How to Corrupt Law Enforcement

In American political culture the idea of “corruption” is both simple and suppressed. We think of the occasional individual politician or official taking a bribe to direct funds to a particular bidder or contractor. Yet we have lost sight of the essence of corruption – exploitation – and the fact that it can take many forms but always has the same basic character. Individual instances are usually part of a larger pattern.

What is Corruption?
There are, of course, various kinds of corruption found in diverse institutional settings. The scope and scale of corruption may range from personal to systemic. An individual bureaucrat may take a bribe, or a CEO may take executive actions that serve his personal interests more than those of the company that pays him for making good decisions. He may trade securities on the basis of his inside information. If so, he has corrupted the responsibilities of his position by his unethical actions.

But systemic corruption occurs when a pattern of practices involves a number of members of an organization. In a major example, J.P. Morgan Chase and other large Wall Street banks fraudulently engaged in misrepresentation of risk, falsifying ‘due diligence’ and knowingly selling ‘toxic’ securities to clients.[1]  Senators and representatives who take political donations from lobbyists and sponsor bills the lobbyist wrote, clearly corrupt the political process. But it is accepted as ‘business as usual’ in the Congress. We live in a corrupt political culture that is taken for granted by the politicians and by the corporate media that ‘reports’ on them. The corporate state is a corruption of democracy and has replaced all but its form.

In the case of law enforcement, you might remember hearing of a bygone era when an ethical challenge faced by the “cop on the beat” was simpler than we hear of today. While making his rounds an officer is offered a free cup of coffee or a meal at the local diner. The shopkeeper considers it good business to be ‘close’ with local police. This probably still happens somewhere. But that the practice is now recognized as currying favoritism. The “peace officer” was supposed to be a neutral figure, even-handedly enforcing the law. In our complex of corrupt institutional relations and practices today, law enforcement has become one of the institutional players. In the systematic corrupt pattern of practices within the nation’s political and legal institutions, law enforcement institutions have been severely corrupted.

Self Dealing
The “War on Drugs” is now pretty famous for having failed to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. Masses of vulnerable young men and women of color who use drugs at the same rate as everyone else are systematically incarcerated. The purpose of reducing drug use in society was turned into a practice of mass incarceration of selected target populations (blacks and browns). At the same time, the more powerful population segment (whites) is largely ignored. This is itself the corruption of a mission. But the practice of targeting the vulnerable for personal, departmental, or professional gain is yet a further level of corruption. Regardless of how ill-conceived, futile, and counterproductive the War on Drugs was and is, its conversion into a mechanism for profiteering by police departments and their corporate suppliers rates the highest condemnation.

This, of course, is closely related to the widespread militarization of civilian police. The more ‘drug arrests’ the more credits, loans, and funding for all sorts of power-imagineering paraphernalia. And once they get hold of a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ‘Use it or lose it’ has been the policy of Department of Defense when it distributes military equipment to local police. So, why not send out a SWAT team to serve a simple warrant? What is the bottom line? Well, it is the blatant shift of purpose from (legitimately) “protecting and serving” the public to (illegitimate but accepted) institutional self-aggrandizement. Power seeking and profiteering are practiced at the expense of the public interest in real public safety.

Theft as “Civil Asset Forfeiture”
By now most of us have heard of the police confiscating large sums of money, luxury cars, even mansions, from drug dealers when they are arrested. Laws were passed to support aggressive police actions against drug dealers. The loot came to be shared with local police departments that cooperated in or conducted successful raids. While such extra-judicial practices are constitutionally questionable in themselves, the practice has taken on another level of corruption. With no judicial or other check on the confiscation of the property of citizens where arrests have occurred but not necessarily indictments or convictions, the near complete corruption of the ideals of law enforcement was assured.

The practice of confiscating property from “suspects” has spread to a variety of situations where it would be hard to justify. Yet, unconstrained police now actively look for “goodies” that can be used by the department or liquidated for cash.[2]  A “reason” for an arrest can usually be constructed. This, of course, is the ultimate corruption of law enforcement, since it is essentially the use of power to engage in legalized theft. This sort of behavior is hardly different than the shakedowns of organized crime or street gangs. “Reform” is a far too weak a word to use when trying to describe what is needed to bring back law enforcement institutions into a civil society where their job is simply to “keep the peace” and protect the public. The current conflict of institutional interests and the public interest is intolerable.

The growing privatization of the public sector has squeezed state and local government operations including law enforcement. That pressure encourages police to exploit opportunities presented by ill-conceived laws allowing unconstitutional searches and seizures. In a corrupt environment, the weak are corrupted. The weakness of police culture is palpable. Only mobilized public demand can change that.
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1. Matt Taibbi, “Meet the woman J P Morgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking.” Rolling Stone, November 6, 2014.
2. Shalla Dewan, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets to Seize.” New York Times. November 10, 2014.

