Police, still, now?
Do police need more crime than already committed? So need to magnify their role? Do they worry prosperity may make them utterly useless?
July 18, 2020
Jeffery J. Smith

Do you prefer the issue du jour in the broader, existential context? Good. Here’s a bigger frame than what the usual media offer …

One thing the police and the public have in common is a worldview of violence and mayhem. As Americans, we have seen tens of thousands of murders as entertainment, starting at age two. We assume our fellow humans are worse than they actually are.

What’s the reality? The FBI and sociologists show violence is at an all time low, that safety has gotten better. Nevertheless, politicians expand police budgets.

We have police not to defend us. Once we’ve been mugged, it’s too late to be defended. Police do not uphold rights. Once the crime has been committed, the victim’s rights have been violated. We have police to catch the bad guys.

Police Psychology

Policing can be dangerous. For some, that’s the appeal. Like any other job, people sign up for the money and because they enjoy the work. Some like to aid victims, others just like to throw their weight around. The best police will tell you violence is their last resort and that they hope to never use it. For others, the street is playground for acting out macho fantasies in a uniform (vs. freelancing as a mugger).

Yes, blue lives matter, like any other color. Where I lived, when a cop was killed, they had huge parades of cop cars, taking over highways, streets, the whole route, snarled up traffic, wasted people’s time and taxes. That money could be better spent healing police public relations.

We the public pay well to guys who otherwise would not go far in the information age when education counts so much. When police complain about being under-appreciated, to my ears they sound immature, defensive. One told me the word “cop is an epithet like nigger”. Guys that thin-skinned dream of pay back—which is not good.

A half century ago in my small town, the police gave their chief a gift every year on his birthday by arresting all the hippies. And he publicly enjoyed the celebration. If police want to be viewed differently, behave differently.

An eye for an eye still rules among police and district attorneys. Their longing to punish overwhelms any interest in justice. Hence many innocents—as proven by DNA—sit on death row and many are executed, making police and DAs guilty of legal murder.

Police Serve One Class?

Throughout all history, everywhere on the planet, the personality that became a cop always defends the status quo—universal cop behavior. A ruling elite could be as heinous as “Communist” China, as apartheid South Africa, as mine owners in West Virginia. It does not matter to the police. The owners and those in power are who the police defend, before the populace could mug them. If only police could vote, I bet pretty soon we’d have a dictatorship.

The elite’s theft is usually legal, via foreclosures, corporate welfare, etc. OTOH, street crime, crime against the person, is visceral, angering. Crime in the suites is not only out of sight, out of mind, but also must pass through so many of layers of underlings that by the time it trickles down to us, it feels normal, the way things are always done.

White collar crime steals far more many billions. And kills far more many people. Not just when a pharmaceutical lobbies and wins approval for a lethal drug and pays no penalty for killing people (oops). But also the pandemic levels of death from pollution. Those crimes the police ignore, even when there is a law on the books.

Solutions to Police Oppression

People by and large are peaceful, not because of police, but because most people prefer harmony and by nature respect each other’s rights. Yet some always mess it up for others. Those we must take care of. For the hard cases, having police does free us from having to wage personal vengeance on wrongdoers. Historically, that development was huge in making societies more peaceful.

Beyond the state’s monopoly on violence to punish criminals, there are proven strategies for preventing crime: (1) Neighborhood Watch. (2) Clean up litter and graffiti. Even (3) architecture makes a difference.

While all are good ideas, public participation should not replace our police “public servants”. Without public police, we’d devolve back to private police. Working for the elite, the hired enforcers defend only the privileges of the status quo.

As part of society at large, police forces, too, have their wrongdoers. When suspending their own, police departments must (4) do so without pay and (5) with loss of pension. Once a police neighbor of mine (whom I partied with on occasion) got suspended for two years and was paid regularly as clockwork. Any lesson learned? Police departments must do a better job of (6) weeding out permanently their few bully personalities.

Even if not environmental standards, there are other laws police should not enforce. For example, (7) instead of using police at evictions, make that a civil dispute—and first use turning off utilities. Like Emma said, police exist to make sure property stays stolen.

The only two times I’ve had someone aim a gun at me was at political events by a guy in uniform who’d sworn to protect and serve me and the rest of the public on display. Do de-politicize, de-militarize for safety’s sake. How do you get guys attracted to bossing around lower classes to shelve their politics when they put on a badge?

(8) Rather than let the police chief pin them at graduation, have the city manager do it. Don’t let the mayor—another political position—do it. That’d spoil the effort to de-politicize the police.

When the state executes an innocent, have (9) the police pension fund compensate the victim’s survivors and (10) charge the District Attorney with manslaughter.

And (11) de-militarize the police. Tanks? Come on. Fighting crime in the streets has no role for war toys.

Most crime that police go after stems from criminalizing drugs. Few police, outside the Police Chief of Baltimore and several others, stand for legalization. (12) Legalize drugs and the danger in policing would be nearly non-existent, as would much street crime.

Veneration of violence is American, and the stuff of gangs and empires. OTOH, Swedish police have disarmed the violent by (13) using words and hugs. Sure, keep force in the mix, but broaden the mix. 

Youngsters are the dominant age group of street criminals, males the predominant gender. Most were throwaway kids (whom I used to teach. Why didn’t you do your homework? Because the television was so loud, on all night, and on the only place to write). Some female teens find self-worth in unwanted pregnancy.

If you want to have as little crime as in Scandinavia, you must have as little a wealth gap as in Scandinavia. You could close it their way or use a way more American, recommended by Jefferson, Tom Paine, Henry George, Martin Luther King, et al. That is, gather up society’s surplus—mainly the annual value of natural resources—and share it, a la Alaska’s oil dividend or Aspen Colorado’s housing assistance, which is financed by the sky high land value in that ritzy ski resort.

With a hefty extra income each month going to everyone, not just the 1% now capturing it, gee, it’d be like an admission ticket to the middle class—all are welcome, everybody into the pool. Receiving rent-shares, families can have dinner together. People won’t have to identify with work, they can identify with play, with their art, their husbandry, with the natural world.

Every other place that eliminated poverty and generated widespread prosperity also shriveled crime. America could, too. Let the police problem precipitate geonomic justice for all members of society.

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.