America Is Not A Police State

While the United States has some serious problems with policing, we're not a police state.

While the United States has some serious problems with policing, Andrew Exum is right: We’re not a police state.

Yesterday, I watched some folks describe the United States as a “police state” because of some allegations of police brutality in Chicago. Without either defending the Chicago police department or agreeing with its critics, I tweeted that those who describe the United States as a “police state” have never lived in or visited an actual police state. I then watched as leftists went berserk in response.


[L]let’s look at the United States in comparison to other nations using theFreedom House and Polity IV surveys. The 2012 Freedom House survey (.pdf) ranks the United States as among the most free countries on earth with respect to both political rights and civil liberties. And here is the 2010 Polity IV country report for the United States (.pdf), which raises questions about some post-9/11 legislation passed in the United States (and also this crazy thing called the Electoral College) but otherwise gives the United States a clean bill of democratic health.


At the same time, though, when polemicists and activists on both the left and the right so carelessly throw around pejoritive terms like “police state” and “facism” and “totalitarian,” the only thing they accomplish is to strip these terms of any real meaning so that when we really do need them, they are rendered useless.

After all, if the United States is a police state, can Syria really be that much worse?

Quite right. I’ve voiced my alarm many times over the years with the militarization of American police forces, heavy-handed interrogation, abuses of prosecutorial power,  the deplorable state of our prison system, and other aspects of our criminal justice system. Americans are too willing to look the other way at these abuses because they’re overly afraid of crime and overly deferential to the police, who they regard as the proverbial “thin blue line” protecting us from evil.

But we’re not Syria; we’re not even Mexico. The most obvious proof of that is that Americans feel free to rail about living in a police state. That’ll get you dead in Syria.

Indeed, the reason Americans get so exercised over overly-aggressive police responses to peaceful demonstrations that get a bit out of hand is precisely because our expectation of freedom is so high. The very nature of policing is to exercise control–and that’s always in tension with liberty.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Policing, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    Huh…when he said “leftists” I thought there might be more than one.

    PS. Protesters are still stupid. And the ones I hear crying most about the police state are Libertarian types.

  2. John Burgess says:

    *”exercised over”, not “exorcised”, which might require a priest to straighten out.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @John Burgess: Indeed. Fixed.

  4. We are a police state in that the police are (de facto if not de jure) above the law in this country. Just because we are not yet a particularly heinous one doesn’t change the basic reality.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Herb: @Herb: Passing along a lot of NATO Summit news on Twitter yesterday, I got swarmed by the yahoos, too. There’s certainly a hard core out there who likes to scream “police state” and “fascist.”

  6. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Police State Lite.

  7. Herb says:

    @James Joyner:

    “There’s certainly a hard core out there who likes to scream “police state” and “fascist.” “

    No doubt….especially on Twitter. Slogans and blithe remarks are a perfect fit for 144 characters or less. Intelligent conversation, not so much.

    Saw your EVP on CNN this morning, chatting up Soledad O’Brien. Wish I was chatting up Soledad O’Brien….

    (Now there’s a comment I should have tweeted….)

  8. anjin-san says:

    @ James

    This is off topic, but I would be interested in a post with your take on this story:

  9. PogueMahone says:

    But we’re not Syria; we’re not even Mexico. The most obvious proof of that is that Americans feel free to rail about living in a police state. That’ll get you dead in Syria.

    So that’s the threshold? That we’re not Syria?
    Well that’s just great. That should leave a lot of room for police to step up the abuse. Not just physical abuse, but in all the other ways they abuse their power.

    Via Radley Balko,

    For more than a year, NewsChannel 5 Investigates has been shining a light on a practice that some call “policing for profit.”
    In this latest case, a Monterey police officer took $22,000 off the driver — even though he had committed no crime.
    “You live in the United States, you think you have rights — and apparently you don’t,” said George Reby . .
    Reby was driving down Interstate 40, heading west through Putnam County, when he was stopped for speeding.

    A Monterey police officer wanted to know if he was carrying any large amounts of cash.
    “I said, ‘Around $20,000,’” he recalled. “Then, at the point, he said, ‘Do you mind if I search your vehicle?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t mind.’ I certainly didn’t feel I was doing anything wrong. It was my money.”

    That’s when Officer Larry Bates confiscated the cash based on his suspicion that it was drug money.

    “Why didn’t you arrest him?” we asked Bates.

    “Because he hadn’t committed a criminal law,” the officer answered.

    Bates said the amount of money and the way it was packed gave him reason to be suspicious.

    “The safest place to put your money if it’s legitimate is in a bank account,” he explained. “He stated he had two. I would put it in a bank account. It draws interest and it’s safer.”
    “But it’s not illegal to carry cash,” we noted.
    “No, it’s not illegal to carry cash,” Bates said. “Again, it’s what the cash is being used for to facilitate or what it is being utilized for.”
    NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, “But you had no proof that money was being used for drug trafficking, correct? No proof?”

    “And he couldn’t prove it was legitimate,” Bates insisted.

    This is no isolated case. It happens all the time. So when the police can just go around stealing money from citizens… What do you call that?

    I wouldn’t use the term “police state” to describe the US either, but when stories like these become a daily read, then how far are we from being accurately described as a police state?

    Besides, comparing the US to Syria is problematic anyway.
    Just because pile of manure A is not as big as pile of manure B, doesn’t mean that pile A isn’t manure.


  10. James Joyner says:

    @PogueMahone: Both my post and Exum’s make clear that we have some serious problems with our criminal justice system. Our posts are merely calls for perspective and precision in language, not calls to be happy because, after all, it’s worse in other countries.

  11. Tsar Nicholas says:

    America Is Not A Police State

    In other news, water is wet and the sun is hot.

    That said, however, the larger story here is the complete cognitive dissociation on the topic of crime and punishment among left-wing academics and journalists. A lot of young kids out there actually would believe America is a police state. People in positions of quasi-authority are telling them so, and the mass media of course is all too happy and zealous to fan those flames of idiocy.

  12. justme says:

    “The most dangerous revolutions are not those which tear everything down, and cause the streets to run with blood, but those which leave everything standing, while cunningly emptying it of any significance.”

    —The Danish philosopher: Kierkegaard

  13. ski says:

    Mass data collection isn’t police state like? I’m sure my smart phone is more or less an ankle bracelet.