What do we want from the police? It seems like a straightforward enough question, but is there a simple, singular answer? Perhaps we want them not to cruise in the fast lane of the highway doing 20 under the speed limit, as one interceptor was doing today on my way to San Antonio. Perhaps we want them to not be corrupt, as so many are in Ciudad Juárez, soliciting bribes for minor or even non-incidents. Perhaps we want them to leave us alone, like many of the folks who have been stopped and frisked in NYC. Or, perhaps, simply, we want them just to do their job.
But what is that exactly? Is their job to deter crime? To control it? To protect us? To serve? Even if it is all of that, what does any of that look like? And what are the consequences for us?
For that matter, who is we? Us? That question is only important if we accept that there is a subjective nature to the demands and expected actions undertaken by police. Well get to it in due course, but no matter how you cut it, it is not possible to say that there is an impartial set of objectives that police must attempt to fulfill. To begin understand that, let’s have a quick peek at some of these questions.
Should police deter or control crime?
On its face, the answer to this question seems to be “yes.” But is it so? Do we really expect police to deter all crime or only some crimes? Probably not: if we consider the lack of police involvement in investigating white collar crime, our answer would be a resounding “no.” Consequently it seems that the police would not be expected control or limit white collar crime either. As a result, we see that the role imputed on the police is to deal with only certain types of crime – perhaps what might be called visible crimes that have clear perpetrators and victims. To that end, there seems to be a clear demand to catch and prosecute people who fit the description of a “likely” offender, whatever that means. In NYC, people of color who come from a low socio-economic sector and even some people of color who do not are targets. In Phoenix it is an “illegal,” however one identifies that person. In Latin America, we see la Mano Dura focus on individuals who are tattooed. That reality extends to the US as well, where certain tattoos can bring unwanted attention. We are scared of those people; they pose a threat to our wellbeing – or at least that is what we are led to believe, and because of that belief we want the police to solve the problem by any means necessary – civil liberties be damned, (excepting ourselves of course).
Clearly, the typical criminal is never visualized as the well-to-do execs at places like Enron or Arthur Anderson or smooth talking white business men like Bernie Madoff whose actions end up harming whole swaths of innocent victims. Accordingly, we do not expect the police to suspect, investigate, or harass those folks of privilege – they aren’t the problem, even though they have trashed the futures of hundreds or thousands of people. Instead, the small time crook who rips off Wal-Mart or steals an old car is clearly a bigger threat. At least that is what one could logically deduce from the attentions of police and especially from the political rhetoric that demands harsher minimum penalties and more aggressive prosecutions.
So what’s the answer to our question? Should police deter or control crime? If we answer honestly, the answer is yes with the caveat that police deterrence and control of crime applies only to crimes committed by “lowlifes” and not the supposedly “upstanding” citizens of the business world. Next question.
Is it the police’s job to protect and serve us?
Well, yes. But only us. To heck with them. That might seem flippant, but do the middle and upper classes actually care about the wellbeing of the lower class? Some surely do. But many do not, as the lower class members are categorized as likely offenders. So, logically, the police’s job is to watch those likely offenders first and foremost. Of course this is inequitable. If the police truly have a job to protect the public, then they should be willing to protect any person, regardless of who that person is – a banker, a junkie, a doctor, or a hooker. All of those people could be potential victims. In fact the junkie or the hooker has a much larger chance of being a victim given the lack of formal protections they enjoy for their transactions. Yet the risks to folks like these are marginalized in the public discourse. Moreover, could it be reasonably be said that the upper class demands security for those “lowlifes?” No, not really; the story goes that those folks are criminals and deserve punishment, not protection. They certainly don’t deserve the attention to be served, at least from a puritanical point of view.
Rather it is the law abiding citizens who deserve protection, or at least so it is said. But what does that protection look like. Is it merely a policing of society’s undesirables? No, you might say that some misfits fall through the cracks. Should we be watching everybody? No, not me – that’s a violation of my privacy; but, damn, you need to be watching those foreigners … right? What about that psycho who died from auto-erotic asphyxiation while in jail – what was his name – Ariel Castro. What about the monster who blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building – the second largest terror attack on American soil in history – American citizen, former soldier, and bronze star recipient, Timothy McVeigh? So much for that theory.
Maybe in the end, we, the voting class, the people who consume and propagate the dominant narratives should stop with the charade, because that’s all we are selling. The outrage is false. Many of the shady actions of the police, even if they are not publically condoned, are what are demanded. We want the police to do dirty work, so when they do, we shouldn’t act surprised. If we want something other than what we have, then we need to be clear about it. We need to change the narrative and demand that our politicians understand our politicians respond accordingly.