clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Policing isn’t just broken in Ferguson or Baltimore. It’s broken in America.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

A police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty Images

It’s turning into a routine: Every few months, the US Department of Justice releases the results of another investigation into a local police department. The latest was the Baltimore Police Department, which repeatedly violated basic police practices, the First Amendment, and the Fourth Amendment, according to the Justice Department.

Now, just like last time such a report was released, and the time before, we’re left in total shock — how could a basic government institution go so horribly wrong?

But maybe we should be asking ourselves why we’re surprised anymore. With report after report, this is proving to be the norm: When you dig into any part of policing or the criminal justice system, you uncover some sort of systemic mess. As the evidence piles up, it seems like the problem isn’t just a few bad police departments but rather the entire system they’re part of.

Report after report finds systemic problems in the US criminal justice system

It is difficult to overstate just how much wrong the Justice Department found in the Baltimore Police Department. There are problems at practically every level of the city’s policing practices — stops, arrests, use of force, community interactions, and so on. These problems are compounded by racial biases and even outright racism. And they’re overlooked, allowed, or encouraged by higher-ups in the department. (For more, read my explainer.)

But this wasn’t the first report with these kinds of findings. In a previous investigation, the Justice Department found the Cleveland Police Department frequently used excessive force. Before that, the Justice Department uncovered a pattern of racial bias and outright racism in the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department, which the local government used as a revenue-generating operation by tasking officers with essentially harassing poor people of color.

And those are just the big reports that have been released since the 2014 Ferguson protests; the Justice Department has been carrying out these investigations for years.

Many more reports are coming. The Justice Department is now investigating more than two dozen police departments around the country, including Chicago — another sign of the systemic depth of these issues.

And the Justice Department is far from the first to uncover all of these problems. Just this year, I’ve done investigations into how the criminal justice system mistreats people with mental illnesses and transgender people, and low-level crime enforcement often turns into an excuse to harass poor black people. Other reporters, like Radley Balko at the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly at the Huffington Post, have been covering similar issues for years longer.

The data also shows there are huge racial disparities all across policing and the criminal justice system, fueled by generations of discrimination. Criminologists widely agree that police regularly harass people for low-level crime yet neglect far more serious crimes. Police are almost never prosecuted for use of force, even in cases in which it seems the force was unnecessary and excessive. Distrust in the police is so bad that it could be causing more crime and violence as people take the law into their own hands.

The Justice Department itself may be partly culpable for many of the bad practices. As David Menschel, a criminal defense attorney, noted on Twitter, the feds have been funding the Baltimore Police Department and many other police agencies for decades. This is supposedly to help these departments improve, but Baltimore shows that’s often not the case. Instead, it’s a classic case of enabling.

Add up all of the evidence, and it sure seems like American policing is broken. There are some police agencies doing well — like Dallas — but they are in part notable because they seem to be so rare. By and large, there is a lot of room for improvement.

So what now?

There are no easy solutions to this issue. While the Justice Department is investigating individual police departments and overseeing reforms through agreements known as "consent decrees," the truth is this will be far from enough. Consent decrees have very mixed records of success, as Frontline and the Washington Post uncovered.

There are also far too many police departments for the Justice Department to get involved with them all: There are more than 15,000 police and sheriff departments across the country, and the great majority are run by local and state governments.

So chances are this will require systemic changes at practically every level. The federal government can encourage better practices at the state and local level by passing new laws and policies. State and local officials can take on their own reforms.

A list of the systemic problems and possible fixes could go for hundreds of pages. But here is a broad overview of the themes that have popped up again and again in Justice Department reports:

  • Police are racially biased. Studies show that police frequently carry subconscious racial biases, and this may lead them to disproportionately stop and, in some cases, kill black suspects more than their white counterparts. There’s no foolproof way to overcome these biases, but police can be trained to become more aware of their biases and at least try to overcome them.
  • Cops use force too easily. Many of the findings from the Justice Department’s reports suggest that American police officers are far too quick to use force — sometimes just because an officer doesn’t like what somebody on the street is saying. The law makes it fairly easy for police to legally use force as well: It requires that cops reasonably perceive a threat, even if one isn’t actually present. Maybe the law could be tightened. Maybe police departments could tighten their own rules for use of force, as Baltimore recently did. But something likely has to give.
  • Officers aren’t held accountable for misconduct. Even when officers use force that is clearly excessive, or otherwise engage in bad behavior, the Justice Department reports show they’re often not held accountable. (The Baltimore report in particular found several examples in which higher-ups covered up or rewarded bad behavior.) Some of the potential fixes to this are technological, like equipping cops with body cameras to catch them in their bad moments. Some may involve legal changes to restrict use of force. But fundamentally, government officials — particularly local prosecutors and police chiefs — need to take police misconduct in their jurisdictions far more seriously.
  • Police are encouraged to go after low-level crimes far too much. Time and time again, we’ve seen low-level police stops over crimes as minor as traffic violations spiral out of control. As I explained before, a big part of the problem is police are frequently evaluated based on how many stops, tickets, and arrests they issue, and cops are also encouraged to engage in "pretextual stops," in which cops stop someone for a minor violation as a pretext to investigate a suspect’s possible involvement in a more serious crime. Police departments could stop evaluating cops based on a numbers game, and they could limit or eliminate pretextual stops.

Again, this list is by no means comprehensive. These are simply the broad brushes that have become apparent in the Justice Department investigations and my reporting on policing issues. There are far more thorough lists out there, including the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The fundamental point, though, is that American policing is broken. Something needs to change — and a few limited federal investigations into a couple dozen police forces isn’t enough.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.