There’s a slogan: A.C.A.B., or “All Cops Are Bastards”. The premise is, if you’re a good person you don’t join the side of the oppressor. You don’t don jackboots and riot gear. You don’t swing the club, and you don’t launch tear gas.
It’s a good slogan; effective, it’s viscerally appealing. It speaks to us where we live.
And yet it’s wrong. Not completely, as you’ll see, but fundamentally.
Who among us hasn’t been terrified at being pulled over? If someone knocks on the door and it’s the police, do you answer? If you witness something, do you call — knowing that your life is about to get turned upside-down for months, do you do your duty as a citizen?
Most robberies, burglaries, muggings, and so on never get solved. 750,000 people disappear every year in this country; thousands are never found. (More unnerving, there are some 40,000 human remains that remain unidentified.) It’s notoriously difficult to get a conviction for rape or sexual assault. Even bank robberies, with all the manpower that concentrates on each event, have only a 45% conviction rate.
And law enforcement abuses are rampant. Ignore George Floyd and we’re confronted immediately with Breonna Taylor, an EMT shot in her bed during the execution of a “No-Knock Warrant”, a fishing expedition gone wrong because they were using raid tactics on a homeowner, or Duncan Lemp and his innocent widow — shot the same week, but we forget them. During the recent unrest, nearly three hundred incidents of journalists being assaulted have been recorded; two thirds were at the hands of police. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on ICE raids, the DEA, ATF and gunrunning on the Mexican border, deportation camps, and so on. The horror stories never seem to end.
It’s tempting to blame the police. Some city councils are considering plans to cut staff and funding. It’s always easy for politicians to go after funding, but that’s precisely the opposite way to fix systemic problems. If there’s insufficient oversight, establish oversight boards — which costs money. If there’s not enough training, pay more for training. If there are too few officers to solve crimes, add staff.
It’s important to note something: Since the late 1990s, all violent crime has trended down. Officer-involved shootings? Down. Police brutality reports? On the decline. Things are improving, and have been for years.
Improved training has been a benefit, certainly. There’s also far greater oversight than once there was; in addition to dashboard and uniform cameras, the amount of staff devoted to oversight has increased dramatically. And then there’s the all powerful cell phone: At one point, the press would get force-fed updates in regular briefings; now, in addition to that, every pedestrian with a cell also has a camera. When a cop chokes out a prisoner, the video goes across the country in moments.
(One unfortunate caveat to this: Amateurs with cell phones are running about the streets calling themselves reporters. It’s easy to get caught in a tear gas barrage when you don’t have a City Room looking out for you. -Editor)
With all this, one would think both excessive force complaints and the consequent (justified) unrest would be on the decline. One would be… half right.
A cynic will be tempted to look at the recent protests, shrug, and dismiss them with “It’s an election year.” Which does make a difference, sad to say; were it not, mass marches would have begun when Breonna Taylor was shot, not weeks afterward. Somewhere in a board room someone chose not to because that would have underlined an unpopular cause. Rather than the automatic us-versus-them situation from George Floyd, we’d have at best opened up a national debate over the validity of the War On Drugs — and that might well cost the Democrats the election.
The trouble is, ending the War On Drugs is exactly the conversation we ought to be having right now.
There’s a single reason the police are militarized, overworked, understaffed, and poorly trained. There’s one core problem at the root of racial profiling, the stop-and-frisk policy, and what’s presently seen as institutional racism. It’s the War On Drugs.
Nine out of ten prisoners are imprisoned because of the War On Drugs. Trillions of dollars have been spent on it. There are regular gunfights along the Texas border; thousands of people get killed. And yet despite all our efforts drug use is actually going up. What we’ve been doing quite clearly doesn’t work.
What we have accomplished, however, is to devote half our municipal police force to anti-drug efforts, which reduces personnel available for burglaries and muggings. We’ve created elite raiding teams that, among other things, managed to shoot and kill Breonna Taylor. In her bed.
