By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
MINNEAPOLIS — It’s the land of the not so free and the home of the heavily armed.
The week has been filled with stories from all sides of America’s growing police state. New studies show we’re not just at the top of the world’s incarceration list but we’re running away with the title, while police misconduct and the militarization of those same police forces are raising questions from coast to coast.
Here’s five reasons the United States is the world’s biggest police state:
1. If the states were individual countries, the U.S. would have the 35th-highest incarceration rate in the world
It is common knowledge — or at least it should be — that the United States jails a larger part of its population than any other country on the planet, with the possible exception of North Korea; it’s hard to get reliable statistics from there.
The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s total population but about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. About 700 out of every 100,000 people in the United States are serving time behind bars, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. The regimes in Russia, Rwanda and Cuba only wish they could do as well at locking up their own citizens.
But when you break the numbers down, things look even worse.
If the United States were divided into 51 separate countries — all the states plus Washington, D.C. — 35 of those new countries would have a higher incarceration rate than Cuba, which ranks second on the world list, according to a new study from the Prison Policy Initiative.
In the new hierarchy, Louisiana would lead the way because more than 1,300 out of every 100,000 residents of that state are in prison.
Vermont, with the lowest incarceration rate in the United States — a measly 254 inmates per 100,000 residents — still ranks ahead of Colombia, Mexico, Botswana and, well, most of the rest of the world.
WE’RE NUMBER 1 (THROUGH 35): If each state were its own country, the United States would have the 35 highest incarceration rates in the world. (Source: The Prison Policy Initiative)
2. Insane prison sentences help keep us on top
Maybe you think people should go to jail for doing drugs. Maybe you think all drugs should be legal and no one should go to jail for making the voluntary choice to use drugs, unless they hurt other people in process.
Either way, you’d probably agree it’s ridiculous to sentence someone, anyone, to life in prison without parole because they were caught with 32 grams of marijuana. In case you’re not aware how much pot that is, a gram is about the size of a quarter, give or take.
But that’s exactly what happened to Anthony Kelly in 1999. He was arrested with enough marijuana to barely fill a sandwich bag and will spend the rest of his life in a Louisiana prison.
He is only one of 175 inmates serving life without parole in Louisiana for nonviolent crimes — mostly drug offenses, according to the Reason Foundation.
These 175 inmates alone will cost Louisiana taxpayers about $87.5 million over the duration of their incarceration, according to the ACLU.
Although Louisiana has particularly harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws and requires harsh punishments for repeat offenders, even nonviolent ones, most states have some sort of mandatory sentencing provisions for repeat offenders, taking decisions out of the hands of judges and juries and driving up incarceration rates.
3. With all those “criminals” out there, police forces are bulking up
The Department of Defense is unloading vehicles, fresh from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, at bargain-basement prices, and local police departments are acting like your crazy aunt at the flea market.
Michael Gayer, sheriff of Pulaski County, Ind., is the new proud owner of an MRAP — mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, or basically a lighter version of a tank with wheels instead of treads — which, he says, is necessary for his sleepy corner of middle America because “the United States has become a war zone.”
Gayer told the Indianapolis Star police departments had to start using military-class vehicles because of more violence in schools, workplaces and the streets.
Never mind the fact that crime rates in most states are lower than they’ve been in decades. In Indiana, the violent crime rate in 2012 was at its lowest since 1988.
But from New Mexico to Minnesota and from Idaho to Iowa, cops are loading up with the sweetest toys, as Watchdog.org has reported. And it’s not just vehicles on offer from the DoD, everything from rocket launchers to bandages are being gift-wrapped for local police.
4. Tactics that match the fear, not the facts
Most police departments began using SWAT teams over the past few decades, but unlike the cop dramas on TV, in which their use is always justified to stop a homicidal maniac or disrupt a hostage situation, the majority of SWAT deployments in the United States are used for routine police work.
Maryland is the only state that requires police departments to file public records regarding their usage of SWAT teams, but there is no reason to think it’s an outlier on the national stage.
Since Maryland starting tracking SWAT deployments in 2009, there have been an average of 4.5 deployments per day, two of every three deployments included forced entry and 90 percent of all deployments have been for the purposes of serving warrants — not confronting dangerous and deadly criminals posing an immediate threat to human life.
The middle-of-the-night SWAT raid on a home in Georgia made national headlines last month when officers detonated a “flash-bang” grenade and burned an infant so severely that doctors had to induce coma — all to serve a warrant for someone who was not in the home at the time.
According to the ACLU, which released a new report this week after researching 800 SWAT deployments by 20 law enforcement agencies over the past two years, 68 percent of all SWAT team uses involved drug searches.
“The use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties,” the ALCU concluded.
5. These cops arrested someone and didn’t like getting filmed, and you won’t believe what happened next
While the United States is putting more people in prison and giving cops more firepower to use on the streets, there’s also a dangerous shortage of accountability for the actions of those same officers.
We could talk about the unfortunate habit of New York City police officers getting drunk and discharging their weapons at innocent civilians, or we could talk about the Green Bay, Wis., officer who recently body-slammed and assaulted a young man for no good reason.
But the best, most recent example comes from California.
Two police officers in Glendale were in the process of arresting a man suspected of driving while intoxicated, but they decided to harass someone filming the DUI checkpoint at the same time.
While the officers walked halfway down the block to confront a man with a cell phone camera, the suspect took advantage of the situation and fled the scene. Of course, the police then tried to arrest the guy with the camera (and his friend) for distracting them from the investigation.
The Glendale Police Department did not return calls from Watchdog.org
Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org