The Unraveling of American Policing

Essay, Government, Anil Anand

The current wave of protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and across the United States is just another in a lengthy list of protests against police misconduct. The list is long: Rodney King incident in Los Angeles (1991); Abner Louima a Haitian immigrant sodomized in a New York police precinct bathroom (1997); Amadou Diallo shot outside his home in New York (1999); Oscar Grant shot in the back of the head while lying flat, head down on a rapid transit platform in Oakland (2009); Eric Garner tackled and choked by an NYPD officer for selling illegal cigarettes (2014); Michael Brown fatally shot while unarmed in Ferguson, Missouri (2014); Walter Scott fatally shot after being stopped for a broken brake light in North Charleston (2015); Freddy Grey, arrested with a knife in his pocket, who later died from a severe spinal injury sustained during transport to a Baltimore police station (2015); Philando Castile shot during a traffic stop in Minnesota while reaching for his identification while his girlfriend live-streams the confrontation (2015), and now George Floyd in Minneapolis. And this is only a partial list!

Despite enormous strides made during the past two decades, particularly with the adoption and expansion of community policing across the world, there was much that police leaders could have done to avert deteriorating trust in policing, police legitimacy, and race relations across the United States. They did not!  Much of the current failure rests squarely on the shoulders of police leadership in the United States.  

While there have been significant advances in the hiring and promotion of members of visible minorities, particularly black Americans, into the ranks of police services across the United States, up to an including chiefs of major city police services, suspicion, abuse of police powers, misuse of discretionary enforcement against black Americans seems to continue to be systematic and widespread.  

Yes, policing in the United States is difficult, firearms are rampant, inequality is systematic and historic. Yes, policing in the United States has been a war on drugs, terrorism, immigration, and gangs, and on a scale far greater than in any other country.  

The American criminal justice system has 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals.1

According to the World Prison Brief there were more than 2.1 million prisoners in the United States of America. China holds almost 1.7 million prisoners (plus an unknown number in pre-trial detention and other forms of detention). Brazil has almost 700,000 prisoners, the Russian Federation almost 600,000, and there are around 400,000 prisoners in both India and Thailand. Indonesia, Turkey and Iran each have around a quarter of a million prisoners.2

The country with the highest prison population rate – the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the general population – is the United States (655 per 100,000), ahead of El Salvador (604), Turkmenistan (552), Thailand (526) and Cuba (510).3  

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.4 

Arresting its citizens is big business in the United States, and police chiefs have been systematically indoctrinated into complicity. 

The violent protests across the United States ignited by the arrest of George Floyd are largely directed against police services in the United States. And while the anger is aggravated by the underlying inequalities and systematic barriers, it is police action that has too often been the catalyst of violent nationwide protests.  

There is no denying the challenges police confront on a daily basis, challenges resulting from policies and conditions far beyond the purview of policing. Poverty, unemployment, racism, mental illness, and the myriad of other social issues, all remain outside of the purview of policing, and yet policing is the only 24-7 social service available to respond to the consequences of all social ills. These are nearly insurmountable challenges, nonetheless, police officers are sworn to protect and serve their communities; fairly and with compassion. And the majority of police officers do exactly that, often at great peril and self-sacrifices.

However, there have been too many officers across the United States who have been the cause of the racist application of abuse, up to and including deadly force. There have also been too many officers who have been complicit by their lack of intervention during misconduct by colleagues. These are undeniable signs of deeper levels of bias, racism, and tolerance for abuse of police powers within their organization. These are also signs of a leadership that is out of touch with the organizational culture under their command, their inability to bring about cultural change, or willful blindness to systematic issues that seem to be so evident to too many across the nation.

Police officers are no ordinary citizens; they have sworn to serve and protect, they receive extensive and intensive training in public safety, they generally have first aid training, understand criminal law, and enjoy privilege and authority. They have extensive use of force training, options for the use of force, and discretion on the use of their authority. And yet, even in cases when it has been clear that there is an abuse of office, police officers receive greater tolerance and discretionary consideration than would an ordinary citizen. In fact, officers should be held to higher accountability; they have greater mens rea by virtue of their training and office than an ordinary citizen, and should therefore also be held to greater accountability.

Any chief and mayor who is out of touch with the cultural propensity for bias, for the signs of abuse of authority or privilege by any member of their police service has failed. Officers who sodomize, who prey on victims, fail to intervene when they observe misconduct – torture, or are so unprepared as to act in cowardice are the responsibility of the department to which they belong, the responsibility of their colleagues, and of their supervisors, commanders, and chief. There is no place for cowards, racists, sociopaths, or murderers in a police department. And yet such officers seem to be detected with alarming regularity.  

Even more telling is that too often other officers have stood by and done nothing. That is a sign that the alpha behaviour of the sociopath was a normative attitude, was likely known, and that others were too weak or frightened to do something about it. Any way one looks at this, these instances reflect the failure of the system, of other officers, of supervisors, commanders, and chiefs.

The majority of police officers are exceptional public servants who attempt to do their best under unbelievably challenging conditions. They have been betrayed by officers involved in the incidents involving the shocking incidents listed above, and they are betrayed by leadership that fails to prevent cultures that condone abuse of force, bias, and racism.

To be clear – the current protests are against policing in the United States. These protests are, therefore, first and foremost against police chiefs and commissioners across the United States. 

Any discussion of the underlying causes – racism, poverty, unemployment are of course requisite of the larger social issues, but these violent protests have been about policing. Ignoring this, or relegating it as a consequence of corrupt officers’ actions will be an abdication of the fiduciary responsibility of police leaders.


Anil Anand is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Anil served as a police officer for 29 years; during his career some of his assignments included divisional officer, undercover narcotics officer, and intelligence officer. He has worked in Professional Standards, Business Intelligence, Corporate Communications, the Ipperwash Inquiry (judicial public inquiry), and Interpol.





  1. Sawyer, W., and P. Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative.” (2020). Accessed: May 30, 2020.
  2. World Prison Population List, Twelfth Edition, Institute for Criminal Policy Research, 2018, Accessed: May 29, 2020.
  3. Ibid.
  4. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”. Accessed: May30, 2020.