As the Ferguson protests die down, I return to a question that I have been preoccupied with. How can we explain the emergence of a police culture that seems responsible for violence? Moreover, given that we’ve known about the problems of police brutality for decades, what keeps making good men choose to go into the force? I think the interesting question isn’t so much why people in an organization go bad, but rather, why they would want to choose to go into an organization in the first place.
My background both in sociology and in left politics has caused me to try to look at society institutionally. When we see a pattern, even within a single organization let alone across a nation, we know that there has been to a problem that goes beyond any individual.
For example: Defenders of police officers will often suggest that there are only a few bad apples in most departments. In fact, it does seem likely that a lot of the brutality that we hear about is probably committed by a minority of cops. These officers likely keep on moving up the line from minor acts of abuse to major ones. Darren Wilson, the officer in the Ferguson case, is illustrative: He was on what the Washington Post called a “troubled police force” in Jennings. Studies of police in the field find that the norms that are instilled in them in the academy tend to go away fairly quickly. That’s because people in any professional arena tend to learn the norms about what define a good worker from their fellow workers. A cop, then, learns what defines a good cop and a bad cop from other cops: Their partners, members of police fraternities, and so forth.
I have known many police officers. A dear friend of mine became a police officer, and I would be absolutely confident of his compassion, his sensitivity, and his awareness of issues like race, gender and class. He was and is an informed, intelligent person. And of my interactions with police officers, the majority have been positive, even at leftist rallies. In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a white, straight male of a middle-class background, so I’m definitely not in the sociological risk categories for police abuse.
I keep reminding people who I feel get vitriolic about police officers: These are our neighbors. They are friends and family. Cops are workers in blue suits. Any meaningful left politics should be building solidarity with police officers and soldiers along labor lines.
So how can our neighbors, our friends, our family, get so misled when they join the force that they graduate to what appears to be an unfortunately all-too-routine pattern of misconduct and violence?
We as leftists often fail to really consider the way that popular culture and the trends in our society impact the way that people think. It’s easy when we’re talking about officers to talk about individual bad apples or to talk about racism writ large. But real people aren’t defined totally by their individual characteristics, nor are they defined exclusively by huge forces like “racism”. They’re always defined by the interactions in their real environment, with their real social network and with their real lived experiences.
There’s two data points that I think are very important in this discussion. The first is one of the most interesting statistics Cop Block reports. In 2010, the majority of police misconduct claims that involved excessive force were about firearms, not about tasers, police dogs, or even any kind of excessive unarmed blows. The other is the idea of the “thin blue line” and the way many officers have stood in what they view as solidarity with Wilson.
In the United States, we’ve had generations of culture that has emphasized the danger of society, of both the city and the country. From Death Wish to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we’ve seen the idea that there are dangerous people everywhere become a staple of films, books and television shows. Some of our most popular characters are vigilantes. Batman has eclipsed Superman in the eyes of many (especially whites) as the most iconic superhero. Superman’s idealism was born from a New Deal idea of solidarity: A true superman would devote himself to protecting his neighbors and advancing the dreams of mankind. Batman’s ambitions are markedly less optimistic. Especially in his incarnations as imagined by Frank Miller and those who followed in Miller’s footsteps, Batman is a nuclear option against criminals, an ultimate deterrent who tries to keep the filth of Gotham under control. Most Americans don’t psychologically live in Superman’s Metropolis anymore: They live in Batman’s Gotham.
So, let’s say you’re a child like me or Darren Wilson, children of the 1980s. (Me and Wilson were both born in the same year, 1986). We watch films like Death Wish or Dirty Harry. We tune into Law and Order and hear about how the “city” (yes, New York, but New York and Los Angeles become stand-ins for the entirety of America outside of our safe spaces) is becoming a cesspool. We read Batman, play with the Batman toys.
Nor is it just the idea of vigilantism against domestic foes that infiltrates popular culture. In shows like 24 and films where terrorists are the villain, we as a culture are taught to root for the American hero against the foreign threat. I love Commando. It’s a fantastic piece of cheesy popcorn cinema, and a film I share in common with the cop friend I mentioned earlier. Commando has an American (okay, Schwarzenegger, so an “East German” immigrant) dealing with the threat to his family of a Latin American dictator.
Then Cops comes on, and even as we laugh at both some of the officers and suspects, we are seeing a narrative being reinforced: Cops have to deal with dangerous, stupid, intoxicated people in the ghetto and in trailer parks.
