15 April 2015

Out-of-Control Police Violence and Government Overreach

Stephen Kershnar
Walter Scott, Traffic Tickets, and Government Overreach
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 12, 2015

The recent spate of videotaped incidents highlights intertwined problems: out-of-control police violence and constant government overreach.

By now everyone has seen the recent video of the shooting of Walter Scott in  South Carolina. Scott was stopped for a broken taillight. After he fled from Officer Michael Slager, the cop shot him eight times from behind and then appears to drop a Taser near Scott’s body. Slager gave the line that almost always protects cops: a struggle ensued, the suspect reached for my weapon and I feared for my life. After the video emerged, Slager was charged with murder. Without the cell-phone video, he’d be free as the wind.

In 2013, an individual who was being investigated in a case of mistaken identity complained that Slager tased him for no good reason and when his hands up in the air. The North Charleston police cleared Slager, although the alleged victim and several witnesses claimed they were not even interviewed about the incident.

The videotaped shooting comes shortly after the videotaped chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island that led to his death. Two journalists, Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri, estimate that the police shoot and kill around 1,000 people each year, that is, three a day.

Most, recently, a video captures a horse thief in Southern California who was stunned with a Taser by a sheriff’s deputy and fell to the ground with his arms outstretched. Writing for NBC, Joseph Kandel and Tony Shin claim that a group of 11 sheriff’s deputies then kicked him 17 times, kneed him to the groin, punched him 37 times, and struck him with batons 4 times. 13 blows appeared to be to the head. Following the attack, the man did not appear to move from his position on the ground for more than 45 minutes and did not appear to receive medical attention while deputies stood around him.

The issue that arises is whether the above cases and ones like them are the exception or whether there is a real problem with police violence. Often the police’s defenders claim there’s no problem here. They note that there are bad cops, but no more so than bad teachers, nurses, and bus drivers. Other defenders argue that the high-profile cases are isolated instances and not a systemic failure.

Others, such as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, rebut the isolated-instances claim. He argues that role of cameras in reducing police violence suggests that they can and do use far less violence when monitored and, hence, far too much police violence is unnecessary and wrong.

A study by Police Chief William Farrar found that in Rialto, California when police used body cameras, complaints against them dropped 88%. Furthermore, Farrar noted that this reduction in complaints was due to a reduction in force because (1) police shifts with cameras had half as many use-of-force incidents as those with cameras and (2) officers without cameras were more likely to use force without having been physically threatened.

Arizona State University criminologist Michael White notes that a study of police officers in Mesa, Arizona found that police officers had 60% fewer complaints after they wore body cameras and 65% fewer complaints than those officers who did not wear cameras. A reduction in complaints was also found in Great Britain when officers wore cameras.

It is possible that this decline in complaints and use of force is largely due to citizens behaving differently in response to the cameras, but this doesn’t fit well with the evidence. The Rialto study found that the police were more disciplined about only using force in response to a threat to them when they were on camera than when they are not. Also, a citizen already faces a serious chance of injury and conviction when fighting with the police and it is unlikely that the camera adds much of a further deterrent.  

Police involvement in citizens’ lives is also at a disturbing level. Sociologists Charles R. Epp and fellow researchers studied traffic stops and found that nationwide 12% of all drivers are stopped by the police each year. Based on data about the Kansas City metropolitan area, they found that more than a third of young black men are stopped two or more times a year for investigatory stops. An investigatory stop is one based on a minor matter (for example, driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, or failure to signal) and is often used as a pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle. Epp and company found that 44% of young black men who drive an older luxury car were subject to investigatory stops. Regardless of the race issue, far too many people are being pulled over and the courts and legislature deserve a lot of the blame here.    

Nor is it just traffic stops. Tickets are now used to bleed revenue out of cowed citizens. A 2006 Federal Reserve Bank study found states sharply increasing the number of traffic tickets given out to compensate for loss of revenue elsewhere. Some states have had had to limit the percentage of a town’s revenue that can get from tickets to 30% for state roads and 35% to state highways as some towns started to use police and courts as moneymaking schemes. These percentages are outrageous.

The results of using tickets as taxation are ugly. Timothy Williams writing in The New York Times notes that in 2013, an astounding 17% of Californians had their licenses suspended for failure to pay fines or appear in court. This is unsurprising given a 2012 state analysis that found that a $500 traffic ticket, even when paid on time, cost $1,953. It also found a $100 ticket for failure to have proof of insurance actually cost $490 and this increases to $815 if the motorist didn’t pay on time.

Police violence, police stopping far too many motorists for minor traffic matters, and towns using traffic tickets as their newest and most favorite form of taxation are a bad combination. The three are related in that the demand for more government revenue leads to more traffic stops, which leads to more friction, and so on. The system needs reform. 

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