Misunderstanding Police: Transformation, Not Mere Reform

Recent calls to “defund the police” miss the point, yet they point to something important to both the public and police themselves.

More than anything, such demands express the frustration that comes on the heels of not only the recent police killings but in response to decades of attempting to reform police institutions to purge racism and violence from their ranks.

Illusions of Reform and the Culture of Violence

These failures come from misunderstanding how law enforcement works and does not work, as well as the origins of police abuses and violence toward people of color and any downtrodden group. The police reflect the culture in which they operate.

The US has a history of trafficking in a culture of violence. That culture is visible in the media we all see and hear every day. It is expressed in the fact that the US has engaged in one war or another for most of the two and a half centuries of its existence.

John Wayne and six-shooter
Cultural Icon of Violence

Americans tend to see the solution to all problems as best resolved by some lone heroic individual who uses force to overcome evil, whether in the form of crime, political opposition, or just culturally abhorrent personal behavior.

It may seem odd, but Americans hold both compassionate and cold-hearted views of the world and the unfamiliar others who inhabit it. Both perspectives reflect the peculiar cultural characteristic that has been termed, “American Exceptionalism.” We see ourselves as different, special, and better than the rest of the population of the planet.

Power Elites, Conspiracy Theories, and the Decline of Democracy

Why? We have indoctrinated ourselves to believe that we are the world’s paragon of democratic values and practices, even as the few remnants of our democratic culture that remain are fast fading from the political landscape. Our democracy is a shell of its former incomplete self, as racism and neo-fascism rise with presidential encouragement.

Monopoly Man

On the one hand, most folks see the extreme concentration of wealth among power elites that has rapidly accelerated in the past few decades as both dysfunctional and unfair—it is highly undemocratic.

We recognize that national politics operate in service to those same power elites and not in the public interest. Yet, many Americans identify with the rich and famous (with the incessant purveying of such distorted views by the corporate media) and hold unrealistic aspirations to join them in luxury and power. They buy lottery tickets too.

At the same time, we resent the power elites and even believe all sorts of conspiracy theories about “the deep state,” etc., encouraged by the demagogues who foment fear and loathing of the most vulnerable groups among us, while they serve the interests of the rich and famous.

The one significant accomplishment of the Trump presidency—aside from dismantling numerous rules and regulations designed to protect the public from the toxic effects of predatory capital while pandering to the world’s dictators—was the massive transfer of wealth to the already wealthy corporations and persons whose political donations he seeks.

Police and the People

The populations that bear the greatest burden of police violence are the very same folks who the economic system has found unfit for inclusion in the nation’s prosperity beyond taking on multiple below minimum wage jobs in trying to avoid homelessness.

The calls to “defund the police” are actually consistent with regular complaints by police that they are called upon to perform functions for which they have not been trained and for which they have no taste.

Policeman and Citizen
Policeman & Citizen

Drug addiction is a matter of public health, which the “war on drugs” has criminalized. The various social dysfunctions and institutional healthcare failures that result from the economic distortions of politics and the criminalization of poverty are likewise not matters for law enforcement. They fall within the logical jurisdiction of “the helping professions,” which have consistently suffered from defunding as law enforcement budgets and militarization of police have soared in recent decades.

The answer is quite simple. Remove those unwanted functions from the mandate of law enforcement and fund their implementation in the agencies where they belong: health and social services organizations that politicians have starved of proper funding for decades.

Reorganize the police to both purge the culture of violence by proper vetting of recruits to exclude those who join because they like to beat people. Start from scratch at the highest levels by replacing police management with people who will not tolerate excessive use of force.

Hire commanders who will discipline, fire, and prosecute officers who cross the line into gratuitous violence and murder. All police officers, right up to the chief, should be residents of the cities they patrol and subject to civilian review panels. Otherwise, what stake will they have in protecting and serving their neighbors?

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