Continued police brutality is actually predictable

Eric Garland Government Trends Leave a Comment

After Ferguson, it would be easy to think that police departments around America would be on notice to radically improve performance and to bring their every action in line with the rule of law. After all, the events of 2014 were a national embarrassment which has led to federal investigations, a stream of lawsuits, and a new social movement that stretches from coast to coast. Instead, we have seen an intensification of police brutality, defensiveness instead of transparency, and complicit members of the justice system who seem to be making things actively worse. While this seems counter-intuitive, it makes perfect sense when you consider how people in a hierarchical society react to a potential lowering of their status.

The police – who I remind you are just one more civil service in a democratic society, along with the post office, waste removal, and road crews – have been given an elevated position in society, particularly in the years since the tumultuous 1960s. Following the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement and the inception of the drug war, there has been a concentrated effort, both legal and cultural, to place the police in a particularly revered, preferential position in society. I was not, until recently, aware of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, passed in a variety of states, which takes the existing laws around police brutality and provides ample exceptions. While one set of laws makes it very clear when and how the police are allowed to use deadly force on citizens, the LEOBR provides a series of exceptions, as well as constraints on the investigation of abuses – constraints that go far beyond what happens when regular citizens are investigated for breaking laws.

Culturally, the last several decades have featured an unprecedented enshrinement of law enforcement officers as heroes, constantly saving Real America from the forces of evil who exist just outside of the gates of civilization. Drugs and drug gangs and poor neighborhoods all feature prominently in their morality tales. As a child of the 1970s, I am just now realizing that if you look at culture around the world it was an exception, not the rule, to have so many programs centered on police confronting the general populace.

When I discovered the dates of when the LEOBR was passed around the country, it made much more sense. These were an artifact of the 1970s, produced just after the worst abuses of police brutality during the Civil Rights Movement, and just as the police would be the tip of the spear in the coming Drug War which would be waged – coincidentally? – in exactly the same neighborhoods where there were protests.

Fast-forward to 2015. Violent crime is half of what it was in 1990. The drug war is a catastrophic failure, monstrously expensive and unforgivably corrosive to society while doing absolutely nothing to keep Americans – like all people – from wanting to get high on various chemicals.

(Fun fact: the U.S. is 4% of the world’s population and uses 75% of its prescription painkillers…discuss!)

Economic inequity is far worse that it was in the 1970s, when economic expansion was still happening and labor had not yet been traded in for cheap, Chinese replacements. The Ferguson DOJ report shows a microcosm of how the state has been fleecing untold millions from poor, working citizens under the ludicrous pretext of the scourge of unpaid parking tickets. And stories of lawlessness and abuse are floating to the surface of the national consciousness, lying face up on the chests of dead bodies.

The hero myth around American police, so carefully constructed in past decades, is collapsing under the weight of harsh reality. The number of incarcerated Americans is not compatible with our belief in exceptionalism, being “the best country.” Shooting unarmed citizens in the back is not compatible with our decades of lecturing other nations about human rights. Private prisons are not compatible with democratic values. And the glaring legal exceptions and loopholes for police to avoid accountability for the most serious possible failures is no longer compatible with a justice system that purports to represent the rule of law.

In short, the police are about to take a step down in social status. It makes sense, really. Why would you want to accept a reduction in status? If you think in terms of ingroup-outgroup, naturally you intensify your fight when threatened. Psychologically, in terms of group dynamics, it is predictable. It is also, nevertheless, unacceptable. To maintain the integrity of society, the police are going to receive some fraction of the scrutiny my neighbors receive for having a tail light burned out on their automobile. They are going to have to return to the status of civil servant, not that of Heroic Guardian of Civilization, and answer to constraints just like our doctors and teachers and all the other professions that, like law enforcement, make life livable.

It is often said that America is an “adolescent” nation. The comparison fits, as young people are more prone to mythology. This culture is growing up. It is time to place our myths behind us, to grow up and think more clearly about a complex world.