Law enforcement’s primary tactic for deflecting criticism and resisting reform made a recent appearance when City Council debated whether to temporarily halt Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s purchase of chemical weapons.
While expressing support for CMPD’s right to continue gassing his own constituents, one councilman read a letter signed by the spouses of hundreds of officers, lamenting what they perceive as critics’ unfair targeting of them and their loved ones.
The letter’s signatories want us to think of cops not as uniformed agents of the state armed with a license to arrest and kill, which is the role they play in citizens’ lives, but as husbands and fathers and sons. Apologists for the police hope that if we think of law enforcement officers this way — that is, as individuals just like you and me — we might hesitate to criticize the department, which will allow CMPD to better resist reform.
This tactic is the same one used by the department when it offers ride- alongs and Coffee with a Cop. It’s why CMPD posts social-media videos of African-American officers speaking emotionally about George Floyd’s death. It’s why cops are showcased in local media playing flag football with community members. It’s why CMPD spouses are trotted out for interviews on television news broadcasts.
Police want the conversation to be about individual officers, not the culture that’s developed in departments across America.
This is a potentially disarming, and effective, public relations strategy. That’s why we need to confront and defuse it.
Police officers obviously play family roles in their families’ lives, and many cops are surely the kind of people we would want as friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
From this unremarkable fact comes the myth of the bad cop. That bad cops exist is not a myth. They obviously do. That Derek Chauvin could so coolly and calmly snuff out George Floyd’s life is all that’s necessary to prove that bad cops are out there.
Rather, the myth is that bad cops are bad because they’re bad people.
If we think of police reform as being primarily about ridding ourselves of malignant individuals, we’re missing the mark. To understand why, look not to Chauvin, but to his fellow officer, Tou Thao.
As Chauvin killed Floyd, Thao just stood there. Onlookers knew Floyd was in distress. Surely Thao did, too. A calmly uttered word in Chauvin’s ear or a light tap on his shoulder may have been enough to save a man’s life, but Thao couldn’t be bothered.
Throughout Floyd’s murder, Thao’s body language suggested not sociopathy, but apathy. His affect suggested not evil, but boredom. In other words, there was little sign of individual, personal malice, but as an on-duty police officer, he nonetheless chose to participate in slaughter.
That’s because the problem isn’t bad people who become cops, but policing itself as currently conceived, that constellation of attitudes, customs, norms, and beliefs that animates the police as an institution and serves as the backdrop and motivator for the actions, and inactions, of individual officers.
In an institution where violence is the currency, where members of the department deploy weapons of war, violence will be the natural mechanism of exchange between them and the people.
When the “thin blue line” teaches that loyalty to other officers is the highest good, loyalty will be honored — even in the face of an agonizing public execution.
When police view the people as separate and apart from them, as so many targets that need to be neutralized, brutality and savagery will follow just as surely as it follows the deployment of soldiers abroad.
These sorts of lessons, whether unspoken or express, set the institutional parameters and incentives for cops’ behavior, prompting them to do things as police officers they wouldn’t consider doing as husbands, fathers, or sons.
The public relations flacks in departments across America, including CMPD, seek to distract us from this truth by making the narrative one of personalities: lots of good guys, with just a few bad guys causing trouble.
This narrative is alluring because we Americans naturally think in terms of individuals, not institutions, but if we accept it, reform shall be defeated, easily overwhelmed by the never- ending supply of feel-good stories the police can tell us about themselves as husbands, fathers, and sons, as friends, neighbors, and co-workers — indeed, even as police officers. These stories will convince the public that there is no police problem that requires addressing. How could there be when such fine people fill the ranks?
Proponents of change must seek different ground, reject the effort to make police reform a question of personalities, and insist that stories about the goodness of individual officers simply don’t matter.
Instead, what matters is that police departments across America, as institutions, have taken a hostile posture toward the people, especially people of color, that there is today a sickness within policing itself that too often encourages good people to behave as bad cops when they put on the uniform and report for duty.
(This piece was originally published in July 2020. It is reproduced here as a preview of the kind of work to come.)