United States: police on the dock

The video was, however, final. We see Daniel Pantaleo, a New York police officer, clutching with his arm the neck of Eric Garner, a street vendor of cigarettes. A dangerous grip aimed at immobilizing it on the ground. This 43-year-old black man, father of six, lost consciousness and died soon after. We are in 2014 and his cry repeated eleven times “I cannot breathe” will become the slogan of the Black Life Matters movement. But the jurors refuse to charge Daniel Pantaleo, who remains in office. It was not until five years later that he was finally sacked by the New York police chief after a lengthy internal investigation. That did not prevent his union from defending him, claiming that he “should never have been fired” and that the city had flattened out before “anti-police extremists”. The death of George Floyd, in the same circumstances, recalled that the country had a problem with its police.

The police are almost untouchable in the United States. Politicians fear them, jurors in trials generally have a priori favorable towards them and the law protects them. Plainclothes police broke the door to the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman in the emergency room at a Kentucky hospital, in the middle of the night. They were looking for drugs. After a confrontation with her boyfriend who, believing in burglars, pulled out a weapon, the police fired eight times, killing the young woman. No drugs were found. Her mother has sued, but she is unlikely to win, due to the qualified immunity, Which makes it very difficult to prosecute the police. According to Sonia Sotomayor, the judge of the Supreme Court, it has become “an absolute shield” behind which the police shelter. And several legal actions are underway to remove it. As for the trials, if 98 police officers were arrested in connection with a murderous shooting between 2013 and 2019, only three were convicted.

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1,881 police officers dismissed in 10 years

There is also the weight of unions. “In many places, the boss of the union is far more important and influential than the police chief,” said Rashawn Ray, a researcher at the Brookings Institution. “He is doing everything to block legislation that forces the police to answer for their actions. Minneapolis is the model example. Union president Bob Kroll, who has himself been the subject of 29 complaints in his career, has been resisting all reform efforts for years – the use of cameras, training in conflict management … When the mayor banned “warrior” training that teaches violent confrontation, furious Kroll announced that the union would continue to offer it for free. After the death of George Floyd, he wrote a letter to his members describing him as a “violent terrorist” and describing the protests as a “terrorist movement”. And he has already announced that he will do everything to defend the four police officers involved.

According to a survey by Washington Post between 2007 and 2017, the country’s main police services dismissed at least 1,881 police officers for misconduct and more than 450 were reinstated after appealing.

The death of George Floyd rekindled the reform movement. But it is not easy. There are almost 18,000 police forces in the United States, scattered at the federal level, at the level of the 50 states and especially at the local level, in counties, cities … This very fragmented system is ineffective, expensive, and above all prevents uniform standards of recruitment, training, code of conduct … In some places, you can use incapacitating gases against passive individuals while elsewhere, it is only allowed in case of resistance to an arrest. As for training, it varies from state to state. In Florida in 2016, a hairdresser had to take 1,200 hours of lessons against 770 for a police candidate. Americans have always been wary of a federal police, and many believe that local law enforcement is more suited to the needs of the community.

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For Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who became a professor at the University of South Carolina, one of the causes of police brutality, more than rampant racism, is training at the police academy. Students “learn that each encounter, each individual is a potential threat. You always have to be on your guard, ”they say. Most of the time, “the police do not shoot out of anger or hatred, but because they are afraid.” Others denounce the militarization of the police. In the 1990s, to combat gang warfare, the Pentagon created a program that donates the military surpluses from the Iraq war to law enforcement. We see it these days in Minneapolis or Atlanta, where troops in camouflage uniforms armed with assault rifles patrol the city in armored vehicles as if we were in Mosul.

“It’s too easy to say that everything is the fault of the police,” protested a retired New York police officer. “We are not at the origin of all the problems of Ferguson or Baltimore: poverty, unemployment, the absence of men often in prison …”


Even if the American police officers, of course, do not all have easy detente, there is still something wrong. Blacks are almost three times more likely to be killed by police than whites. And police violence is particularly visible in the demonstrations. In Buffalo, the police deliberately pushed an old man, who was injured when he fell. Others have tasered two men from a car in Atlanta … By dint of playing the Robocops, there are obviously burrs, many of which, filmed by passers-by, come out in the open.

But are there more than before? As incredible as it sounds, no one has a clue. Not even the boss of the FBI! There are no statistics on the number of citizens killed by the police – although it is known exactly how many people have been bitten by a shark. Several sites record more than 1,000 deaths per year, or three per day. In Japan, last year, there was not a single death. By comparison, just over a hundred police officers are killed each year. There is also no database which lists the dismissed agents, which allows them to be hired at the police station in the town next door.


“You changed the world, George,” said Al Sharpton, the black leader, at the ceremony in Minneapolis. But has it changed the police? A number of elected officials and police officers – including the largest union – immediately condemned the actions of the officers responsible for his death. Derek Chauvin and his three stooges were sacked and charged with unprecedented speed. Colorado and Wisconsin are considering new laws to limit brutality …

“It is truly amazing to see such a strong conviction from the Minneapolis police. Law enforcement usually sticks together and launches investigations to save time, while waiting for public opinion to move on, “said Tom Barham, a former Los Angeles police officer, and the one of the leaders of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group calling for reform. But he remains skeptical about the long-term impact. “For 50 years, after each racial riot, there have been commissions that lay voluminous reports on the reforms to be made. It all ends up on shelves collecting dust. And nothing changes. “

Reduced police budget

This is perhaps why among the signs brandished in the demonstrations of Minneapolis or Washington, there is more and more the slogan: Let’s cut the police budget. This hitherto marginal movement is making its mark, helped by the pandemic. With the huge economic crisis, all cities have to tighten their belts. However, the resources allocated to the police represent between a third and 60% of the municipalities’ budget. Hence calls to reduce it and redirect funds to violence prevention, homeless people, mental health … In Minneapolis, the group Reclaim the Block launched a petition asking for a $ 45 million budget cut. In Los Angeles, the authorities plan to cut 150 million …

Meanwhile, Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer sacked in New York for having, in 2014, caused the death of Eric Garner, brought a legal action to be reinstated…

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