Kate Andrews Kate Andrews

The truth about America’s police culture

Behind the brutality is a warped social contract

(Getty Images)

America can often look, to outsiders, like a country of two warring tribes: the Trumpish anti-PC brigade vs the woke Twitterati. Such divisions certainly exist. Our broadcasters are party political and partisanship is deeply entrenched in America’s two-party system. It’s tempting to see the scenes in recent weeks as the continuation of tribal warfare by other means —but the truth is far more complicated.

America has the most militarised and aggressive police force in the western world. The country’s legacy of rapid expansion, combined with vast geography and open landscapes, engendered a sense of lawlessness early on — and a need to be protected from it. This has led to an implicit social contract: police need to be armed to match the criminals they’re dealing with. It’s the price for keeping the country safe. When the police bought vehicles that looked like tanks or dressed as if they were off to war, we didn’t ask questions. In theory, you knew it must go wrong sometimes. But what did ‘going wrong’ look like? Who did it affect? It was hard to imagine.

No longer. The ubiquity of smartphones means misdeeds are now filmed and shared instantly. We see America’s police officers treat low-level offenders and even innocent citizens with the same force and aggression you would expect to see used against the most violent criminals. Black Americans feel the overwhelming brunt of the brutality. When the system goes wrong, they suffer the most.

It’s a common trap to glance at cherry-picked statistics and say ‘nothing to see’. Black Americans are no more likely to be shot by police than they were five years ago. Most who were shot were carrying guns; 14 of the 55 unarmed Americans shot by police last year were black.

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