updated 7/31/2012 2:19:51 PM ET 2012-07-31T18:19:51

Ever since a midnight shooting at a movie theater in Colorado left 12 people dead and 58 wounded a little over a week ago, conversations have focused on gun laws and violence. Often overlooked in those discussions, though, are questions about the role of police protection in the United States: How much is enough and how much would be too much?

After the Dark Knight shooting, the New York Police Department mobilized to cover screenings of the film to thwart copycat crimes. And while that kind of reaction offered a sense of security to many moviegoers, a permanent police or military presence at all theaters and other public places would likely seem a little too Big Brother for most Americans.

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Even if there were a public outcry for constant police surveillance, experts say, the American system of policing is far too decentralized to make that possible, making it highly unlikely that the United States will ever become a police state.

At the same time, debates continue about whether the American police system actually defends U.S. citizens from real threats or if we're blinded by a skewed sense of risk-assessment.

"We are much more likely to die in a car crash than from gun violence overall as a population, but that is considered as an acceptable risk," said Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist and professor of international studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Lutz added that, instead of sending police to theaters, it might make more sense to put more officers "on the highway to make sure someone going 100 miles per hour doesn't kill a family of four going out for ice cream."

"We need to ask why we're paying attention to this risk now after this one case where a dozen people died, even though that many people times 10 died in car crashes today and that many people times some number died at the hands of a partner today," she said. "We have attentional deficit disorder regarding certain kinds of violent risks."

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The term "police state" is generally used to refer to an oppressive police presence often ruled by a corrupt regime, but there are no clear-cut criteria for measuring when a nation has crossed the line. Opinions vary widely about how much surveillance is too much.

In the U.S. today, there are 233 police for every 100,000 citizens, Lutz said, putting us on par with countries like Brazil and Germany. Russia has twice as many police per capita. China and Iran have proportionally fewer police, even though those countries are often considered to be police states.

When it comes to evaluating whether a country qualifies as a police state, behavior seems to matter more than numbers do. And, when it comes to standards of behavior, the American police force has evolved significantly over the last 200 years.

In the early 1800s, law enforcement was carried out by vigilante organizations and local sheriffs who came together in response to crime waves or other specific incidents, said Maki Haberfield, a police training expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

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Sheriffs would appoint a crew, often of ex-convicts, who were not paid and did not have to meet any standards to do the job.

A new era of more political policing began in the 1830s, but universal standards remained elusive. For the next 90 years, each local district developed its own system with its own views on uniforms, weapons and other issues. The only thing police of that era shared in common, Haberfield said, is that they were all corrupt, driven by politicians who used the police force to help them get votes.

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The 1920s ushered in a more professional era with recognizable uniforms, patrol cars, professional associations, radios and other types of technology, as well as actual training, though training did not become mandatory until 1967.

The 1980s saw a shift toward more community-based policing, with the war on terror after 9/11 adding an emphasis on being prepared to fight terrorists and amorphous enemies.

Overall, Haberfield said, the history of policing in the United States has been so intentionally decentralized from the outset that the prospect of a unified American police force is extremely remote. Today, there are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. Ninety-seven percent of departments in the U.S. have 50 or fewer officers, and some have just two or three. Each state has its own standards for training, with no national control over local agencies.

"You can see how diverse and uncontrollable the situation is," Haberfield said. "In terms of the fear of becoming a police state, it is absolutely the most unrealistic fear I can think of."

And yet, incidents like the Dark Knight shooting or the recent disappearance of two girls in Iowa make people afraid, even if their daily lives are full of much more likely threats. Politicians feed on that fear, Lutz said, earning points in the minds of voters when they offer comfort by, for example, sending police officers to movie theaters after a shooting thousands of miles away.

Recognizing the disconnect between our fears and the risks we truly face could help us allocate police protection in ways that might provide better protection for all of us.

"There is no simple equation for what is too much or too little protection," Lutz said. "Given the limited time and ability of police to protect, we need to consider what kinds of risks we really face, what's the best way to protect against them and who's being protected."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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