Maybe New York Mayor De Blasio’s public statement acknowledging the problem almost everyone is aware of was the tipping point. He described having cautioned his “bi-racial” son about the dangers of interacting with a police officer in New York City. The NYPD reaction was immediate outrage and public expression of disrespect for the man with civilian authority over law enforcement. Mayors are always supposed to publicly support their police, “right or wrong.”
Well, the public light recently shined too brightly on multiple police killings of unarmed Black men and boys. The bright light of media coverage also shined on the failures of the criminal justice system to take such crimes seriously. The relationship of civilian authority over, and oversight of, police in this nation is coming under serious scrutiny. And it doesn’t look good.
Police as Political Interest Group
The role of police in society has not always been clear. Bias in favor of the powerful and persecution of the vulnerable are not new. But things are different now. The failed drug war has not failed to incarcerate large numbers of young men of color and establish a New Jim Crow. The drug war has produced a new class of economic and social outcasts. Now, most civilian police all across the nation have been ‘militarized.’ They conduct ‘drug raids’ on the homes of American “suspects,” or serve simple warrants, on the model of a military assault on a terrorist cell. Poorly trained and educated young men are enticed with powerful weaponry and other technology of war. Too many of them have had too much experience with the brutality of soldier-civilian contacts in America’s “wars of choice.” Too many are drawn to the powerful imagery of the “Warrior cop.” They see themselves as a force apart from society and its problems and they feel unfairly expected to fix things.
But more disturbing is the growing strength of the police as a political interest group. Americans too easily want to turn over civic responsibility to “the authorities.” But it gets us all in trouble. Any group or organization given too much authority will inevitably misuse it. Police are supposed to be the agent of the civilian authority of law in society, not an independent political group. That is why their militarization is a threat to the already tenuous threads of democracy we yet retain. But when an enforcement agency of civil authority becomes an interest group in itself, it becomes a direct threat to a wide range of human rights in civil society.
Disrespect for Human Life
Under conditions such as I have just described, the perceptions of persons exercising authority as law enforcement officers tend to put down the populations they are sworn to “protect and serve.” Militarization alone has that effect, easing the burden of committing violence on, or killing, other humans. The drug war and the perception of all members of vulnerable populations as the other – seen as less human, even innately ‘criminal’ – leads to a lack of human empathy.
With the exception of the elites, urban populations are generally suspected of being guilty of something. Their collective character is commonly denigrated. “Excessive force” becomes normative behavior. Until recent media coverage, it went largely unreported and unnoticed by suburban, mostly white, America. “Racial profiling,” “stop and frisk,” and high rates of police killings of unarmed young men of color, all reflect the growing disrespect for human life among some police. We do live in a society whose international policies allow extrajudicial official killings of the other around the world. The soldier’s seemingly simple freedom to kill ‘the enemy’ comes to be admired and even emulated in a culture – supported by corporate media – where violence is portrayed as the standard solution.
The Behavioral Sink
Chronic stress and unstable conditions lead to anti-social behavior, whether in rats or in humans. When highly stressful conditions produce bad behavior, the bad behavior of some stimulates bad behavior by others – it is a behavioral sink. But it’s not just overcrowding or deprived conditions that produce social pathology. Institutional corruption plays a big part, as does cultural conflict.
Today, a familiar pattern of escalating conflict expresses converging patterns of disrespect for human life that encourage violence, in both police and some citizens. Many police have little respect for the lives of young men of color – and others too. Some who protest that lack of respect show a similar disrespect for life by refusing to honor the lives of two New York City police officers and suspend their protests until after the funerals of the assassinated officers. Many officers conflate the protestors with the insane assassin. It is a behavioral sink.
Immense Need for Institutional and Cultural Reform
Primary responsibility for breaking the cycle rests with those who have the most power to do something about it. That would be “the authorities.” It won’t happen by looking to the head of a police benevolent society, who reacted to Mayor de Blasio’s unvarnished statement in the manner of a spoiled teenager. Many humane law enforcement officers are embarrassed at the kind of cold indifference to the real problem of police anti-social behavior and unjustified violence, sometimes reaching the level of lawlessness, of some fellow officers. But only when the civilian authorities in charge of the police are pressured by the public to transform police practices from the manner of gangsters to the ethical practices of true peace officers, will civil society and democracy return.
1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
2. Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York: Public Affairs, Perseus Books, 2013.
3. John B. Calhoun, “Population density and social pathology”. Scientific American (1962). 206 (3): 139–148.