US riots show need for political control of policing

Clear political control of police forces is needed on both sides of the Atlantic.

The US city of Baltimore has been gripped by riots after the death of black teenager Freddie Gray in police custody. "A well-documented history of extreme brutality and misconduct" within the Baltimore Police Department "set the stage for just this kind of unrest", notes The New York Times.

In the past four years alone, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Even before this latest incident it had entered into a voluntary reform agreement with the Justice Department.

That's no excuse, argues Jason Riley in The Wall Street Journal. Gray's death is being used as a "convenient excuse for lawbreaking". If anything, the real problem might be too little policing the violent-crime rate in Baltimore is more than triple the national average, and the murder rate is more than six times higher.

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The rioters have behaved appallingly, agrees Brian Beutler in The New Republic "treating abusive police and violent protesters as combatants at war means tolerating an untold level of collateral damage". But that's no reasonnot to tackle the underlying issues. "There is no contradiction between believing that Gray was murdered and believing that beating up innocent bystanders is wrong."

Part of the problem is "the creeping militarisation of US police forces", notes the Financial Times. This has failed to sustain the fall in the homicide rate, and has created a culture of impunity that has led to several hundred shootings of unarmed civilians every year, with only a fraction of the officers involved held to account. It's "little wonder that so many communities... feel alienated from those who are meant to protect them".

It isn't just an American problem, says The Guardian's Simon Jenkins. The riots in London in 2011 were also sparked by the unnecessary killing of an apparently innocent suspect. The police "have become hi-tech, over-armed, self-disciplining security agencies, forming a lobby powerful enough to scare politicians into giving them whatever they want". This latest crisis shows the need for clear political control on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

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