I can go on with these examples. Boondock Saints, for example, features Irish vigilantes dealing with Russian and Italian mob scum. Even though the specter of race isn’t involved
The Commando, Death Wish, Batman and Dirty Harry style of masculinity combine with the cultural messages that we as Americans routinely get that there are dangers everywhere to form a toxic cultural combination.
Now, what if we are compassionate people being bombarded with this idea of being a masculine hero cleaning up the streets?
We can be cops , or we can be soldiers.
I have to admit that, if my background were slightly different, I might very well have become a police officer or a soldier. The idea of going out and solving problems appeals to my sense of knighthood and of heroism.
So a cop joins the force, filled with ideas in his head of cleaning up the streets, of stopping rapists and child molesters like those featured in Law and Order: SVU and True Detective, maybe getting a handle on the problems of society.
And that’s when the bad training by other officers takes over. That’s when the subconscious bias that we all deal with as people in a society with racial caste structures begins to come into play. That’s when toxic elements of police culture and the eroding effect of seeing inhumanity day in and day out cause officers to begin to compromise and lose their innocence.
What does that all mean for leftists?
It means we need to start with a different cultural narrative.
We need to keep reminding our fellow countrymen that some of our biggest threats are not from the inner city, or from trailer parks, or from creepy rednecks, but from men in corporate boardrooms who may never even conceive of committing violence directly and yet whose prosperity depends on that violence. We need to keep reminding our neighbors that, as Tim Wise has so often put it, the trillions that disappeared as a result of malfeasance and idiocy in 2008 weren’t vanished by black retail criminals but by overwhelmingly white executives and financial managers.
We need to give our officers perspective. It isn’t the 1970s and 1980s anymore. Violent crime declined in the 1990s. The crack epidemic has run its course. Of course there are problems with all sorts of crime in the United States. But, as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, this is the only country where crime is a political issue. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the country that produces the world’s action movies.
We need to be helping our fellow voters to stop rushing to the ballot with ever more “tough on crime” solutions. As one of my Professors, Sasha Abramsky, put it regarding the Polly Klaas case that ultimately led to three strikes becoming the national albatross that it has become, very few people remember the tragic case of Polly Klaas anymore. The 24-hour news cycle leads people to want their kneejerk reaction of fear to be transmuted into a policy to make them feel safe temporarily, and all too often policymakers listen.
We need to be training officers and teaching those people interested in being officers and soldiers to be more compassionate, more aware of the humanity of people who they may interact with in a capacity as criminals, and more interested in the process of transforming society to be more positive and loving than just picking up messes.
We of course must be undermining the narrative of racism that still pervades our culture. Officers need to look at a young black kid in a nice car and not think, “Drug dealer”. We need to be training people to overcome stereotypes. That may include going beyond a narrative of “sensitivity” to include the fact that using stereotypes in any capacity, whether as police or as private citizens, is just a terrible security policy. We need to be reminding people that the vigilance that we expend on the racial Other has a direct cost in reducing the vigilance that we have for the threats in our immediate social network and geographic space, the threats we are actually likely to have to deal with.
We have to be helping young boys find a better model of masculinity. We should be teaching them to embrace role models like Dr. King. I love the idea of being a knight. But because of my particular history, my idea of knighthood as an aesthetic to live toward includes the usage of violence only as a last resort, the belief in redeeming others through word and deed, patience, forbearance, and love.
Of course, we do have to be making reforms to police departments: Better oversight, body cameras, empowering officers to be able to come forward when they see their fellow officers engaging in violence (as, unfortunately, the majority report according to a Department of Justice study), making sure that officers who commit violence take their share of the legal and financial burden so that the problem isn’t shifted to taxpayers, and so forth.
Finally, we need to be taking our politicians, our policy advocates, and leaders in the police department to task for constantly suggesting that a punitive legalistic approach is the best way of solving our problems. There’s certainly a lot to fix in the United States. There’s a lot we could do to make our society more free of rape, of sexual abuse, of theft and violence. I’ve spent ten years of my life trying to repair the damage in people who have endured the failure of our society to protect them from sexual predators.
But better policing is only part of the solution. We need to solve the root evils of poverty, militarism, patriarchal violence and values that lead us to believe that the best way to solve a threat is to beat it into submission, and psychological pain. We need to embrace better social welfare policies, mental health infrastructure, educational policies, policies that will provide for the professional development and employment of every person ready to work so that no one has to resort to an underground parallel economy. And, as leftists, we need to be encouraging others to hope that a better world with better institutions is possible.