This essay has been inspired by “We Filmed the Cops. People Changed Their Minds. ” by Peter Suderman.
It’s a common misconception, one that I think a lot of USians hold: that police there exist to enforce the law.
Lots of people, especially white people, mistakenly believe this. The police in America in practice actually have the job of preserving the status quo, regardless of whether doing so is illegal or not, which is why police so frequently and blatantly engage in illegal conduct which goes entirely unpunished. Most police officers are almost wholly ignorant of the law beyond the police academy basics such as reasonable suspicion and probable cause; they couldn’t apply the law accurately even if they wanted to to enforce it.
This state of affairs is reflected in the fact that the police have no legal obligation whatsoever to protect you or to respond in any way to crime, another item that isn’t very widely known in society.
It is painfully common that most large, old American institutions usually have two fundamental personas: each has the official, stated ideal, burnished by history to a presentable and respectable sheen, and then the unofficial, “everybody knows” facet, which isn’t usually written down. A great example of this: Nikole Hannah-Jones writes: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Correspondingly, there is, intentionally, no mention of slavery in the resulting Declaration of Independence. Once you see this two-faced, “wink wink, nudge nudge” nature of most of the older American institutions, it becomes extremely hard to ever un-see, much like the “Statue of Freedom” sitting presently atop the US Capitol Building (carved by a man named Philip Reid who was, of course, enslaved). Hypocrisy is the defining American cultural trait.
It turns out that the reason police forces were first instituted in America was to catch or kill escaped slaves, and, later, to prevent poor people from looting/burning the mansions of the wealthy. The police are there to keep “business as usual” humming along.
Do something illegal that’s part of the status quo (including murders and robbery by the police themselves)? The police won’t touch it.
Do something entirely legal that challenges the status quo or upsets white landowners or the police themselves? The police will show up in numbers, and threaten you with deadly force. What’s absolutely astounding to me is the widespread public support for such insane and illegal police responses to abnormal/unusual behavior that falls within the bounds of the law. There are many, many people in that country who want the police to aggressively attack, harass, or threaten people who are not breaking the law, simply because their actions are abnormal or upsetting, just to get them to stop. This is the basic reasoning behind blanket, catch-all offenses on the books such as “disorderly conduct”, “loitering”, “jaywalking”, and other such non-crimes that serve solely as a legal cover for police to harass and optionally make an arrest, which, regardless of guilt, results in someone spending between a few hours and 3+ years in jail prior to any external judicial review.
This is an unspoken social contract between the gentry and the police. People not regularly threatened or harassed by the police will call them as a sort of social “tech support”, causing them to be dispatched to solve problems even when no law whatsoever has been broken.
Police take this part of their job seriously, as it is perhaps the most common task they are called upon to perform. The police are enforcers, designed to crack skulls and fire weapons, when the existing social order is threatened, even by peaceful people.
The side effect of this circumstance is that America, in practice, is not actually a country that values, or is subject to, the rule of law. It’s subject to the whims of the people to whom the police demonstrate their allegiance. Those who pledge allegiance to “law and order” are actually in practice expressing endorsement of a violent gang that operates almost entirely outside of the law.
There are a lot of peaceful, legal activities that, if you undertake, will get the police called and brought down upon you instantly. There are a number of people who undertake these types of activities (videoing public buildings and police activity, legally openly carrying deadly weapons, and peacefully assembling to protest police brutality), sometimes with the intent of catching the illegal police responses on video. The comments on such videos are instructive (and heartbreaking, with many, many people justifying violent responses on behalf of the police, even when such responses are entirely illegal, and used against people who have committed no crime.
For the most part, these people are arrested and hauled off to jail. At the least the people are harassed or intimidated. Usually the charges are unrelated to the matter at hand, or are entirely made up and supported by police testilying, which is widespread and well documented. Again, the police see their job as “making the problem go away”, regardless of whether or not “the problem” was actually related to any laws being broken. The police are good at this job, sadly.
Today, many people are filming the police, and it’s on naked display that the basic concepts of “protect and serve” were never actually the goal at all. Police are basically social janitors, called out not to protect, but to close out trouble tickets, either by “stroking” the complainant, threatening the offender, throwing everyone in jail and letting the prosecutors sort it out, or, in the case far too often, simply shooting any non-white, non-landowners, a crime for which they have historically gone entirely unpunished, thanks to the extremely well-documented and widespread, longstanding practice of police declining to subject their coworkers to the laws that they themselves happily abuse and selectively apply to shackle and enslave anyone they deem undesirable.
