Monday, November 21, 2011

The Cult Of The Cop

I have a feeling some of what I'm going to write is going to upset some folks.

I couldn't care less.

You see it on TV cop shows. You hear it in news reports. You get it from currently serving police officers.

Cops have a tough job. They're out there, putting their lives on the line. Every day could bring a situation that puts their lives, the lives of their fellow officers, or the lives of members of the public at risk. They have to make split-second decisions, and are trained to make the right ones. No one who isn't a cop can possibly understand.

To all of this I really have only one response - Phooey.

Can we chat here? Just for a moment? A quick scan of the Wikipedia article on the history of municipal policing in the United States (I know that Wikipedia isn't the most reliable source, but this particular article is well-sourced) reminds readers that, for most of the time we've had publicly-funded police departments (less than two hundred years now) they were viewed with suspicion by the public. As in most societies, the police served the interests of power. Their attitude toward the poor, toward various marginalized populations in general, was hostile. Violence, while uncoordinated, was rampant.

The professionalization of police departments, including specialized training, an emphasis on community relations, coincided with an increase in the para-militarization of police tactics. By the time we reached the 1990's, rather than one or two specialized units (modeled after the Special Weapons And Tactics, or SWAT, units of Los Angeles), most police forces had some training in military tactics, increased firepower which included military style weapons, and the hierarchy of police forces became much more rigid, similar to military practice.

At the same time, there was an increase in the belief that this was necessary. The 1970's and 1980's saw a rapid rise in violent crime, and a general sense of social decay, particularly in urban areas. Rather than address these matters proactively, city authorities relied upon their newest tool, paramilitary police departments, to control their unruly populations.

Events on September 11, 2001 sealed, in many ways, the cult of the heroic cop. Which is not to deny that police officers that day, and every day, act in ways that are, indeed, heroic. It is not to deny that many communities, in particular those in areas most effected by high crime, want a police presence. After 9/11, however, being anything other than nearly worshipful of police officers became something more than counter-cultural. It seemed an insult to the men and women who died that day trying to help so many people escape the terrible events in New York.

We are living in different times. Violent crime is down, and has been on a downward trend, for over a decade now. In the mid- to late 1990's, it was thought this was a product of better economic times. Even as our economy has burbled and broiled since the collapse first of the tech bubble, then the housing bubble, those rates have fallen and other explanations have been floated, with no definitive answers*.

The various videos and photos of events at the University of California at Davis, symbolized by this photo of University Police Officer John Pike calmly and methodically pepper-spraying a group of students who are sitting down, posing a threat to no one, is starting a discussion, long overdo, on the increased use of military tactics and the overuse of violent reactions on the part of police.

A group of writers at Atlantic magazine is addressing the whole matter of police tactics in the wake of what is, quite clearly, a misuse of official violence.

We have to be able to talk about this issue without (a) insulting or alienating the thousands of police officers who go about their jobs with dignity and professionalism; or (b) forgetting that the institutions of the municipal, county, state, and federal police force exist to maintain the social and economic status quo. Which is not to claim in any way that there aren't really people out there who are dangerous, a threat to others, to society at large, or to the communities in which they live. Rather, we need to make sure we keep focused on the matter of police tactics, in particular the overemphasis on paramilitary training and response.

This is not to call in to question the need for police officers, police forces, or even, on occasion, the need for a strong response in the face of violent activity. Rather, it is to raise the issue of what we, as communities, as a larger society, want to be, how we wish to have those who work to protect legitimate public ends, legitimate matters of public safety and security, act in response to various situations.

Walking along and pepper spraying a bunch of college students who are sitting on the ground, posing a threat to no one, isn't the answer. I hope these recent events, and their widespread witness thanks to the ubiquity of video cameras, cell phones, and the Internet may well begin the process of talking about policing without falling in to the trap of the cult of the cop.

*Personally, I lean toward the demographic explanation. The population cohort that commits most crimes, rather than being far larger than others, as it was through the 1970's and 1980's, is relatively even with others. A smaller number of people who tend to commit crimes means a smaller number of crimes is being committed.

Virtual Tin Cup

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