Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |
Michael Bettencourt

To Police


January 2015

The protests sparked in New York by the non-indictments in Ferguson, MO, and the borough of Staten Island of white police officers for killing black men has sparked an equal barrage of pundit-gab about the need for the police to regain the trust of the communities that they serve and protect.


Many years ago I worked in a weekend degree program in human services at New Hampshire College.  Because we were approved by Massachusetts for their Quinn Bill, which gave police officers raises in exchange for earning academic degrees, we had a lot of police officers in our program.


The program, however, had a very leftist twist to it: we taught that human services were delivered to keep the lid on poor people asking more from a system that exploited and debased them, and the police (along with social workers and the psychological regime) were the hands hired to enforce the existing power arrangements.


Our goal was to present to everyone in the program alternate views of received truths and conventional wisdoms in the context of power relationships among the people who made up their individual commonwealths.


The mouthings by officials and others about "trust" and "police" and "communities" made me think back to the lively discussions we had in our classes about these very issues.  Here are some of the things that came up when police and social workers and others in human services debated who they were and what roles they played in the world in which they earned their daily bread.


They agreed in general that the role of the police officer in an American urban setting was an impossible job if the police did not make clear to themselves who were the prime beneficiaries of their duty to "serve and protect."  What they had to do for themselves was to answer the question "to serve and protect whom and what?"


And that answer was not a clear one, because the "whom and what" had multiple choices.  Sometimes these choices ran in parallel, sometimes they butted head-to-head, and sometimes they had no organic connection at all.  For instance, if a crowd is protesting what they feel is an unjust court decision – that is, exercising their constitutional right to speak to their governors – is it the duty of the police to support that right and allow people to march and speak or is it their duty to break up the protest in the name of "security" (often a proxy term for protecting property)?


But while these discussions about conundrums were interesting, we wanted them to dig into the fundamentals underneath the incompatibilities.  For instance, who are the "police": street officers and their superintendents or the whole edifice dedicated to "policing" society, called the "law" (which is not synonymous with "justice")?  Do beat police really have a "duty" or is that just a dignified-sounded word covering up a dirtier reality?  Is it reasonable to expect people to trust others who have guns and can kill them without provocation?  What is crime?  Why do we even need something called "the police" (and what are the human-nature assumptions underlying policing)?  What are assumptions that feed the idea of the "thin blue line"?


And so on and so on.


Thinking back on those hours and reflecting upon present realities, here is where my thoughts have ended up at the moment.


In the program I felt compassion for the double-bind of the jobs the police had.  They were asked to do social-worker kinds of stuff in order to better understand the people on which they would ultimately would have to use force.  They were asked to be empathetic and brutal at the same time, and they were asked to be split-visioned, with one eye on their immediate territory and one eye on the political volcano scaled by their bosses and their bosses' bosses.  In that situation, "serve" and "protect" were not useful guides and only added to the confusion of their role.


I think we need to give the police a break and make their thankless and dangerous jobs clearer and simpler.  Let's name them the enforcers that they are and not muddle things by calling them public servants.  Their job is to enforce a particular vision of social and political order which gives property rights primacy (along with the political and social structures that come with property rights).


In addition, this order should be premised on the idea that humans are imperfect creatures prone to sin often and that they need the strong hand of an impartial law to keep them in line.


When the people march in protest of this or that, the police's job is to channel the protests in a prescribed manner and anyone who strays outside the lines will be restrained and arrested.  This can be done much less brutally and cynically than the way the NYPD does it, but it would be a difference of degree, not kind. It is not their job to make sure constitutional rights are protected but to enforce public order, and this would be broadcast far and wide so that the people protesting know that the police officers will not be their friends.


In the communities they patrol, their job is to instill a healthy degree of fear of the power they wield.  This doesn't have to employ the "quality of life" harassments that the NYPD uses to bump up arrest stats (since they only inspire dismay and resistance, not fear), but, again, a difference of degree, not kind. They don't have to act as the enemies of the people but as the impartial enforcers of the law, which has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with public order.


It will also make their jobs easier if they instill this fear in every community, not just the poor and black/brown ones. Folks in the nice reaches of the Upper East Side should also know that they will not catch a break from the enforcers. Imposing the social and political order of property rights doesn't mean that individual members of that club get a pass.


They also need better training on how to be effective negotiators in and defusers of volatile situations, and they need better weapons for incapacitating people when their mediations don't work.


Everyone will be better served, so to speak, if the law is applied with equal severity to everyone.  That will do more to inspire trust in the system than anything else, the knowledge that we are equal before the law and that the law, through well-funded public defenders offices and courtrooms that move along rapidly and a reduction of the "plea bargain" option and alternatives to incarceration and so on, will be applied efficiently and painfully to everyone who deserves punishment.


What is the citizen's relationship with the police? It should not be "the policeman is your friend."  They are to be feared and avoided, people with guns hired to keep the peace.


It would also be helpful to the police if they had to police less.  Wherever possible, the state should help communities build civic institutions that deal with the public-order conditions in their communities.  In this way the police are not called in for every disturbance and expected to keep a peace that the people within the community should have a hand in keeping for themselves.  It would also dilute the mistaken creed that the "thin blue line" is all that keeps society from barbarism.


A useful analogy here might be the military (given how militarized police departments are becoming), specifically how an authoritarian institution operates in a democracy.  Our soldiers are "hired," so to speak, to enforce American policy wherever their bosses tell them to go.  They are not a "people's army," they are a standing army owned and operated by the American government which is expected to keep out of political involvement (because their institution has no organic connection to or roots in the democratic process).


The police should occupy the same position in the society (in part because they are already partly there: they've taken on the military custom of rank names and uniforms, and their training is military-like). They are hired enforcers, not expected to be part of the democratic process, not expected to be "of the people," deployed by their superiors to defend that day's vision of public order, and as impartial as humanly possible in deciding who gets the baton or the Taser or the bullet.


Like the military, service in the force would be limited to twenty years.  (A certain number of people would be allowed to stay in for 30 years in order to provide upper-level management but that would have to be by some process of application and review, not just from automatic promotion.  And they would be retired at the end of their tenure.)  It is best to cycle people out of this kind of work so that they don't harden ideologically and can go on to do other things in their lives that can still provide service, if that's what they want to do.


We can still have our heroes in this configuration, we can still give our heart-felt thanks to these people who have been asked to do an impossible and thankless task.  But they are not our friends, and they are not our servants.  This set-up would not be pleasant, but it would hardly be less pleasant than what we currently have, where one side of the politician's mouth voices "we need to re-build trust" while the other side issues the commands that send the police into the streets to enforce an unequal and destructive public order.


I don't see how it can work any other way.

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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