“Let’s begin with the basics: violence is an inherent part of policing. The police represent the most direct means by which the state imposes its will on the citizenry. They are armed, trained, and authorized to use force. Like the possibility of arrest, the threat of violence is implicit in every police encounter. Violence, as well as the law, is what they represent.”
Kristian was kind enough to talk to me about why cops are bad.
Thanks for talking to me about your book “Our Enemies in Blue”. Your book is extremely critical of the police. What does the police department of the United States represent to you?
The police are specialists in coercive force. Their distinguishing characteristic is the combination of surveillance and violence to make people do what people with power want them to do. That usually gets described in terms enforcing the law, but what I found in my research is that the real distribution of power is a much better indicator of how the police will act in any given situation. On the whole, they behave in ways that serve the interests of the powerful at the expense of the rest of us.
To me, a police officers main job is to keep things the way they are “supposed to be.” In your opinion, is the job of the police force to stop crime, or to control the working class?
Well, both, but the latter is more important. In fact, what gets counted as “crime” is generally class-coded. The disorderly behaviors of poor people get criminalized, while wealthy people see their misdeeds sanctified by the law, or handled as administrative matters, or – when they are considered criminal – met with loose enforcement and light penalties. So, sleeping under a bridge is a crime, but evicting poor people from their housing is just good business.
Of course it’s not just class. The police also work hard to maintain our society’s racial hierarchy. Racial profiling affects people of color of all classes, limits their geographic (and therefore social) mobility, and so serves to marginalize them. And, interestingly, every reputable study has shown that it has no use in terms of fighting crime. It is purely a matter of preserving white supremacy.
You argue that acts of police brutality and violence are not aberrations, but are in fact the norm. Can you expand on this at all?
I devote an entire chapter to this question in the book, but the short version is that violence is inherent to policing. They’re trained for it, armed for it, authorized to use it. Their institutional culture supports it and to some degree their collective self-perception is centered on it. Viewed at the level of the institution, it is a routine aspect of police work, even if the average officer uses violence rather rarely. The question of how much of that violence is legitimate and how much is abusive is a normative one; it depends on questions of law, policy, ethics, and social expectation. But the point is, if you institutionalize violence in this way, it is fairly certain that the members of the institution will sometimes exceed the purported limits. Looked at that way, even the excesses are part of the normal functioning of the institution.
Are there any solutions to this issue? Where do you see things going if this doesn’t change?
In the short term, I think it is worth pursuing reforms that make the police more accountable and that limit their access to violence. In the long term, I think we need to abolish this institution and find some better means of ensuring public safety. Since the police are both a product and a protector of social inequality, the abolitionist project requires an entirely different kind of society, one characterized by a radical egalitarianism. Of course it is impossible at this stage to know exactly what that will look like, and it’s hard to see how we could get there from where we are at present. That doesn’t make it any less pressing, however. The only real check on power is popular resistance. Without it, things inevitably get worse.