Who Polices the Police?

Coming soon to a police force near you?  (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Master Sgt. George Thompson)

Surplus MRAPs: Coming soon to a police force near you? (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Master Sgt. George Thompson)

S. and B. Lett

Every day in America it seems there is a report of police brutality or a shooting of an unarmed civilian, often a shooting death. The typical response from a generally white public is ho-hum. Why is this?

One reason is that white people of certain socio-economic classes have no experience of, or exposure to, police aggressiveness and abuse.  For these people, the police are rescuers and protectors, upholders of a system that favors them.  Oh, the police may be a nuisance at times (those pesky speeding tickets or an occasional order barked out that raises hackles but causes no real harm), but overall they are seen as a needed and trusted bulwark to law and order.*

Another reason is that law enforcement and criminal justice officials successfully argue that police are justified in using deadly force when they feel threatened by a suspect.  When that suspect is presented as a scary and unruly black male, a “punk,” the stories generally disappear from the media. Rarely do you ever hear of police officers being arrested and charged with murder or assault of presumed “punks.”

A further reason is more subtle and may best be described in terms of reification.  When you reify something, you confuse an abstract concept with a concrete reality.  A classic case is conflating a map (abstract representation) with the territory (the terra firma beneath your feet).

In the case before us, the police (the map) in an abstract sense are conflated with societal law and order (the territory).  To think this is to deny the possibility that the police may act in ways that are contrary to, indeed even in violation of, societal law and order.

The police, in short, are not “The Law”; rather they are subject to it even as they seek to enforce it.  But reification makes “the police” into “law and order” so that police violations of the rights of individuals under the law are neither fully recognized nor acted upon, even in cases when the police act as judge, jury, and executioner.

Partly because of the reification of the abstract term “police,” ordinary people often don’t think of punishment when the police break the law. A slap on the wrist is usually seen as more than sufficient “punishment.”  It’s a little like Richard Nixon’s famous claim that if the president does it, it can’t be illegal.  But even the president, along with the police, are ultimately subject to the law as individuals as agreed upon by the collective will of the people.

Instead of a reified collective, the police should be seen as imperfect individuals.  Like the rest of us, they are capable of acting in an illegal, excessively violent, manner.  And for those acts they must be fairly judged and properly punished.

Consider the officer in question in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.  If Brown truly was seeking to surrender with his hands up, it would have been appropriate to have arrested the officer and charged him with homicide for shooting an unarmed man several times.

Too many Americans have become too complacent in supporting without question the actions of police.  It’s a recipe for injustice, one inflicted far too often on poor people of color. If you think this is exaggerated, ask yourself the last time you were randomly stopped and frisked by police on the streets of New York City, or randomly pulled over for no other reason than “driving while being black.”

The police don’t need unthinking deference; what they need is more training on how to avoid using deadly force.  And they need more policing by us — we the people.  The police are, after all, part of us.  But as armed public servants they also carry deadly weapons and a badge that authorizes their use under certain conditions.

So be careful not to reify police as the equivalent to “law and order”; you may not like what you see staring back at you on Main Street USA when “The Law” dons military fatigues, climbs into armored vehicles, and sights a sniper rifle – on you.

* Another reason people sympathize with the police almost goes without saying: police work is inherently dangerous.  In gun-happy, gun-toting America, many brave officers are killed or wounded in the line of duty.

Update (9/4/14): There’s a good article today at the New York Times about the difficulty of prosecuting police when lethal force is wrongly used: “Florida Prosecutors Face Long Odds When Police Use Lethal Force” at this link.  A notable passage:

“When you are charging a police officer with a crime, you are essentially asking most jurors to look at the world upside down: The good guys are in the defendant’s spot,” said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who specializes in law enforcement behavior. “Prosecuting police officers successfully is a difficult task even in the strongest cases.”

2 thoughts on “Who Polices the Police?

  1. Thank you S. & B. for your excellent clarification of reification ( which incidently isn’t even inthe yahoo online word correction dictionary). The police in our country have moved a long way from “to serve and protect” the citizenry to being a local extension of government suppression of 1st amendment rights. That does, indeed, sound like the Gestapo?

  2. I’ve heard it said that the police are just the buffer between the TWO classes here in the USA and also that hey are the BADIST gang in most larger cities. So, we all agree! The argument is well defined above; but alas and alac no solution is offered. What we gonna do Ollie? How about some rallies and marches and 99ers spirit?

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