The flow of video evidence of police tendencies to use violence as the primary tool of their trade steadily increases. Some write this off as an artifact of technology or as individual incidents not representing the whole of law enforcement. But as I look at all those citizens’ smart-phone videos taken largely because they happened to be there and were shocked by what they saw, I see something else. I see an adolescent sense of insecurity displayed. And I see an adolescent tendency for one’s ego to be easily threatened by anything less than absolute control and in need of being protected by force.
The individual cases of “excessive use of force” vary in context, setting, and issue. But in each one, the officer seems to be triggered by any action or words that can be interpreted as a threat to his absolute authority. “Absolute” is the operative term here; the adolescent mind tends to think in absolutes. Yes, in every such case I have reviewed, the officer is male. I have yet to see an example where a female officer initiated violence upon a citizen. It is hard to not reflect upon how males are socialized in this society (and other societies as well) to express their manhood in violent ways. Even at my age, I remember the institutionalized violence of high school football. The kids are allowed to wear more protective gear now, but the violent expectations are pretty much the same.
Rarely recognized or discussed in the media is the self-selection of those with the most violent tendencies entering into police academies. I remember well the guys in high school who simply loved to get into a fight; they enjoyed any opportunity to beat someone up. I will never forget, many years later what a college student who was in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s training academy told me. He said that all the guys who had been the most violent in his high school also applied to the academy. “They loved to beat people up,” he reported. “Now they will have unlimited opportunities.” Anyone who lives in L.A. County is aware of the Sheriffs’ reputation for excessive violence.
L.A. Sheriffs Deputies are routinely assigned to work in the county jail when they first graduate from the academy. There they get to see and interact with both the worst criminals and the most vulnerable of the county’s population. This is where they learn the rules of domination and subordination. Recently, what was widely known but not publicly reported finally hit the media. A virtual conspiracy among the young deputies and their senior leadership at the jail involved routinely using excessive force on both inmates and their visitors and even falsely arresting visitors. Indictments followed, along with numerous stories in the L.A. Times.* Disgraceful as this is, such institutionalized violence is not confined to the rare rogue officer or department; it permeates American law enforcement. Something so deeply entrenched in a culture is not merely a matter of “better training.” Training is only part of the problem.
To even begin to face the problem of police violence and the tendency to single out young men of color for such treatment, we must look beyond individual incidents and training protocols. We have to face the fact that the problem is a deeply rooted cultural fact of American life and history. From the earliest days of the British colonies on this continent, the intolerance for dehumanized “others” has been evident.
The so called “winning of the West,” idolized in Hollywood’s “Cowboys and Indians” movies, was largely a brutal history of genocidal extermination of the indigenous peoples of the land “discovered” by Europeans and occupied by force. The westward expansion merely continued the conquering of native populations, deemed sub-human and hence with no human rights. The legacy of slavery is in part one of exploitation of dehumanized “others” by elites that monopolize of the means of violence. The Other is a stranger, never quite human. The list of “N-word” equivalents continues right up to the latest “war of choice.”
The “freedom” so cherished by “gun rights” advocates also reflects historical violence against perceived sub-humans. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that the Second Amendment to the Constitution was negotiated so that southerners could legally form militias to hunt down escaped slaves. Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, etc., all point to a perceived inherent right to dominate “others” all over the world, excused by an imagined American “Exceptionalism.”
In a cell-phone video I just saw, some unruly whites complained of (restrained) police efforts to clear a bar where “disturbing the peace” was asserted. Their objections reflected the same cultural arrogance. The idea that “we” (white) Americans have some special status in the world that exempts us from police or other abuse is pervasive. One of the white protestors repeatedly said, “You can’t do this; we’re Americans.” As a nation we have no compunction as a nation in terrorizing villages in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere with drone strikes, night raids on homes, or bombing just about any target, etc., as long as the people there are not “Americans.”
Typically, the focus of “law enforcement” often is not on enforcing laws or catching criminals, but instead on asserting total control over targeted citizens who have little or no resources to challenge their having been abused. “Resisting an officer” in the conduct of his abuse of a citizen is the highest form of “disrespect” for the status-anxious cop. His sense of security is only fed by absolute obedience to his every unreasonable demand. Only by passive acceptance of unreasonable search, seizure, and/or battery upon the person perceived as unable to invoke costly legal recourse is obedience demonstrated.
That said, it is important to remember that police behavior does not occur in a vacuum, but is institutionally encouraged by the power elite that would prefer to ‘disappear’ the homeless and all other “surplus populations” not needed by the corporate state. More “training” is not the answer, since training is part of the problem along with recruitment for violent tendencies and indifference to necessary attributes of a PEACE Officer — compassion, problem solving, and other ways to avoid violence. Neither maturity nor deep ethics are part of the emerging police state. A new vision for law enforcement is needed now more than ever.
* See, for example, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-los-angeles-sheriff-indictments-baca-20131209-story.html