Police are supposed to serve the public. In a democracy, police are controlled and commanded by elected officials who ostensibly serve the public interest.
Recent events in New York City (and elsewhere) undermine those basic norms.
In the aftermath of the killing of two New York police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, by a mentally ill gunman, police union leader Patrick Lynch is leading a veritable police rebellion against Mayor Bill de Blasio.
New York City’s police have refused to do their jobs by engaging in an coordinated work slowdown and strike.
New York police have publicly booed and heckled Mayor de Blasio—even going so far as to turn their backs to him—as a sign of their anger and disrespect towards him.
In online forums such as Thee Rant, a site frequented by retired and active duty New York police officers, Mayor de Blasio, his family, and administration have been the targets of vicious racial slurs and threats.
New York City’s police and their spokespeople are rebelling against civilian authority for a variety of reasons.
Primarily, Mayor de Blasio’s basic observation that police brutality and racism against non-whites is a problem that must be solved, and when coupled with the nationwide protests against police thuggery in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, threatens an American police culture that views itself as an omnipotent force, one that is above the law.
New York’s police and union leaders such as Patrick Lynch are also mining the cultural mythologies that protect the police in order to create a narrative of police victimhood and vulnerability. While contrary to the empirical data which demonstrates that police work is actually a relatively safe profession (for example, police deaths are near a 50 year low) a tale of police victimhood can be combined with white racial resentment to weaken Mayor De Blasio, a Democrat, for the purpose of gaining leverage in the New York police union’s pay and contract negotiations.
In authoritarian and fascist societies, police and the military exist outside of civilian control.
Moreover, police and other like institutions often feign victimhood and vulnerability in order to gain public sympathy for the purposes of expanding their power and insulating themselves from consequences when they violate human rights.
The corrupting power of such narratives are especially great for democratic societies—such as the United States—that out of a fear of terrorism have normalized the surveillance society, engage in state sponsored torture, have surrendered to a devaluation of human life in service to the twin regimes of austerity and neoliberalism, and view the rights of the poor and people of color as contingent and not universal or inalienable.
Hope does exist: there are small acts of resistance by some members of the American people against such forces.
Unfortunately, the militarization of America’s police and the panoply of examples of police abuse and violence against the (black and brown) public in places such as Ferguson, Missouri and the videotaped choking-murder of Eric Garner, are social realities that are likely not going to be preempted or reversed in the near or mid term.
As such, foundational questions about the relationship between police brutality, thuggery, and authority remain unasked by the mass media, mainstream politicians, and other opinion leaders.
What sort of police officers would behave this way? Are they driven to this type of negative behavior by their training? Or do police have a psychological (and political) predisposition that encourages such actions?
Are police such as Darren Wilson, his brethren in Ferguson, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death while his peers watched him die, the cops that shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, or police union representatives such as Jeffrey Follmer or Patrick Lynch who excuse-make for police brutality and murder, channeling quintessentially “American” values, or are they petit-authoritarians, outliers of a sort, who self-select into police work?
These are questions that exist largely outside of the approved public discourse. They will not be explored in a deep and rigorous way by the commercial news media and the 24/7 hour news cycle.
The reasons for this are many. Primarily, the connective tissue between those questions consists of racism, classism, and how White America is largely in agreement with white on black and brown police violence as a matter of public policy.
An embrace of thuggery, violence, and meanness against people of color by the police is an act of surrender to the culture of cruelty. It also raises serious questions about American values and the shadow of racism and authoritarianism.
The corporate news media would treat those questions as some type of “unknown unknown”—a mystery that can never be solved and where all opinions are treated as equal as opposed to engaging the known findings on the subject.
Criminologists, psychologists, and other social scientists have compiled a large amount of data on the relationship between police behavior and authoritarianism. This information is readily available and highly accessible to the general public. However, it is not discussed by the corporate news media because the facts cannot be readily reconciled with the mythologies that surround (and protect) America’s police.
There have been many articles written about the political personality types of the police.
One of the most influential is the 1972 work “The Police Personality: Fact or Fiction” by Robert Balch.
There he explores several questions in an effort to crystallize the various arguments in the research on police psychology: are authoritarian personality types more likely to choose police work as a profession? Are police more or less likely to have authoritarian personality types than the general public? Does being a police officer exacerbate authoritarian impulses?
