By Will Falk
Bad is getting worse with the San Diego Police Department.
New allegations surfaced over the weekend that yet another San Diego Police officer has been sexually abusing women while on duty.
Then, the Austin, TX police chief hinted at problems with the SDPD when he insinuated that a 24 year-old jogger who was detained for failing to properly yield her identification was lucky arresting officers did not sexually assault her.
People everywhere in San Diego are asking with shock in their voices, “What is going on with the police?”
Now, I am very glad that people are outraged about the SDPD. Outrage is one proper response to the pattern of abuses we are seeing here and it is critical we turn this anger into action.
We must also understand that we should not be surprised by what is going on.
No one should be surprised because this is what the police do. No one should be surprised because this is what the police were created to do. No one should be surprised because members of oppressed classes ever since the creation of the police have been jumping up and down screaming that this is what the police do.
This is Nothing New
Former New School for Social Research Anthropology Department Chair Stanley Diamond opened his book In Search of the Primitive with a line that sums it all up, “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.”
It is often easy for us to see the armies of occupation that are necessary to hold up colonialism around the world. We wouldn’t hesitate to criticize the American army in Viet Nam, for example, as an army of conquest abroad. But it seems we find it very difficult to see the ways the police exist to repress us here at home.
I must be clear. Yes, sometimes the police do help us. They direct traffic, they get kittens down from trees, and sometimes they even investigate crimes. But, this is not the main function of the police.
To believe otherwise is to believe in lies told to us by people like former Police Chief Bill Lansdowne when they claim that more ethics training and reviews of use of force policies will keep the police from oppressing us.
To believe otherwise is to believe in lies like the idea that an independent audit, court-appointed supervision, or even police body-cameras will save us from repression at home.
We must understand that all solutions will prove inadequate if they do not account for the failures of the culture underlying the functions of the police.
What kind of culture do we live in? We live in one that oppresses women, indigenous peoples, Africans, Asians, and Chican@s. We live in one that is systematically destroying the natural world.
My analysis is radical, but it is the only analysis that arms us to see through the lies. Derrick Jensen wrote about his own awakening as a young man to the lies this culture tells us in his beautiful book, A Language Older Than Words, “Like the layers of an onion, under the first lie is another, and under that another, and they all make you cry.”
Let’s start peeling back the layers of the onion. You may cry. That is good. It will be even better if you turn the emotion into action.
The Creation of the Police
Most scholars identify the creation of the London Metropolitan Police on September 29, 1829 by conservative Home Secretary of England Sir Robert Peel as the birth of the first modern police force.
North Dakota State University’s Carol A. Archbold writes in Policing: A Text/Reader that Peel had the “goal of creating a police force to manage the social conflict resulting from rapid urbanization and industrialization taking place in the city of London.”
It would be one thing if the rapid urbanization and industrialization that occurred in London was a purely accidental phenomenon, but that was not the case. The creation of the London Metropolitan Police was a response to the influx of rural English peasants who lost their ability to support themselves through the passage of a series of Parliamentary Acts called the Enclosure Acts.
And what were the Enclosure Acts? Author Wendy McElroy writes, “The British Enclosure Acts removed the prior rights of local people to rural land they had often used for generations. As compensation, the displaced people were commonly offered alternative land of smaller scope and inferior quality, sometimes with no access to water or wood.”
This spelled disaster for England’s poor who were forced to immigrate to cities to find work. As historians J.L. and Barbara Hammond explain in The Village Labourer 1760-1832 (1911), “The enclosures created a new organization of classes. The peasant with rights and a status, with a share in the fortunes and government of his village, standing in rags, but standing on his feet, makes way for the laborer with no corporate rights to defend, no corporate power to invoke, no property to cherish, no ambition to pursue, bent beneath the fear of his masters, and the weight of a future without hope.”
So, with a strong hand, the English government forced the working poor off their rural land only to greet them in cities with the first modern police force designed to keep the working poor in line.
But, of course, that was in England and here we are in the United States of America. Part of being American, it seems, is consistently recognizing the corruption in England – that’s part of the reason why we fought the American Revolution, right? – while ignoring the hypocrisy in our own lands.
