One of the characteristics of modern policing is what I shall refer to as The Unbroken Thread, the perceived problems exhibited today are far from new nor are they necessarily best described as symptoms or problems as they are inbuilt feature sets that date back to the very origins of the existence of modern policing.
Power: The Underlying Problem
“Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” said the 19th century British historian Lord Acton.
In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Katherine A. DeCelles and several co-authors found that this participants primed to think of themselves as and to feel powerful would take on average a higher amount of game points when allowed to.
In Understanding Ethical Failures in Leadership, Terry Price, refers to “exception making” in leadership roles, believing that the rules that govern what is right and wrong no long apply to the leader themselves.
The general consensus is that ultimately the power doesn’t innately corrupt people, what it does is cause the underlying ethical tendencies to reveal themselves. Power causes people to show you who they are; hold this in your mind as we proceed through this essay.
The “First” Corruption
First, let us start our journey through history with a possibly (though likely not) apocryphal tale surrounding Sir Robert Peel.
Peel was considered a rising stars of the Tory party, first entering the cabinet in 1822 as Home Secretary. As Home Secretary, he introduced quite a few important reforms of British criminal law. He reduced the number of crimes punishable by death, and simplified the law by repealing many criminal statutes and consolidating them into what are known as Peel’s Acts.
In 1829 Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force for London. With 1,000 constables employed that were affectionately nicknamed ‘bobbies’. Admittedly unpopular at first, the venture proved successful in lower rates of crime in London, and by 1857 all cities in Britain were obliged to form their own police forces. In 1829, when setting forth the principles of policing a democracy, Sir Robert Peel declared: “The police are the public and the public are the police.”
Besides being one of the gentrified, upper crust of London’s finer circles Peel had another passion of the porcine variety. You see Sir Robert bred and raised (or rather his staff did and he oversaw it) Tamworth Pigs. I’m sure you can see where this is headed but just go along for the ride as it were.
At the time Smithfield Market, the largest and central market of the City of London, was located in the city center proper. It had become illegal to drive (walk) animals through the city because of the havoc, filth and disease they spread but as anyone who has ever shopped for fresh produce can tell you, the fresh the product the higher the price it commands.
As the story goes, Sir Robert had his ‘Bobbies’ drive this line of soon to be departed porcine product through the vendor stalls, overturning them and destroying/eating various farmer’s and mare chants products as they went. I mean, what are you going to do about it after all? The ‘Bobbies’ were at the ready to cave your skull with their nightsticks if you attempted to do anything about it and the man who owned the pigs was one of the most powerful men in the country.
Quickly becoming accustomed to this practice the various vendor and stall workers would see the ‘Bobbies’ and the parade of pigs coming and start shouting warnings to each other, “Here come Peel’s Pigs!”
Well it doesn’t take long become nicknames and slang catch on and the nickname transferred from the pork destined to the market to the individuals engaging in the drive itself; the constables.
Now admittedly this may be an apocryphal tale, or it may not. There aren’t many competing theories on the whys and hows of the origins of the pejorative slang for police but in either case, this one will fits nicely is we must choose a story to tell ourselves.
The United States
The development of policing in the United States closely followed the development of policing in England. In the early colonies policing took on a different form. It was both informal and communal, which is referred to as “The Watch”.
The watch system was composed of community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn of impending danger. Boston created a night watch in 1636, New York in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700. Individuals would take on voluntary duty to patrol and otherwise look after their neighborhoods in case of fire, burglary or other general misbehavior on the part of it’s residents. It was a means of looking after your own.
Augmenting the watch system was a system of constables, official law enforcement officers, usually paid by the fee system for warrants they served. Constables had a variety of non-law enforcement functions.
This continued well after the American Revolution. It was not until the 1830s that the idea of a centralized municipal police department first emerged in the United States.
Then there was the largely privately funded policing, which is colloquially called “The Big Stick”. The big stick was a system of police departments that were paid for nearly entirely by the businessmen, industrialists and other such magnates of the day. They would provide the land, the weapons, the uniforms and even salaries through a variety of direct or indirect funding. You can see remnants of such fund raising methods today in such means as “the policemen’s ball” or “galas”. One out-growth of these entities was private security forces such as The Pinkertons. The Big Stick (and it’s fellow private security forces) were primarily used to suppress the labor movement, control immigrants worker populations and ensure the smooth operations of the mercantilist and burgeoning capitalist classes.
Then in 1838, the city of Boston established the first modern metropolitan American police force in the footsteps of the London Met, followed by New York City in 1845, Albany, NY and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark, NJ and Baltimore in 1857. By the 1880s all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place.
The Southern states found a different path to follow in the development of Rhein policing efforts. The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the “Slave Patrol”. The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. Slave patrols had three essential functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide active deterrence for those slaves who might revolt in the form of localized terror squads; and, (3) as a form of summary punishment for slave-workers outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.
Following the Civil War, these groups evolved into modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laboring in essentially an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws.
The eventual merging of these two distinct paths created what we would come to now recognize as modern policing. A racist, anti-immigrant, anti-labor, oppressive, occupying army that safeguards the interests of the few against the many.
As we continue to follow the original unbroken thread from the initial corruption of Sir Robert Peel through the development of the Big Stick and Slave Patrols we find ourselves having to mention the 13th Amendment. The Constitutional Amendment that people claim abolished slavery in The United States of America but the truth of the matter is that it did no such thing. In fact it did quite the opposite, it codified it into Constitutional Law.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
And with those words slavery and involuntary servitude were institutionalized into America’s prison system.
The literal nature of this slavery can even be found within Supreme Court rulings such as in Ruffin v. Commonwealth in which the Court held that “He is for the time being a slave of the State.”