Worst of all, we’ve created an institutional mentality in our police forces that it’s Us Versus Them — and the Them is all the rest of us. We look at someone and say, accountant, or lawyer, or clearly a computer geek. Cops look at us and figure what we’re guilty of: Habitual speeding. Drugs. Parking violations. Drugs. Sexual predator. Drugs. Violent. Drugs.
I don’t have a magical solution to our society’s drug problem. What I can tell you, though, is that the police are quite evidently the wrong group of people to address it.
If you were looking for a highly effective anti-drug policy, you need look no further than Duterte’s Philippines. Prompted by pressure from the United States and a desire to consolidate power, their government has been running a truly brutal crackdown for some years now, and has done so successfully. When a summary death sentence for possession is rendered in the street and without trial, it drastically reduces the number of residents willing to break the law.
This is not a solution that would be acceptable in this country. It’s worse than the problem. And the half-measures we’ve taken, at inordinate expense and even greater social cost are woefully, ludicrously ineffective.
What does the War On Drugs have to do with racism? you ask. It’s pretty simple: The poor use more drugs than those with steady jobs. Fewer black and brown people than white inherit fortunes from their parents, so even if all else were equal (it’s not), black people are as a rule poorer than white. Their homes are less stable; their education as a consequence is shorter; their opportunities are less.
Moreover, dealing, distribution, and enforcement are the only well-paid jobs in the inner cities, so there’s little wonder our poorest are attracted to the industry — one that pays well over a hundred billion dollars per year. The end product is a large, undisciplined, heavily armed criminal force that stands in opposition to law enforcement — and it’s mostly non-white. Small wonder, then, that police officers tend toward racial bias over time no matter how unbiased they were to begin with. After twenty years on the force, it’s a rare officer indeed who wouldn’t be more than a little cynical, beaten up, burned out, and traumatized beyond salvage.
I’m not looking to invite your pity here. Some cops are horrible people; some are normal who give into temptation; some stay decent and unstained. It’s to our advantage to weed out the first group, reduce opportunities for the second to happen, and identify and address those causes which turn good people bad. Protesters are looking for systemic change; this is the systemic change they’re looking for, only they don’t seem to realize it.
Here’s the key: The police did not invent the War On Drugs.
That’s the politicians we elected, the platforms we voted for. After the 1968 riots in the wake of King’s assassination, an authoritarian president was chosen and Tough On Crime policies enacted around the country. People were afraid, and they reacted poorly — and for the next fifty years it’s cost us.
At this point in our history, we’re presented with a similar choice. Contrary to perception, it’s not along party lines. Biden’s been far more active in pursuit of Tough On Crime than Trump, though neither is a sterling champion of liberty. Both want to increase funding to the drug war. Biden’s poor grasp of how rubber bullets work led to his famous statement that police should be trained to shoot people in the legs. Trump called on prison guards and the 82nd Airborne to guard the Capitol.
But for Congress, there are good people running on both sides of the aisle. Some of them are in favor of judicial reform. If we pressure them, more will be. Some, particularly Democrats but also Republicans, are in favor of ending the War On Drugs. Find out who is in your district and support that person. Make it your only issue this election. And it’s even more important in local races; after all, it’s mayors and councils that pass those local ordinances that end up putting police on the streets and enforcing curfews.
After 1968, there was a massive popular counter-reaction to the riots. Don’t let that happen again.
Because if it does, it won’t be the cops that are to blame. It won’t even be the politicians; they’ll only be doing the jobs we mandated for them. As always, it’ll be the fault of the voters — the ones who pick the party line without checking, the people who show up every four years without doing their research, the ones that react instinctively instead of wisely, people who never ever call their congressmen and complain. The ones who vote Tough On Crime.
It ain’t the cops that are the real bastards here. It’s you.
Apologies to those of irregular parentage who may be offended by the language. I couldn’t come up with another way to say this that has the same impact. Lord knows I tried, but… I didn’t come up with the A.C.A.B. slogan; makes it tough. Anyway — I want to apologize. That I couldn’t do better doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have.