The ongoing unraveling of American society is like a play written by a criminally insane person. As such, it can provoke strong emotions in those who are forced to suffer through it. Yet one way of coping is to look at it as a play, and at yourself, the observer or unwilling participant, as an entertainment critic of sorts. Then it becomes possible to cultivate the detachment necessary for a calm, objective critique of the play, the various actors, and the roles they fill. Such a perspective can also guide you in exploring ways to escape the part that has been forced upon you.
This week's post will examine the role of the police in present-day American society, and will give you some idea of how likely you are to be cast as a bad guy by them, try as you might to fill another role. Such information might be of interest to readers, since as of today, July 3, 2015, police in the United States have killed 558 people this year, not to mention those who have been non-fatally maimed or injured by police, among whom is Walter William DeLeon, a middle-aged construction worker who was shot and critically injured by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department last month when he waved a towel at a patrol car in order to flag it down. This is, of course, in addition to the numerous well-publicized stories of police murders of unarmed citizens, especially citizens of color, in 2014 and earlier, and the ongoing police terrorizing of unarmed citizens in places like McKinney, Texas.
So what, exactly, are police made of these days? What kind of person is it who gravitates toward police work? What kind of job do policemen have? What sort of person does the typical police job produce? In his book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, M. Scott Peck described the link between characteristics of individual humans and characteristics of groups formed by individual humans. He wrote, "For many years it has seemed to me that human groups tend to behave in much the same ways as human individuals - except at a level that is more primitive and immature than one might expect. Why this is so - why the behavior of groups is strikingly immature - why they are, from a psychological standpoint, less than the sum of their parts - is a question beyond my capacity to answer..." My post today will not attempt to answer that question definitively, but will hopefully illuminate some key elements of police as a group, and of what is known as "police culture" here in the U.S.
What kind of person is the typical police recruit? The answer to that question depends on whom you ask. In Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force, authors Skolnick and Fyfe write, "However skeptically police may be viewed by outsiders, police often identify themselves as a moral force, protecting innocent and productive members of the public...The typical police recruit is white, physically fit and agile, of the lower-middle or working class, male, in his twenties, and with some college education..." However, what attracts potential recruits are often advertisements and videos which increasingly glamorize legal opportunities to use lethal violence rather than serving as a "moral force" in one's community. (See this also, where a former cop says, "...if anyone says they didn't get into law enforcement to drive a police car fast, with the lights and sirens, and come screeching into a parking lot sideways and jump out and tackle a guy, they're lying to you...")
When a person becomes a cadet, what kind of training do they receive? Again, the answer depends on whom you ask, but it seems clear that mediation and nonviolent conflict resolution isn't very high on the list of things taught. In fact, Dallas Police Chief David Brown publicly admitted that "Sometimes it seems like our young officers want to get into an athletic event with people they want to arrest. They have a 'don't retreat' mentality. They feel like they're warriors and they can't back down when someone is running from them, no matter how minor the underlying crime is." By contrast, Dale Brown, who is not a policeman, has founded the very successful Threat Management Center in Detroit, whose specialty is "...tactical psychology, tactical law and tactical skills, to teach communities and corporations how to properly manage human threats and create non-violent outcomes..." (Emphasis added). The Threat Management Center has been in operation since 1995, and boasts an impressive string of accomplishments.
What kind of person does a typical cadet become once he or she is hired to a police force? Here again, it depends on whom you ask. However, there is a large number of independent studies of various issues among police officers, issues which would be called crimes or serious dysfunction if they were observed among the general population. For instance, at least 25 percent of police officers are alcoholics. (See this and this also.) Of these, a substantial number drive while intoxicated and on duty. Between 25 and 40 percent of police officers are guilty of at least one incident of domestic violence (OIDV) against their spouses or children. (See this, this, this and this.) In many cases, the domestic violence is ongoing. Here is a link describing officer-perpetrated domestic violence from the point of view of the victims and their children. Please read it carefully and note how difficult it is for women abused by police husbands to do anything about their situation. Note also how right-wing politicians have recently made things more difficult for the victims. Lastly, illicit drug use other than alcohol is a growing problem among law enforcement officers - especially the use of performance-enhancing athletic drugs like steroids. (See this, this, this, and this.) No comprehensive, liar-proof studies have yet been undertaken to quantify steroid use among cops, but there is a flood of anecdotal evidence. And some authorities have proposed a link between the use of performance-enhancing drugs and aggression or unprovoked rage (AKA "'roid rage"). (Remember that the next time Officer Friendly pulls you over.) Note also the widespread accounts of sexual assaults commited by police. (See this, this and this.)