On the topic of authoritarianism and police, Balch summarized one of the main veins of thinking from the literature at that time:
a. Conventionalism: rigid adherence to conventional,
b. Authoritarian Submission: submissive, uncritical
attitude toward idealized moral authorities
of the ingroup.
c. Authoritarian Aggression: tendency to be on the
.lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish
people who violate conventional values.
d. Anti-intraception: opposition to the subjective,
the imaginative, the tender-minded.
e. Superstition and Stereotypy: the belief in mystical
determinants of the individual's fate; the
disposition to think in rigid categories.
f. Power and "toughness": preoccupation with the
dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower
dimension; identification with power
figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized
attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of
strength and toughness.
g. Destructiveness and Cynicism: generalized hostility,
vilification of the human.
h. Projectivity: The disposition to believe that
wild and dangerous things go on in the world;
the projection outwards of unconscious emotional
i. Sex: Exaggerated concern with sexual "goings on."
Only superstition, apparently, has never been used to describe policemen. Otherwise the dimensions of authoritarianism seem to describe police officers very well. In fact, the typical policeman, as he is portrayed in the literature, is almost a classic example of the authoritarian personality.
As we try to reconstruct and imagine why police are much more likely to kill, abuse, and harass black and brown people, Balch highlighted the following quotes from interviews with police at that time:
If people in general are no good, then "coons" and "spics" are worse. All they like to do is drink, make love, and collect their welfare checks: "These scum aren't people; they're animals in a jungle . . . Hitler had the right idea..."
He continues his summary:
Several other traits are frequently but less consistently used to describe the typical policeman. Police officers supposedly distrust ivory-tower intellectuals and bleeding-heart humanitarians. A good policeman is a realist who learns by experience and not by reading books. He respects authority and knows how to take orders. He likes to give orders too, and he demands respect from juveniles, criminals, and minorities.
In thinking about the video recorded murder of Eric Garner, or Darren Wilson’s profoundly racist and fantastical explanation of his reasons for confronting and killing Michael Brown, this excerpt from Balch’s work is extremely disturbing:
According to Banton and Tauber, American policemen cannot rely on the authority vested in their uniform to gain compliance. Instead they feel compelled to assert their personal authority.
The citizen may take offense at the policeman's intimidating manner, and the stage is set for a violent confrontation in which each party is struggling to maintain his self-respect in the face of a perceived threat by the other. Westley adds that the lower the status of the citizen, the greater the threat he poses to the officer's uncertain self-esteem. In this context police brutality is indeed understandable.
America’s racial and social hierarchy demands that black people are subservient and deferent to white people. Although the language and logic of white privilege in this regard has “evolved” from the overt demands of black deference during Jim and Jane Crow, it still remains in the Age of Obama.
Black Americans routinely face such treatment and expectations in the form of micro aggressions, and in the context of police behavior, by “stop and frisk policies”, “shopping while black”, and racially discriminatory treatment at every level of the criminal justice system.
In the most high profile example of the White Gaze demanding black obedience, the United States’ first black president has had his legitimacy questioned by “birtherism”, subjected to racial slurs and other invective by Republicans, and also faced complaints by white conservatives that he is “uppity” and “does not know his place”.
The debate about the relationship between authoritarians as self-selecting into police work and how police culture encourages such behavior continues decades later.
However, there is a rising consensus on some aspects of the relationship where local police culture reinforces social dominance and authoritarian tendencies (as well as intolerance of the Other), those individuals who are most authoritarian are more likely to succeed in the profession, and that police are recruited from a sub-segment of the population that may be more prone to authoritarian behavior.
The racist and authoritarian behavior of police in the United States reflects a broader (white) American culture that nurtures and accepts such values.
For example, recent experiments in political psychology and public opinion research reveal that white respondents actively and knowingly support racism by the criminal justice system against black people.
These findings complement the findings by social scientists (and others) that demonstrate the power of implicit racial bias in how whites relate to African-Americans, the enduring power of symbolic racism and white racial resentment, the sense of social distance and lack of “warmth” that white Americans feel towards blacks, and the inability of whites en masse to feel sympathy or empathy for non-whites as full human beings.
A recent analysis by the Washington Post also shows how in the aftermath of Ferguson and the Eric Garner cases, white Americans are now more likely to be supportive of the police and have confidence in them to treat non-whites fairly.
Such a conclusion is madness: it requires a wholesale rewriting of the facts and a retreat to a default position where Whiteness imagines itself as innocence, and that racism is an outlier and fantasy of black and brown people.
The white paranoiac gaze is able to twist reality to such a degree that a black man being choked alive is somehow “guilty” for his own murder, and a police officer shooting an unarmed person multiple times who was surrendering to him are made “just” or “reasonable”.
Immoral and unjust acts are defended and rationalized by a learned behavior that sees all black people as dangerous and outside of the protections afforded to white Americans by the law.
In a morally just world, police cruelty would result in a decrease of support for, and faith in, the police by white folks. But, as it has done both historically and in the present, Whiteness perverts and warps White America’s ethical sensibilities and rationality.
The reality is a simple one: police brutality against black and brown Americans is the system working exactly as it was originally designed and intended.