Cogs In A System

You’re providing a lot of color here “half”, “Nazi”, “thugs” – all introduced by you.

Look: an accountable, trustworthy police force is essential to a just society and a functioning democracy. Cops do an incredibly hard, stressful job, and must be aware that any time they’re on the streets sudden violence is a possibility. We can all respect the difficulties.

But: the (limited) license the cops have to exert force, and the incentive they have to strike first and hardest, create a difficult situation, one that is susceptible to abuse and to mistrust. And yet we are blessed to have technological resources to significantly alleviate these structural problems: the Badge Cam. If every cop knew their on-duty activities were being recorded (with the recordings under appropriate seal so they didn’t have to fear toilet humor or their loose tongues), they could know that they were protected against false accusations of unwarranted police brutality – and the public could know they were protected against false claims of Resisting Arrest and the like.

Remember, that’s where we started all this: not with claims all cops are scum (nor that half of them are Nazi thugs) but with a case of the cops violently refusing to be recorded, to be made accountable. So long as the cops refuse not only continuous monitoring but even sporadic, citizen-led monitoring, the assumption will have to be they are hiding and protecting thuggish behavior. – Warren Terra, comment at Lawyers, Guns, and Money

You may or may not have thought about this, but it’s not just that men of color (and some other categories like LGBT people of any color who don’t match cops’ notions of expected gender presentation) are likely to have less equitable encounters than you. It’s that they’re likely to have many, many more encounters with cops than you.

Even in elementary school, my black friends got an order of magnitude more “just checking you out, son” kinds of hails. As an adult, I find that being stopped by the police, generally with a skeptical to hostile suspicion that they’re just the suspects for whatever crime is handy, is a routine part of the experience of my black friends in a way it just isn’t for me and others.

Your encounters with cops, and mine, come filtered through multiple layers of self-restraint that simply don’t apply when they’re dealing with people of color. – Bruce B., comment at Lawyers, Guns, and Money

The issue is mostly not the individual personalities of the cops. Some of those are a problem too, but they aren’t the root of the problem. It’s broken systems, broken incentives, a culture that promotes an us vs them mentality. It’s a lack of accountability for the ones that do bad things, which I think is a higher number than you’re willing to admit. It’s a culture of treating violence as a primary problem-solving tool that extends beyond the job – domestic violence is 2-4 times more common in police families than in the general population.

If I am in trouble, I would not necessarily call the police – depends on the trouble and the circumstances – and believe me, an awful lot of people would say the same. In Ferguson, there were some thieves who targeted the protests, and my phone got stolen out of my hand the first night I was there. There were dozens of police within shouting distance and I did not shout for them because I was afraid of them (and more importantly, afraid of what they might do to the less-privileged people around me). Some of them were pointing guns, live-ammo assault rifles, at protesters who were offering them no threat.

I have had many other bad experiences with the police, mostly at protests though occasionally outside of them, including sexual harassment, watching them beat and strangle people, and having them brush me off when I reported a homophobic hate crime last year. I have also had some good experiences with the police. But my individual experiences, while they definitely inform my views, aren’t the point. The systems are the point. – JL, comment at Lawyers, Guns, and Money

To this I only want to add the following anecdote.  In 1998, I worked on a state-funded project in the same building as the Southside Virginia Community Corrections office.  I worked closely with three county sheriff departments, two municipal police departments, and the Virginia State Police.  The director of SVCC was a former Marine officer and Virginia State Police Officer and detective.  At times, he could make clear that many police have the attitudes they do because of constant exposure to people at the worst points in their lives.  This made a certain amount of sense to me; you rarely meet people who just say “Hi” to you and offer you coffee when you are in their home because of a domestic dispute, or are dealing with an armed robbery suspect, or what-have-you.  On the other hand, he made clear that once the police had made an arrest, it was likely the person was guilty of the crime with which they’d been charged.  Police officers watching people they “knew” to be guilty either receiving a lighter sentence or walking away completely created a low-level of anger and frustration that resulted not just in cynicism but a tendency to take out that anger on suspects.

I do not know how much of this psychologizing about police behavior is or is not correct.  Some of it rings with more than a bit of truth.  By and large, however, I think it only works if one considers how police fit in the much larger apparatus of state control represented no only by the police, but the courts, the prison system, and how this apparatus serves to perpetuate racial and class repression.  That the default approach for many police officers is violence; that the default for other officers is to defend violent actions regardless of the facts or outside any reasonable justifications for violence; that the targets of this violence tend to be poor, male, and persons of color out of any proportion to their numbers in society at large is too often defended by a psychology that assumes young adult males are more prone to violence than other members of society, and that males who are also poor and/or members of communities of color have even more reasons to act out violently; all this creates a system in which policy impunity becomes part and parcel of police work, both defensible and rational within the terms society has chosen to understand the behavior of a particular cohort of the population that is consistently targeted by the police.

None of this, then, is aimed at any particular police officer, police department, or questions either the personal integrity or racial/class biases of any individual person.  What it does is focus attention on the way police have been and continue to be used as part of a system of social control.  It doesn’t eliminate individual responsibility for officers who violate the rights and bodies of persons; what it does is explain how and why this occurs, offering an opportunity for people to work towards fixing the problem so we have far fewer Michael Browns, as well as far fewer Darrel Wilsons.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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