The police response to the exposure of such symptoms of dysfunction falls into one of two categories. First, there's the attempt to excuse such behavior by protesting that police work is inherently very dangerous, and that police are just reacting to the stress that naturally comes with the job. However, a look at actual statistics reveals a very different story. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Preliminary 2014 Law Enforcement Officer Fatalities Report, there were 126 law enforcement fatalities in the United States in 2014. Of these, 62 fatalities were the direct result of "felonious incidents," while traffic accidents claimed 49 officers. 27 officers died of other causes, including 24 heart attack deaths. However, there are now more than 900,000 sworn police officers in the U.S. You do the math, but when I did, I found that a police officer has less than one chance in 10,000 of being killed by a criminal in the U.S. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not even list police work among the occupations with the highest fatal work injury rates in 2013. So we can't blame dysfunctional policing on the "inherently dangerous and stressful" nature of police work, because there really isn't much danger - especially if a police officer is not a hothead or loose cannon.
The second response to dysfunction is to try to cover it up, to sweep things under a fraternal rug of police secrecy. This is an inherent part of police culture. Many of the links I have cited, including especially the links to scholarly PDF's, document the ways in which secretive, fraternal police culture is a huge impediment to dealing with problems like substance abuse and domestic violence among the police. The very culture which is created to shield police from the repercussions of their actual mission prevent police from being held to account when they harm people outside of their actual mission. The very mindset created to enable police to carry out their actual mission in American society is so powerful that it can't be easily turned off or toned down by police once they are off duty.
What is the actual mission of American police? Again, I will cite M. Scott Peck and People of the Lie. In the chapter titled, "My Lai: An Examination of Group Evil," Peck describes the American soldiers who carried out the 1968 My Lai massacre as a self-selected group of "specialists". They were self-selected in that they were all in Vietnam during a time in which Americans who fought in the Vietnam war were all volunteers. My Lai happened in 1968, over a year and a half before President Nixon instituted the draft in order to supply fresh American combatants to Vietnam. They were specialized in their training and mission, which was to kill and destroy Vietnamese people who did not want America in Vietnam. They were under stress, being in a foreign country many of whose citizens were at best ambivalent toward American involvement, and finding themselves part of a larger military machine which was beginning to suffer serious failures as a result of failing to grasp the realities of the situation on the ground in Vietnam in 1968. Their specialization had been deliberately engineered by their superiors to make them cold-bloodedly destructive, to make them regress to childish reliance on the approval of those superiors, and to insulate them from seeing the larger picture of what they were doing to those human beings targeted as "the enemy" by their superiors.
In this, these soldiers were very much like the typical members of a police force, of whom Peck wrote, "One does not become a policeman by accident. It is only because particular kinds of people want to become policemen that they apply for the job in the first place. A young man of lower-middle-class origins who is both aggressive and conventional, for instance, would be quite likely to seek a position on the force..." Of such specialized groups as volunteer soldiers and police officers, Peck writes, "From these examples, we can discern three general principles...First, the specialized group inevitably develops a group character that is self-reinforcing. Second, specialized groups are...prone to narcissism...Finally, the society at large...employs specific types of people to perform its specialized roles..." One of those specialized roles is to attack those who are different from the idealized image of society at large which is promoted by the leaders of society. For those who differ from that idealized image pose an intolerable threat to that image by their mere existence. Peck says, "Evil ...[is] the use of political power to destroy others for the purpose of defending or preserving one's sick self." That is why police in McKinney, Texas threatened to use deadly force against a pool party of African-American pre-adolescent girls last month. That is why one newly graduated police cadet said that he would have shot the girls had he been present. But if you are reading this and you are not Black or Latino, do you think you're safe? Consider the 70-year old White woman who was slammed face-first into the ground by a Florida policeman. The police in America have turned into one of the outworkings of the damnation of this country.