Discriminatory or Wanton Police Violence is Dangerous

To the Police

Note: I was planning this post for a few days, but in light of the despicable murder of two police officers in New York I feel that a caveat is in order. Violence is only justified in terms of self-preservation or protection of the innocent. And this only if no other options are available. Anger. Revenge. The target had it coming. Or, as a friend of mine once commented on social media, “it’s better to be tried by nine than carried by six.” These are not legitimate excuses for violence any more than is “he reminded me of Hulk Hogan and I was scared” or “a black teen in a hoodie must be up to no good”. The man who killed two police officers in New York yesterday, a man whom I speculate will be revealed as deeply troubled, is not in any way justified in his actions. Any future assaults on police, and I fear that there will be, are criminal acts. Period. They are not a legitimate form of resistance to police exploitation or discrimination. The following post should be read as a sociological analysis and a reason to solve the dissonance and anomie that exists between many police departments around the country and the communities that they serve. It is not a call to justify violence.

Max Weber defined the state as the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force against a defined group of people. The police are the ultimate manifestation of this monopoly. It is the police who are assigned the task to actually perform the violence required by the state to assert external social control. For instance, if an average guy on the street approaches you, tells you to lean against a wall and then attempts to put you in hand-cuffs, you are probably going to resist. You are going to defend yourself. Whoever this person is, if you do not perceive that they have a legitimate claim to assert force over you, you are justified in defending yourself.

However, if that person has a badge, identifies himself as a police officer, even if you believe that you have done nothing wrong, you will probably submit and allow the officer to cuff you. In most cases, if you feel that there has been some mistake, you know that there are protections for you, so your life is not in danger. There are in place legitimate protections for your rights and a means of redressing any errors that might have been made. We are, for the most part, not in a Kafkaesque world in which one is guilty just by virtue of being arrested.

This legitimacy, in modern society, is predicated on a concept of the social contract that was born three hundred years ago and elaborated by highly regarded founders of modern thought, like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. We no longer talk much about this social contract and what it means, but it is implicit in our understanding of state legitimacy, and consequently in the legitimacy of state actions.

It is clear from the description above that this legitimacy is pretty tenuous. After all, what is the real difference between someone with a badge and someone without? Why is one perceived as a threat which must be fended off, while the other is seen as a valid agent of power, even violent power? That shroud of legitimacy isn’t very thick, and in many communities it is tattered and gossamer thin.

There is a certain amount of flexibility in the system. Communities do account for human error. We recognize that there will be times when violence, even deadly violence will be used inappropriately, be it maliciously or unintentionally. After all, the actors of the state are humans, subject to human error, misjudgment and frailty. When such incidents occur, there is outrage, but that outrage can be addressed and the social contract renegotiated.

However, when there is a clear pattern of long term and systemic exploitation of this social contract, when it is clear that power has corrupted the very agents responsible for its exercise, the legitimacy of the state as an institution is called into question. Racially segregated systems, such as the police force in Ferguson, or inherently exploitative policies such as ‘stop-and-frisk’ in New York will, without redress, undermine the understood legitimacy between the state and people. Patterns of abuse will manifest in the citizen as an expectation of abuse. Then, when asked to lean against the wall and put my hands on my head, I may feel that I am threatened, that my life is in danger. That this exercise of power is not legitimate. I may be inclined to fight, to defend myself or my family as is my right. The authority invested in the badge is validated by the legitimate exercise of state power. Once that legitimacy falls, the badge is nothing more than a thin piece of metal, and the holder is no more subject to deference than anyone else on the street.

That’s why it’s incumbent on the police and on the state to protect that legitimacy. Being a police officer is difficult enough. Without this shroud of legitimacy, policing becomes impossible regardless of how devoted and altruistic the motives of the officer. We must understand that the relationship between the community and the police is an ongoing negotiation. Without open negotiation and a fair and just process for redressing grievances, this negotiation must become adversarial. Adversarial interactions ultimately take on an in-group/out-group manifestation. Each side becomes socialized to believe that it is “us against them,” and consequently, each side entrenches itself for conflict. Interactions become increasingly adversarial, and, consistent with the Thomas Theorem, this contentious relationship shapes and reproduces future conflicts. This is known as a conflict cycle.

We see this in black families who feel obligated to teach their children, especially their boys, how to “survive” an encounter with the police. Clearly the social contract has broken down. Re-establishing that social contract must be the priority of activists and police forces alike. That being said, police, being the representatives of the state and state power, are charged with the responsibility to take the lead in these negotiations. The police represent the state when they pick up their badges and don their uniforms. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the police to serve the community, not to oppress it, regardless of the circumstances, to preserve the validity of the relationship. If that shroud is torn, it is the state’s responsibility to start the mending process.

Added: That’s why I was deeply disturbed when I read the response from the head of New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, in response to the shooting. “There’s blood on many hands tonight—those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protests, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Comments like this only build walls between the police and the community. More walls are not needed. More doors are needed.

The community counts on the police for protection. The police require the legitimacy of their station as public servants licensed to do violence under very specific circumstances. When that relationship breaks down, as it has in communities all over the country, then both the community and the police are in danger. A state of anomie exists that can be exploited by the unscrupulous both at the community level, the police level and the level of the state. This is the nature of the protests (there is no “guise.” There is legitimate outcry against abuse). Those who believe that this crisis is over Mike Brown or Eric Garner or any of the hundreds, even thousands of victims (not all of whom have died) of police exploitation and abuse, misunderstand the nature of this issue. This is about delegitimizing patterns of systemic exploitation and corruption.

The fact is that the tenuous legitimacy of the police as a valid representation of state authority has been undermined by years, sometimes generations, of abuse. The killings of unarmed black suspects are only the clearest manifestations of that abuse. The increasingly militarized precincts throughout the nation represent further entrenchment and greater dissonance between the police and the communities they serve. Added: If there’s blood on anyone’s hands, it’s on the hands of those like Patrick Lynch who perpetuate an ongoing conflict cycle. It’s on the hands of those who profit from and exploit this dissonance, be it looters or weapons dealers.

It is clear that this breakdown of the social contract is dangerous to members of the community. However, it is also dangerous to the police—even to the great majority of officers who conscientiously serve.


Addendum: Condolences to the family and loved ones of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

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