When I moved to New York City in 2008, my perception of safety (and everything else) was conditioned by a lifetime of American cop shows. Though I’d grown up in London and lived in neighborhoods with high levels of street crime during the Nineties and early Aughts, I assumed that I would have to be slightly more vigilant in New York. I remember the precise moment I realized that I was wrong. I was walking around TriBeCa late at night, in a streetscape I associated with gritty Seventies movies, not cupcake bakeries or multimillion-dollar lofts. I glimpsed a light flickering at the end of an alley, and my mind flashed to images of homeless people warming themselves by oil drum fires. Instead I saw a glowing Apple logo, and a young woman checking her email.
I wasn’t alone in my misapprehension: Americans themselves tend to overestimate the prevalence of crime here. By every measure, U.S. crime rates have fallen precipitously from their peak in the Nineties, but in surveys a majority of Americans say they believe crime is rising. They will often acknowledge that they’re not seeing it in their own neighborhoods but add that they “know” that it’s up elsewhere.
While the United States is in almost every way safer than it was a generation ago and far safer than it likes to depict itself in movies and on TV, the breathtaking violence of the American criminal justice system remains undiminished, its reach growing as crime has fallen. In the Seventies, the era of Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and other films that contributed to my outdated vision of TriBeCa, there were around two hundred thousand inmates in state and federal prisons. Today, there are almost one and a half million. The United States locks up its people at a greater rate than any other nation in the world: 698 out of every 100,000 Americans are incarcerated. For comparison, that figure is 139 in the United Kingdom, and far lower still in most European countries.
What’s most unsettling to foreign eyes is not just the continuation of mass incarceration in a country with a falling crime rate, but the sheer cruelty with which the carceral state is administered. From the use of solitary confinement, which amounts to torture, to the punitive charges for phone calls, every aspect of the American system, major or minor, seems to be motivated not by the desire to prevent crime or to rehabilitate prisoners, but by the impulse to inflict spectacular, exemplary pain for the satisfaction of a general public that derives a furtive pleasure from its proximity to suffering.
The prison industrial complex has a particular style, you could say its own aesthetic. Pitiless retribution is administered with bureaucratic coldness and inflexibility, masked by a thick layer of euphemisms. An immigrant in detention gives birth handcuffed to the bed. An inmate on death row is prepared for execution, then reprieved, then prepared again, as the legal machinery grinds out its course. Does freedom taste sweeter in the knowledge that someone else is experiencing horror? People deny that they get off on the cruelty, but you only have to look at popular shows on Netflix to know that’s not true. Prisons are dangerous across the world, but Americans accept staggeringly high rates of rape and assault. According to one estimate, around 180,000 men currently incarcerated in the United States have been sexually assaulted. Though prison is understood to be a site of civil death, where inmates are removed from view, it’s also a site of prurient fascination. Everyone knows about prison rape. It’s the subject of jokes and taunts, but little serious public discussion.
America’s status as a global outlier is perhaps best symbolized by the fairground monstrosity of the electric chair, a relic of a moment in the late nineteenth century when electricity still had an aura of cutting-edge modernity. Since its conception (by a dentist) in 1881, no other country has adopted the contraption except the Philippines, which did so while under U.S. rule. The electric chair is an exotic way to murder someone, tawdry but flamboyant. Now that it has become an embarrassment, lethal injections are the primary execution mechanism, lending the act of killing a pseudo-medical sheen.
I once tried to explain to a French friend that in many U.S. jurisdictions, law enforcement leaders are elected officials. He flat out refused to believe such a thing was possible. The politicization of law enforcement is hardly unique to America, though no other country in the world elects its prosecutors, who invariably flaunt their “tough on crime” credentials when campaigning. The pathway from the district attorney’s office to national politics does not have an equivalent in many other countries, and it’s interesting to consider how sentencing decisions would change if that career trajectory was no longer possible.
Also unusual, and contributing to the intractability of reform efforts, is the overlapping patchwork of jurisdictions and traditions that make up American policing. The Eighties TV show The Dukes of Hazzard was popular with British schoolchildren of my generation. Each week, we would watch a pair of Southern bootleggers in a Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag painted on the roof drive around evading the bumbling local lawmen. When Bo and Luke Duke crossed the county line, and somehow their pursuers couldn’t follow, it appeared as fantastical as stepping into a transporter on Star Trek.
For British people, the story of modern policing is linear, beginning with Sir Robert Peel and the London Metropolitan Police Department and ending with the same institution nearly two hundred years later, just with less impressive hats. The Peel model of a professionalized city watch was imported into Boston in the 1830s, but the tangled network that Americans call the police has multiple origins—in Southern slave patrols, in militias such as the Texas Rangers, in private security forces such as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and Pennsylvania’s Coal and Iron Police. The idea of public safety was only one of the animating principles behind these organizations, and always brings up the question of who constitutes the public, those who must be kept safe.
British police have the same problems with bias as their American counterparts, and my home country has a history of corruption and excessive use of force, but one notable difference is lethality. It’s hard to compare international statistics about deaths in custody, partly because there’s no consistent reporting and partly because the definition of custody is slippery, but one clear point of comparison is in shooting deaths. The British police, who rarely carry firearms, shoot only one or two people a year, often in the context of antiterrorism operations. They have killed a total of 75 people since 1990. In the United States, there were 1,099 fatal “officer-involved shootings”—to use the evasive official jargon—in 2019 alone.
