Police committing state crimes are integral to a cultural and legal machine built to subjugate
Hours before police killed him, Landon Eastep was at his wife’s home. An argument ensued. She told him to “get out of the house!”
A Tennessee state trooper saw Eastep later on. He was sitting on a guardrail on Interstate 65. To get him off the highway, the trooper offered a ride. Eastep refused before allegedly pulling out a box cutter.
The state trooper withdrew. He called for backup. A 30-minute standoff ensued. It was Eastep against nine law enforcement agents, sidearms drawn, supported by a helicopter buzzing overhead.
According to a local television reporter, Eastep “pulls his right hand out of his pocket, steps forward, raises his hand in what appears to be a shooting position … That’s when officers opened fire.”
Eastep was another in an agonizing line of people killed by police.
But let’s look at the facts as we know them.
Between 2018 and 2022, Eastep had been booked into the county jail 29 times. He was charged with domestic assault. He had a restraining order against him - which he violated the morning of his death.
A state trooper came to help Eastep. He responded by brandishing a box cutter. In the face of nine cops, he decides to make a motion with his hand that could easily be interpreted as him pulling out a gun.
Nothing to see here, right?
Criminologists and other social scientists have been studying something called “state crime.” An organization sponsoring the study is the International State Crime Initiative, or ISCI. Its website describes “state crime” as “organisational deviance violating human rights.”
Americans have been slow to acknowledge state crimes. We tend to imagine bad governments in places like Africa, South America or Eastern Europe. Public officials take bribes in those places, silence opposition at the point of a gun and kill people. Not the US of A!
But we need to think about how our government has built institutions that are designed with the intent of applying excessive force and lethal violence to citizens who do not comply with such institutions.
Every day, our government is committing state crimes – violations against our inalienable human rights. We don’t need to resort to legalese to claim that law enforcement in the United States uses excessive violence against citizens they are sworn to protect.
We have seen too many video clips of people being tased for not wearing a mask or children being slammed to the ground by a police officer for taking “more milks than she was supposed to.” We have read about too many Tamir Rices, Eric Garners and George Floyds.
But we could resort to law if we wanted to.
For example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Being tased for not wearing a mask is cruel. Slamming a kid to the ground for “taking too many milks” is cruel and degrading. It is hard to imagine any killing of an unarmed person by law enforcement as being nothing short of cruel.
This is not some boutique view I came up with. The Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School published a study in 2018 of the 20 largest police departments. They found none met the minimum standard under international human rights laws.
The United States Department of Justice publishes a report periodically on police academy training across the country.
The report is here. The data is here. The report says “more than 90 percent of recruits received training in nonlethal weapons (20 hours on average) and deescalation techniques (18), such as verbal judo.”
You may imagine that this is good. Police are getting 38 hours of training in nonviolent techniques to prevent what happened to Eastep.
But those 38 hours are out of 833 average hours of total training. Moreover, if you look at the data, officers spend 73 hours on (lethal) firearms skills. That’s twice as much time as spent on nonviolent techniques. Additionally, 61 hours are spent on defensive tactics.
This innocent-sounding label actually describes the use of violence to subdue and arrest. This includes escort holds, compliant holds (read: chokeholds), and pepper spray (a sample manual can be found here).
These are state standards. Our government says they represent proper policing. So what happened to Landon Eastep was state-sanctioned.
Police officers demonized by the media are usually cogs in a cultural and legal machine that was built to subjugate a population. This is why so many of them are exonerated. They were just doing their jobs.
I have written about how police, trained as violence workers, visit that violence disproportionately on Black and brown communities. But no one is immune as long as you are in this country and refuse to comply.
The real crime
Let’s revisit the death of Landon Eastep.
According to his wife, Eastep had “decided to go for a walk to calm down” after their fight. So yes, he was sitting on a guardrail on the interstate. Probably upset after arguing with this wife. Is this a crime? In other words, if Mr. Eastep decided not to get into the car with the police officer and stay parked on the guardrail, is it a violation requiring an arrest? I don’t think it is.
Still, the state trooper was doing a good thing by performing what amounts to a welfare check on Mr. Eastep. But after Mr. Eastep refused to go, and there was no crime committed, what more was left to do?
I suspect that had the state of Tennessee trained their officers and provided mental health workers, the officer would have taken a different set of steps. Nothing in the video suggested Eastep was a threat to anyone else. No force, lethal or non-lethal, was required.
After being accosted, Eastep allegedly pulled out a box cutter. I suppose their training instructs officers to draw their firearms at the slightest indication of a weapon, from a mallet to an AK-47.
And so now we have heightened tension created by police, who now spend 30 minutes deescalating a situation they themselves escalated.
Kudos to them for trying, but here is another point in which a social worker would have been more appropriate. Instead, Eastep was treated as a domestic terrorist with eventually nine officers pointing weapons at him and a helicopter whirring overhead.
“Whatever you’re worried about, we can fix it,” one officer said, according to The Guardian.
Eastep refused to comply. As a consequence, he’s dead.