A bill passed New York State Senate last week that had some very dubious language. While it qualifies its terms with the acts of “striking, shoving, or kicking,” it begins by felonizing the intent to “harass, annoy, threaten, or alarm” a police officer on duty. I always thought that once you lay a single hand on an officer, you were then assaulting him or her, and you were done for, so I don’t see the need for this bill other than some pathos-laden political maneuver based on Senator Joe Griffo’s constituency. Regardless, this brings up the topics of the police force and law enforcement in general. Like many things in our culture, the lines along which these issues perforate do away with the subtleties and nuances at hand, so let us explore.
Senator Griffo begins, “At a time when shocking incidents of disrespect and outright confrontation are at an all-time high…” and I wonder if we actually live in the same state. He is talking about citizens disrespecting and confronting police rather than the other way around. In my world, the stories that come across my newsfeed are of police officers abusing their power. Countless stories of straight up murder have come across my newsfeed over the past few years. The most recent incident was in Albuquerque where heavily armed police shot a man in the process of turning his back to the officers (you can see this all unfold on video). An FBI probe has now been launched regarding this incident. There have been plenty of other cases of shootings (many of the victims are dogs), tazings, pepper sprayings, and beatings. But what about the more subtle abuses of power? What about when it comes to following constitutional parameters of search and seizure? What about when it comes to institutional quota systems?
Sometimes, in order to defend police officers, people cite the idea that these are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Clearly, this is true. But, often it’s used to dodge the criticism aimed at a broken value system. Yes, they are only human, and human beings are often racist, prejudice, and irrational. Often human beings go on power trips, abuse authority, partake in corruption, and seek personal validation through their socially sanctioned occupation. Police officers, like all other individuals, must earn the respect and trust of their community by participating in it on either side of the badge.
This need for trust and community comes to a head in the concept I brought up last week: the industrial complex. I did not list the police-industrial complex in my litany but it does certainly exist. In our post-9/11 world, Homeland Security money was funneled into local police forces. This did a great deal to militarize the police. The depressed sniper has become a common trope. As in, a sniper who trains his whole life to be the best at what he does falls into depression when he comes home from his tour of duty without firing a single shot. Similarly, we have police departments with tons of new gear and tactics, most of which does not at all apply to the context in which they actually find themselves. It does not seem like a jump to conclude that many of these incidents are propagated by the itch to carry out what one was trained to do. Police forces are well fortified in components that serve aggression, violence, oppression, and assault. To fortify these elements is to perpetuate the gears of revenue that have been established. I would much rather see a police force that is well fortified in diplomacy and compassion, you know, the whole protect and serve deal.
We need the individualistic view of police as much as we need the systemic view, but they must be used to parse each other. Officers cannot hide behind their individuality as much as they cannot hide behind the system. There has to be a return to first premises, as Terence McKenna would put it. Yes, men and women of law enforcement are entering into an incredibly sacred space as they make the choice to put on the badge. But, it is they who must bow before the incredible amount of trust that we, the community, are allowing them, and they must answer to us when that trust is broken. The penalties for committing a crime against a police officer are magnified. So too should the penalties of committing a crime as a police officer be magnified.
The existence of this double standard speaks to a deeper darker aspect of our culture. Sit back in your chair for a moment, and think of any institution (business, church, school, etc.) that you have a personal connection to and decide if absolutely zero corruption exists therein. Even at the most microscopic level, corruption has touched the fibers of all institutions and the police force is no exception: cronyism, special privilege that elevates individuals above the law, profit over service. This kind of tribalism is at the heart of institutional existence. This is not a cry of nostalgia saying that we should return to some halcyon period of institutional integrity. It has always been this way. So from this angle, I often default to the sage words of old Charles Bukowski: “…when a man puts that uniform on he is the paid protector of things of the present time. He is here to see that things stay the way they are. If you like the way things are, then all cops are good cops. If you don’t like the way things are, then all cops are bad cops.”