Well, the history of policing in the United States may have an even darker history. Noted police historian Samuel Walker has identified slave patrols, emerging in the early 1700s, as the first publicly funded police agencies in the American South. Archbold explains that these patrols (or paddy-rollers as they were called) were “created with the specific intent of maintaining control over slave populations.” Archbold cites Sally Hadden to identify three major duties placed on slave patrols: searches of slave lodges, keeping slaves off of roadways, and disassembling meetings organized by groups of slaves.
Do searches of slave lodges not remind you of the steady dissolution of 4th Amendment protections we’ve seen in this country over the last 50 years? When you imagine white men on horses with whips and pistols busting up slave gatherings do you not also hear Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young singing about the 4 dead at Kent State in Ohio?
Earlier I wrote that the police were not created to direct traffic or to remove kittens from trees. It is clear, that from the outset, the police serve to protect those in power. In England, those in power needed protection from outraged English peasants and in the United States they needed protection from slaves.
The Police Now
When speaking with members of oppressed groups, I rarely have to say anything more than “the police” and I’m met with a curse or grunt.
There are statistical reasons for these curses and grunts, of course. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, three of four men in prison are non-white or Latino. And Michelle Alexander, former director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California and associate professor of law at Ohio State University, writes that there are more black men in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850.
Many people who know these statistics explain them away as the unfortunate result of poverty, unequal educational opportunities, and some undiagnosed, mostly unconscious racism on the part of police officers, prosecutors, and judges. But, it’s not just oppressed people telling us how bad the police are, scholars are telling us that the racism is structural, institutional, and – most importantly – intentional. Alexander writes, in her brilliant book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”
One reaction I get – mainly from members of privileged groups – goes something like this, “Police are humans, too. Some are bad, but most are good.” This is the same rationale found in newspaper headlines that work to distance officers like Anthony Arevalos from the rest of Officers Friendly with terms like “rogue cop” and “bad apple.”
There probably are police who put on the blue and try to remain human as police officers, but in reality – in the actual day-to-day work that a police officer is required to do to keep his or her job – the officer is reduced to performing as the steel tip of the spear wielded by the machine that is the so-called criminal justice system.
Another way to look at this is to ask the police themselves what their role is. The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) uses a publication called “Becoming an Exemplary Peace Officer: The Guide to Ethical Decision Making” during police officers’ basic academy training.
Under a heading titled “The Police Role” police officers are taught, “Police agencies arrest suspects, but the district attorney decides what criminal charges will be filed, if any. The courts (usually with the help of juries) determine guilt or innocence and, except in capital cases, the sentence. The legislature makes laws, which create new crimes or new regulations that affect the way you do your job.”
This is important because at their most basic and in their own words the police function to make arrests. They do not ask if criminal charges will be filed. They do not ask about guilt or innocence. They respond to the laws made by the legislature. In short, a police officer acts as the automaton for the legislature.
It’s also interesting, here, that the traditional role assigned to the police – to protect and serve – is not mentioned until after this straightforward summation of a police officer’s role. A police officer functions first and foremost to makes arrests.
If the legislature mandates that slavery is legal and anyone harboring slaves is a criminal, then the police officer has to arrest people suspected of harboring slaves. Or, if the legislature says its illegal to take the private property another, and a starving person is suspected of taking food from Walmart, the police officer must arrest that person.
Proper Treatment Requires Proper Diagnosis
Doctors often say that the proper treatment requires the proper diagnosis. If we are going to change the culture of the SDPD in any meaningful way, we must properly diagnose the illness.
My diagnosis is that the SDPD is a fundamentally flawed organization operating within a fundamentally flawed culture. It’s not that the SDPD is unique, either. All police departments as the domestic arm of a colonial government’s oppressive impulse are fundamentally flawed organizations.
I tried to answer what it is that the police do. The police protect Walmart from starving mothers of starving children. The police protect slave owners from property loss. The police protect the occupiers of stolen lands from those who resist the occupation. In short, the police protect those in power.
We’ve seen the way the police are oppressing women in San Diego and around the country. We’ve seen the way police have oppressed racial minorities and the poor for centuries. If we’re going to effectively combat this oppression we must combat the culture underlying the oppression. And this culture, as Diamond said, is based on conquest and repression.
Challenging this culture is no small task, but it must be done. What I am calling for is nothing less than radicalism. But radicalism is, as Angela Davis told us, nothing more than grasping things at their roots.
The police are poisonous fruit from a poisonous tree. To get rid of the poisonous fruit, we must uproot the poisonous tree.