Again the thread continues unbroken. Corruption, labor abuses, and slavery all leading into one of the biggest travesties and overall miscarriages of “justice” in the US – the War on Drugs.
Drugs Are Bad M’kay
Look, we could spend the next 5 years going over the heinous and prolific details of just how bad the drug war has been and how much of an intentional crime against people of color, the working class and the anti-war movement it has been but let’s just settle for a quote from John Ehrlichman, a domestic affairs advisor to President Nixon who even spent time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.
In a piece by Dan Baum for Harper’s Magazine on the topic of the war on drugs entitled “Legalize It All”, Baum recalled a 1994 interview with Ehrlichman in which he quoted Ehrlichman as saying
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
While his beloved children have attempted to refute their father’s alleged quote most people see through this attempt and also understand it. No one really wants to be the children of someone associated with such horrific acts and the cognitive bias that would arise in that situation (or even bad faith argumentation) would be perfectly understandable.
Despite this, that quote pretty much sums up the nature and character of the entirety of the “War on Drugs”. It was an intentional effort by the United States government in order to disable, disarm and undermine the working class, people of color, anti-war and anti-institutional elements within society. Just another maneuver by the system and it’s associated entities to maintain the status quo.
And thus, the thread continues unbroken.
The Rise of the Warrior Cop
So, just a quick question…Who gets to be a cop in America? Well, basically anyone as long as you’re not too smart, ask too many questions and don’t rock the boat. Yes, in fact there has even been a case in this country of a police department being sued for a candidate being discriminated against because he didn’t score low enough on their intelligence test.
Police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is insanely overemphasized. Rookies are taugh what is sometimes known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s or riding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift.
They drill into their brains to always be alert around “civilians” as you can never know which one of us might be “the enemy”. They repeats phrases over and over such as “complacency kills” and they aren’t just being told about the risks they gave but shown in full-color, soul-crushing dash-cam and body-cam footage of officers (rarely, see my piece on officer fatality statistics) being punched, kicked and shot after what is usually explained away as a split second of “hesitation”. Listening to that officer’s final desperate calls for help almost all the rookies in attendance will be having similar thoughts: “I won’t let that be me.”
Then take Dave Grossman, one of the most well-known and in demand police trainers in the country who advocates for a style of policing that is referred to as “the warrior cop” which maintains that the role of police is to combat evil in the most direct and violent means necessary – he is after all an advocate for a so-called science he calls “killology” in which he teaches others the nuances of taking a life. Grossman travels the country offering continuing-education seminars to cops and wanna-be cops for a hefty sum of money. Grossman refers to these students as “sheepdogs,” battle-readied elite guardians who are innately responsible for, and superior to, their noncombatant charges. “We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world…”
So welcome to the crux of the problem with modern policing.
They’re poorly educated, highly afraid foot soldiers of a system looking to maintain it’s status quo who have been denied any access to the intellectual tools necessary for self-evaluation of their situation.
And that is only the good faith actors that get involved in such a system.
We haven’t even dug into the self-reinforcing cyclical nature of the anti-social personality types that rise through the ranks and occupy positions of power throughout this system which then introduce a feedback loop of sorts of eliminating whistleblowers, people who have positive intentions, or exhibit characteristics of a person who is able to question authority and think on an individual basis.
If you spent the time to truly sit many of these individuals down what you’d see is antiquated belief systems, lack of introspection and a plethora of innate biases that harken back to previous eras.
And that thread stays unbroken and now for the final two elements atop this terrible layer cake we have constructed.
The 1033 Program
The US has been arming its police for war since the 1990s.
Facing down a swollen military and what it characterized as an ever worsening “drug crisis”, the 101st Congress in 1990 passed the National Defense Authorization Act. Born of Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is— (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” it became known as the 1208 Program but in 1996, Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033 and created what is now widely known as the “1033 Program”.
The argument was that if the US wanted its police to behave as “drug warriors”, it should gear them up like “warriors”. Which they most assuredly have, to the tune of over $7 billion in equipment by 2020 and according to a 2014 report by the White House under former President Barack Obama at the time the US Federal Government had provided “460,000 pieces of military equipment to local police, including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles, and 616 aircraft”.
1033 procurements are not matters of public record (of course) And the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which coordinates distribution of military surplus, refuses to reveal the names of agencies requesting “tactical” items, like assault rifles and MRAPs (armored assault personal carriers).
So, the poorly trained, frightened, under-educated, maintainers of the racist/classist/oppressive status quo are now armed to the teeth with military grade gear. Yay…
So let’s get to the final nail in the coffin of why we can’t have nice things.
Qualified Immunity or Why We Can’t Hold Any of These Assholes Accountable
In 1967 the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Civil Rights Act of 1870 by inventing Qualified Immunity describing it as “a modest exception for public officials who had acted in good faith and believed that their conduct was authorized”. Fifteen years later the Court drastically expanded the defense in Harlow v Fitzgerald. Instead of protection being afforded to public officials hinging upon whether the official acted “in good faith” the qualifier was now to be whether the victim could show that their “right was clearly established” despite whether an official acted maliciously or not.
Since that decision the Court has made it exceedingly difficult for victims to satisfy the new standard. To show that the law is “clearly established,” the Court has said, a victim must point to a previously decided case that involves the same “specific context” and “particular conduct.” Unless the victim can point to a judicial decision that happened to involve the same context and conduct, the officer will be shielded from liability.
And the thread makes it all the way to today.
So you see, the origins of modern policing were born of corruption, power abuses, attempts to maintain the status quo by the rich and powerful and well…nothing has changed. Really ever.