impunity; whenever Tasers are issued, they’re used with shocking (sorry) frequency. With guns, police at least have to argue “Oops, I thought he was dangerous”, after shooting you; Tasers don’t even require that.

In 2004, Malaika Brooks, then seven months pregnant, was stopped for speeding in Seattle. She refused to sign the ticket – a non-arrestable misdemeanour at the time, though she was arrested for it anyway – and was Tasered three times. Last March, a federal appeals court ruled that the Tasering, which left permanent scars, was not “excessive force” since it only inflicted “temporary, localised pain”.

Even if a man is lying on his belly with his hands cuffed behind his back, it may be presumed acceptable to Taser him. San Francisco transit cop Johannes Mehserle used that defence in his trial for shooting and killing Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day, 2009: he thought he was firing his Taser rather than his gun, and only ever intended to shoot a pain-inducing electric dart into the handcuffed man on the ground.

Hero-cop TV dramas show brave officers risking their lives to rescue hostages or stop carjackers. There’s some like that in real life, too. But in most cases of egregious police overreaction, especially Swat raids in which innocent people are killed, cops aren’t going after dangerous hostage-takers, but looking for drugs or serving warrants for other, non-violent crimes.

Police can deprive people of liberty, health or life itself. Surely, we only entrust such authority to those with the intelligence, insight and wisdom to handle such power? Nope. At least, not in my state of Connecticut, not since the 1996 state supreme court decision Jordan v New London.

Robert Jordan applied for a police job in New London and scored 33 on his qualification exam, equivalent to a 125 IQ. That’s one standard deviation above the mean – smart, but no genius by any definition. The city refused to hire him, stating a preference for those who scored 27 or lower; the suggested median for a patrol officer was 21. New London’s argument was that smart people would find police work boring, and leave the profession after receiving expensive training. Jordan sued for discrimination – and lost. The court ruled there’s nothing discriminatory about a city’s desire to ensure only C-students get to carry police badges.

Behold America’s modern aristocracy. Maybe it’s not as photogenic as Britain’s, but what ours lacks in pageantry, it makes up for in power.