Gaza, USA; Ferguson, Palestine: Pounding nails in Freedom’s Coffin

We’ve all heard the old saw that “to a man with only a hammer for a tool, everything looks like a nail.” Video of the escalating massive military incursion onto the streets of Ferguson, MO, reminded me of that metaphor again last week. Suddenly, U.S. mass media has awakened to the militarization of local police that has been growing since the “war on drugs” was started by President Nixon. Questions about “show-of-force” overkill are finally being raised.

The Hammer

In every profession I know of, some people learn one tool better than others and it becomes their favorite. Too often, they apply it beyond its realm of effectiveness. That failing has become the essence of the application of the weapons of warfare in the modern world. It is not surprising that this tendency is emblematic of the tragedy of errors that has unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri. But the “to a hammer, everything is a nail” syndrome reflects the fundamental failure of law enforcement across the country and the world today. That militarized law-enforcement “pattern of practice” is widely institutionalized and culturally confirmed in nearly every jurisdiction.

Several processes are at work, enticing local police departments to be attracted to the “upgrading” of their technologies of violence as part of the “toolbox” of law enforcement. Sophisticated technology has its own attraction. Tools of violence have the added attraction of great power over life and death. For police administrators, the price is attractive: it’s mostly free, and there are grants too. All the department has to do is generate sufficient drug arrests (in poor minority communities) to show their commitment to the “War on Drugs”. Right, “War.” The appeal of the image of the Warrior Cop resonates with the power image of military equipment. Violent individuals often self-select into jobs as policemen, a serious problem that departments have either ignored or encouraged. These are just some of the elements that have converted what we used to think of as “peace officers” to Warrior Cops.

Cult of Destruction

I mentioned Raul Hilberg’s, The Destruction of the European Jews, in my July 21 post, “Living in Fear of the Other.”[1] The process of destruction described by Hilberg is a gradually developing sequence of escalating brutality of action by the overwhelmingly more powerful actor in an asymmetric conflict. The oppressed class or ethnic group is systematically isolated from the basic means of living. In every case, the dominant power incrementally takes steps that further isolate, restrict, disempower, and eventually destroy the weaker population.

The social form of the process of destruction may differ, but at its core it is the same. The systematic destruction of the people of the “outdoor prison” that is Gaza, explicitly targets everyone – half are children – as “the enemy.” The process of destruction of people of color in the U.S. is more diffuse than the Israeli destruction of the people of Gaza. Overt public expressions of racism are no longer acceptable in the U.S. Many people allow themselves to be comfortable in the illusion that racism is no longer an issue. Events, however, demonstrate quite the opposite. The illusions of a “post-racial America” partially mask that. But it is just as real, though not as focused or intense, as the destruction of Gaza. In what way does the multi-agency force that now occupies Ferguson not look like a military occupation?

People as Enemy

The corporate media generally ignore incidents like that in Ferguson. Yet since Trayvon Martin’s legitimized murder by a warrior-cop wannabe, the growing number of racist killings by police, publicly exposed via witness phone-video cannot be ignored once it has gone viral. “Stand your ground” law supporters and Warrior Cops share a culture of death. As the police become increasingly militarized, their self-image grows closer to that of a combat soldier facing a racialized “Enemy” that must be destroyed. The deployment of military hardware, personal body armor and high-power weapons, encourages the Warrior Cop mentality and the excessive and unjustified use of force. The Warrior-cop mentality is combined with the underlying legacy of racism and self-selection of violent tendencies among police recruits. The consequences are all too often extremely dangerous modes of militaristic policing as population suppression. More cases of excessive force are inevitable, and they are more likely to be exposed as political and human rights are written off.

Despite the miserable and very expensive failure of the “war on drugs,” the majority of SWAT deployments (62%) have been for drug searches. [2] These home invasions often involve forced entry with a battering ram by heavily armed assault teams, resulting in serious property damage. Such violent breeches also terrify young children and elderly in the house. They are the same tactics used by U.S. assault teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such violence is used even when there is no evidence of potential resistance or violence by the targets. It is absurd overkill, designed more to exercise the prowess of the Warrior Cop and his erectile equipment than to control the mostly petty crime involved. Yet drug-war economics and the national militarist mentality lead to a desire to initiate war-like engagements with citizens treated as enemies.

Of course, the majority impacted by paramilitary police tactics are people of color living in economic prisons. Police assault teams do not break into white suburban homes or college dorms. The New Jim Crow [3] is enforced by the U.S. Warrior Cops. Though more diffused and less intense, their assaults on Americans are not all that much different from the Israeli attacks on the people of Gaza. Hatred for the feared Other spurs on the process of destruction. Militaristic police behavior is an evil hammer pounding nails in the coffin of freedom.
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[1] https://thehopefulrealist.com/2014/07/21/living-in-fear-of-the-other-the-process-of-destruction/
[2] WAR COMES HOME: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2014.
[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.