The difference between the United States and its peers is not culture, let alone some metaphysical quantum of freedom that leads Americans to be more violent. It’s the presence of guns. Sooner or later all foreigners remark on the perverse outcomes of the Second Amendment, or rather of the overbroad interpretation of it that seems to render pragmatic gun control impossible. I will not break with that tradition, because however long I live here I will never come to think that my liberty requires military hobbyists to have unfettered access to high-powered weaponry. If civilian gun ownership is supposed to be a protection against the power of an overmighty state, it’s at best symbolic. If it’s for protection against other citizens, it doesn’t seem to be working. Sentimental fidelity to eighteenth-century civic norms doesn’t seem like a good trade-off for Sandy Hook.
Americans possess nearly half of the estimated 857 million civilian-owned firearms in the world, so their police culture and tactics have evolved in the context of a country with a heavily armed populace. Police officers treat every encounter with the public as a prelude to a potentially lethal shoot-out, which is simply not the case elsewhere. The rapid escalation that characterizes so many of these confrontations is shaped by training that emphasizes the risks of failing to respond to perceived threats. The personal and professional cost of shooting is lowered, because legal mechanisms have been developed to help officers evade accountability when unarmed people are killed. Courses such as Dave Grossman’s notorious “killology” seminar teach recruits that, as police officers, they are personally and culturally under siege, promoting the Thin Blue Line myth that the only thing preventing a general descent into anarchy is their willingness to use force. This paranoid mentality is evident in the extremism of police unions, organizations that often display open contempt for civilian oversight and an astounding hostility to the people law enforcement officers exist to serve.
Legal precedent gives the police wide latitude to interpret noncompliance as a threat, justifying the use of force. So school resource officers body-slam children in classrooms and handcuff them in hallways. Protesters are brutally beaten and fare evaders are put in choke holds. Always the logic of escalation is at work. Why does the police department in a small, sleepy town have a SWAT team? An armored vehicle? Because of the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, which authorizes the transfer of excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies. If you have toys, you want to play with them. If you have a SWAT team and there’s actually not much for it to do, maybe you use it to serve warrants. In the early Eighties, police carried out about 1,500 no-knock warrants a year. Because there is no federal mandate that local police departments report on SWAT operations, it is hard to say exactly how prevalent they have become, but criminologists estimate that the number is now in the tens of thousands. The increasing use of SWAT teams comes with a huge social cost in violence and trauma. Gamers make prank calls knowing that a tactical team will break down the door of the guy who’s taunting them. The 2014 spectacle in Ferguson of police officers wearing combat gear and pointing sniper rifles at protesters led to much mockery from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a country that is becoming less violent, the police is transforming itself into a quasi-military force, a process, like mass incarceration, that is not being driven by rational considerations about crime. It is not natural for this to be happening. It is not inevitable. It is not necessary.
Last November, as Democrats tried to apportion blame for disappointing congressional election results, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Senator Mark Warner were among those to condemn the call to “defund the police.” Barack Obama dismissed it as a “snappy slogan”: “You know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.” The conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party is that police reform would be a nice thing to have, and that it should consist of measures such as promoting the use of body cameras, antibias training, diverse recruitment, community policing, and outreach. Anything more ambitious is considered politically impossible.
Reform is sensible, they say. Reform is realistic. The alternative is demeaned as “utopian,” which is another way of saying that it does not fit the existing political consensus. But ultimately a policy is only “realistic” if it works, and it’s far from clear that body cameras and antibias seminars will do much to address the underlying unfitness of the American system. Calling for the defunding of the police may not make for good electoral politics in swing districts, but that doesn’t mean it would be incorrect to divert funding to mental health programs and other social services. Police unions fight even the most modest reforms, but that doesn’t mean measures to promote civilian oversight and disrupt the paranoid Thin Blue Line mindset wouldn’t produce better outcomes.
If you accept that militarized policing and mass incarceration are not increasing community safety—and neither the numbers nor public perception suggest that they are—then you’re obliged to conclude that they’re driven less by the desire to reduce crime than the need to manage structural inequalities of race and class. Outside the formal criminal justice system, an ever-increasing proportion of the American workforce is devoted to so-called guard labor, and more security guards are to be found in states with greater inequality than elsewhere. One has to ask why this is so.
From an outsider’s perspective, the status quo does not seem like a delicately balanced organism that would be damaged by radical intervention, but an aberration that deserves to be consigned to history. This is not to say that America should be more like Britain, or any other country. Clearly it has to find its own solutions. Difficult as it may be to accept, the reformist perspective—that is, the belief that change will come about through a few politically palatable reforms—is the truly utopian one. Realism demands acceptance of the complex relationships between these problems, and doesn’t, for example, expect an ethic of community policing to arise spontaneously in a country where both the police and the public are terrified of getting shot.
If you grow up in a culture that does something a certain way, it can seem not just normal, but natural. However odd your social arrangements, and however apparent their eccentricity may be to outsiders, you tend to defend them simply because they’re yours. It can sometimes be difficult to picture an alternative. But it is time to reimagine the American justice system from the ground up. What kind of institutions and structures would produce safer communities? What would a criminal justice system based on respect and consent look like? These questions immediately open up into larger ones about inequality, gun control, and political power, and they are intractable enough that they can seem impossible to resolve. Yet I suspect that difficulty is not the only reason some people prefer to shut down discussions of change. The dirty secret is the pleasure people take in living in the shadow of punishment. The cruelty is there to give spice to life, as you sit on your high-rise terrace, looking down over the park. To really feel your elevation, the abyss has to be deep.