The police take this job of preserving the status quo so seriously that their documented culture of subterfuge and fundamental dishonesty has always been a core tenet of policing in America. It’s not legal in court for police to arrest and harass people for protesting or looking weird, being nonwhite, or exercising less-commonly-used civil rights, so the mechanisms that support the police in their unwritten mission—that is, prosecutors and the judiciary—have come to both tolerate and expect all manner of fairy tales told by police in the service of this mission. The window has shifted so far into the illegal that many in the system view the injustice as a force of nature, and things like the right to a speedy trial have entirely fallen by the wayside without much fanfare.
This is such a systemic issue that almost all police unions oppose the requirement that police wear body cameras, because they know that the job with which the police are tasked by society is incompatible with truth-telling and factual documentation. I would say that the police have a credibility problem, except that the real-life issue that must be tackled now is that despite all of this, they still don’t. People largely still trust their words, although that is slowly starting to change as even white people can’t ignore a now endless stream of shaky bystander portrait-mode uploads. Despite that, there is still resistance to dismantling the police and starting over in most locales in the US, even while police routinely engaging in criminal activity is a common meme in popular media.
Wider society seems to have been duped, and think that police are mostly honest, when their core mission is that of lying to support unjustified legal action against anyone who is deemed undesirable, or to generate additional revenue for the government on penalty of imprisonment. Most of white or landowning society in the US appears to support this mission, as we’ve seen from the endless parade of Central Park Karens, Permit Pattys, BBQ Beckys, and millions of other white people who would happily call the police in a misguided and unjust attempt to control and assault others engaging in legal activities, whether out of all-too-common racism or just the basic human contempt endemic to Karens everywhere.
For the situation to change, a large-scale shift in the American public’s understanding of policing, and cop conduct specifically, will be required. The fact that lots of video of the violence is coming out is hugely helpful in this, and while the police absolutely are racist, the problem is even larger and deeper than that, as it extends down to the fundamental role of police in society: The police are paid to prevent disruption to the existing (largely racist and exceptionally classist) American Way of Life, and then to lie to legally justify attacking, murdering, or jailing those who cause any such disruptions, even if such disruptions are peaceful and legal, regardless of cause. The businesses must be open, the anomalies must be ironed out, the diners must not be permitted to be alarmed.
The news media still reports uncritically on allegations of crime based exclusively on statements made by police, causing many people to be assumed to be criminals or terrorists or insane, when it is entirely possible or even likely that 100% of the evidence against them was concocted by police, created solely to punish them outside of due process. Considering that police are as untrustworthy as we now know they are, why are such self-serving lies being promulgated without a second thought? News organizations that uncritically report on police claims against suspects are engaging in racism via the perpetuation and endorsement of a racist system.
One other issue I have noticed is that people, even educated people who are otherwise paying attention (including the news media) seem to drop all skepticism entirely when it comes to statements made by federal cops. It’s as if they believe that local PD is likely some unprofessional good old boys or something, but the FBI, those are the professional ones.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Make sure your skepticism of police statements (including those regurgitated verbatim on the news) extends to feds as well. They have a decades-long history of the exact same damage.
Beware anything put in a sworn statement or affidavit by feds, or provided by federal informants or federal undercovers. You’d be astounded how much of it simply isn’t true.
The only real long-term solution to the problem of mass police violence is for the police to have consequences for abuse. This requires a special solution, as the normal consequence-causers in society are the police and prosecutors themselves. Ultimately, the Panthers had it right. No group in power will willingly grant anyone their rights unbidden, unfortunately: they must be taken and preserved the exact same way every other power structure in the entire world effectively protects itself and defends its own rights, through the mass use of defensive arms.
An unarmed people are slaves or are subject to slavery at any given moment.
— Huey P. Newton
More than crime, modern police forces in the United States emerged as a response to “disorder.”
…from The History of Policing in the United States, Dr Gary Potter, Eastern Kentucky University
Selma to Montgomery marches on Wikipedia
MOVE bombing on Wikipedia
2004 Republican National Convention protest activity, a peaceful protest that resulted in 1800 arrests by the NYPD and a $18 million dollar USD settlement following a civil rights lawsuit.
r/2020PoliceBrutality, a catalog of the thousands of incidences of police brutality against peaceful protestors across the US during the George Floyd protests