Finding Answers Through the Looking Glass: How Police Brutality in America Came to Be

Image courtesy of the Public Domain

By Jaehun Lee

Features Contributor

In recent months, the issue of police brutality has become increasingly prominent. From the high profile deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray to many other instances of racially charged police violence, many are wondering how this issue came to be so widespread.

In looking for the answer, let us adhere to the advice of Journalism Professor Bonnie Bucqueroux: “to understand today, you often have to look at yesterday.”

Indeed, police brutality in the United States is a pertinent issue that has its origins in events in our country’s history. In our search, we will find that the police violating their constitutional rights during Prohibition, the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror have all contributed to our current national struggle with hyper violent policing tactics.

Prohibition was a disaster for American society, but it was most obvious in the judicial aspect. In 1920, calls for temperance were finally heard, and the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act passed Congress and became law. These acts banned the sale and consumption of all alcoholic products, resulting in the creation of the Bureau of Prohibition to enforce that legislation.

Although its advocates argued that Prohibition would create a more orderly society by increasing productivity of workers and improving family life, Prohibition worsened these problems. The initiative failed on all fronts because the Bureau of Prohibition was incredibly corrupt, making it incredibly easy for bootleggers to smuggle in or produce their own alcohol.

As journalist H.L. Mencken noted in 1925, “None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment [have] come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished”.

Due to the black market demand created by this deeply unpopular government policy, the United States saw a boom in organized crime. Gangs lead by Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and other mob leaders greatly profited from the illegal alcohol market.

In order to combat these illegal activities, police abused suspects and resorted to illegal practices. The Wickersham Commission, which was tasked with identifying the causes of criminal activity during the Prohibition Era, found that in addition to being incredibly corrupt, police often used the “third degree,” or torture, on criminal suspects. Third degree was mostly comprised of psychological abuse, such as the Mutt and Jeff Routine (also known as the good cop/bad cop method) or holding the prisoner incommunicado in order to gain a confession from the suspect (Leo).

In the Mutt and Jeff routine, two interrogators take seemingly opposing approaches in negotiating terms. The “good cop” would appear sympathetic while the “bad cop” would appear aggressive. The goal of this method is to get the suspect to produce a confession, either out of trust of the “good cop” or out of fear of the “bad cop,” while the practice of holding the prisoner incommunicado prevents the suspect from communicating with anyone. Both of these practices are illegal, as the Fifth and Sixth Amendments prevent self incrimination and give suspects the right to counsel, respectively.

Not only that– Article One of the Constitution states that “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended [in times of peace].” Therefore, the reviewing of the legality of the suspect’s arrest would have been required, but as the Wickersham Commission reports, courts found loopholes to give “the police more time to obtain confessions,” (Leo).

The origins of police brutality can clearly be seen here, as many Americans lost respect for law enforcement, law enforcement countered by unlawfully suspending constitutional protections at this time.

In 1971, in reaction to drugs becoming a symbol of youthful rebellion, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” famously stating that “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive,” (Sharp).

This “offensive” would consist of policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and allowing “no-knock warrants” to reduce drug use, therefore driving the illegal drug trade out of business (

while the resources grew, responsibility flatlined. militarizing the police blurs the lines between law enforcement and the military (Rizer and Hartman).

Mandatory minimum sentences require convicted criminals to serve a minimum number of years in jail, while no-knock warrants “authorize police officers to enter certain premises without first knocking and announcing their presence or purpose prior to entering the premises,” (

The War on Drugs presents a clear connection in regards to the effects of policy on the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. In both cases, a group of ideologists set out to “impose their moral values on the rest of the country” (Booth). The policies were met with huge crime waves (Booth). During Prohibition, America saw the rise of bootlegging gangs such as the Chicago Outfit, led by Capone. During the War on Drugs, America saw the rise of drug trafficking gangs such as the Bloods, led by T. Rogers.

In an attempt to snuff out drug users, the police resorted to unprecedented levels of brutality. Victims often reported “physical violence [by police] ranging from gratuitous kicks to beatings that broke ribs and teeth” (Cooper). The poster boy of police brutality during the war on drugs, however, was Rodney King.

Following a high speed chase, King and two other passengers were repeatedly beaten by police officers. Officers beat King more than 50 times and stunned him with a Taser gun at least four times. The Rodney King incident showed that police brutality was branching out beyond psychological abuse. As Joel Miller succinctly puts it, “confrontation has replaced investigation.”

Perhaps even more troubling is that this brutality is systemic to law enforcement. As Seth Stoughton of the University of South Carolina notes, “Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the ‘first rule of law enforcement:’ An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift.”

Police academies emphasize the point that surviving a day at work is an officer’s top priority, even going so far as to infuse “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” into trainee’s minds. Instead of focusing on the safety of the community they were meant to be serving, police officers were told to protect themselves at all costs. It was this attitude that fueled police brutality during the War on Drugs, and it is an attitude that continues to this day and was worsened by the 1033 Program and the militarization of civilian police.

The 1960s saw the emergence of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. Former Los Angeles Police chief Daryl Gates first established a SWAT team in response to the Watts riots in LA two years prior, which had caused 34 deaths and $40 million in damage. In order to combat urban unrest, violence, and riots, SWAT team members were specially trained and were given military-grade weapons (Balko).

However, following the creation of the 1033 Program by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997, regular police officers began to receive surplus Department of Defense military equipment. This meant that civilian police departments could and did receive tanks, assault rifles, and grenade launchers. Indeed, it is troubling to see a tank rolling down the street in Keene, New Hampshire. Or knowing that your local police department in Hughes County, South Dakota has a grenade launcher (Bosman and Apuzzo).

Contrary to popular belief, a rationale for militarizing civilian police departments did exist before the terror attacks on September 11th, 2011.

Before 9/11, the United States struggled with domestic terrorism. Including the Unabomber, the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, Oklahoma City Bombing, almost all terrorist attacks in the United States until 9/11 were committed by American citizens. Therefore, “law enforcement possessed the primary responsibility for combating terrorism in the United States,” (Rizer and Hartman).

After the September 11th attacks and the US’s declaration of a “War on Terrorism,” the federal government massively increased defense spending (Walker). As the US pursued terrorists abroad, surplus weapons trickled down to local police departments, giving them access to machine guns, tanks, and army helicopters (Bosman and Apuzzo). In short, while the resources grew, responsibility flatlined. Even though more military equipment was available, police departments did not need it. This increase in military equipment police departments lead to a change in attitude in police officers. Put it simply, militarizing the police blurs the lines between law enforcement and the military (Rizer and Hartman).

The effects of militarizing the police can be seen through police brutality during the War on Terror, including today. Much like the emphasis placed on survival, America’s police academy must take much of the blame for the militaristic attitude.

As Matthew Harwood of the ACLU went on to point out that the police seems to have lost its community aspect. In addition, the main way police departments recruit new members is by “attracting young men with the promise of Army-style adventure and high-tech toys.” Instead of distancing themselves from this military image, police departments are embracing it, which will only worsen police brutality.

In looking for answers as to why police brutality is such a big issue today, we see that the problem lies in past actions that were not dealt with properly. First, Prohibition reduced respect for authority and law enforcement, as the police committed various unconstitutional acts. Next, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror changed the attitude of police officers from that of a peacekeeper to that of a domestic soldier. As a result of this inaction, American society finds itself in a crisis situation, where people cannot trust the police and where police are struggling to regain credibility with the American population as people who preserve order in society.

But the question remains: will the men and women who are meant to serve and protect be able to win back their communities?