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Police violence redux

May 4th, 2015 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article

It’s a tad frustrating that the commentaries are on a path toward insight, but never actually arrive there. We have been presented with three dominant commentaries that claim to explain why the police engage in violent acts against the citizens they are charged to protect.  The most common of these commentaries is one that asserts that these acts are acts performed by a few “bad apples.”  The claim is generally accompanied by the obligatory modifier that the majority of police (often stated as 99.9 percent) behave in an exemplary fashion. This narrative is held by the majority of Americans and by a broad spectrum of public figures including the likes of Fox News, Hillary Clinton, and it was even suggested by Marilyn Mosby in her indictment announcement.  The second commentary is one that calls for police and legal reform, albeit in a somewhat surface fashion.  It sometimes is expressed as bolstering the legal accountability for police behavior or, alternatively, calls for a prophylaxis, like the use of body cameras. This narrative is typical held by the reformer, usually on the left.  The third, views the police as a criminal organization.  It is expressed as an us vs. them narrative (community vs. police). This narrative is common within the populations that experience the consequences of violent police behavior.  It is common enough, but heard less than the other two, since it is held by those with less of a public voice.

All three commentaries are driven by two of the defining characteristics of the grand narratives that we, as Americans, hold.  Grand narratives are the background narratives that takes residence in the back of our consciousness and provides the frames and starting points for the positions which we hold .  They are the stories that describe what it is to be human, what social life is and should be, and, more generally, the definition of the world in which we live.  There are a variety of grand narratives that are commonly held by Americans, but nearly all are shaped by two defining features. These two features are the ones that these three commentaries share.

The first of these two features suggests that behavior is determined solely by human agency.  That is, actions of individuals are actions taken by them as individuals and completely of their own devices and will.  In other words, it comes from within them and is completely of their own will, control, and rational choice.  The second feature is that there is a propensity to evaluate behaviors  through a moral lens. This is manifest by considering an evaluation of behavior with the idea that some acts are morally good and some are bad and, concomitantly, some people are generally good and some are bad.  Since this is the starting point in the attempt to explain and understand behavior, it largely defines the final  understanding and description of the behavior in question.  All three commentaries about the police include these two components in their attempt to understand and describe.

The time has come for us to bracket these two limiting aspects of our method and begin a journey toward a more open and deeper understanding of human behavior. An understanding in which we are aware of our preconceptions and remove them from the frames of our understanding.  In so doing, ameliorative efforts based on the resulting narrative will be more effective and sustainable.  Let’s bracket these two preconceptions and take a look at the situation with respect to the police.

In a general sense, there are two things that are troubling most of us about the police.  The first and most obvious is the violence.  The second is the lack of transparency regarding questionable behavior and the manner in which the police hunker down and protect one another from critical and probing questions originating from the world outside the police department.  The best way to understand the existence of both is to consider the manner in which police culture emerges.  In so doing, it will become apparent that the existence of both behavioral sets are not unique to the police but exist in many organizations, especially those that exist in the presence of external danger.  This type of understanding will also reveal that such behavioral sets are functional to the growth, integrity, and maintenance of the organizations.

From the inside of police culture, defining the world in an us vs. them fashion helps simplify the police mission and provides the implicit protocols that contribute to thwarting the danger that may come to policemen in executing their jobs.  This simplified “definition of the situation” naturally emerges within institutions that face resistance from the outside or, in the case of the police, a constant threat of physical danger.  It is also characteristic of social movements including the gender equality movement, the racial equality movement,  and many others.  Likewise, it is also characteristic of other organizations that face external physical threats such as the military.  For emergent social movements, those that do not develop this cultural stance are much more likely to dissipate or fail to grow.  A complementary language is intrinsic to the cultural stance and helps support it.  For social movements, it has hard to motivate movement participants to engage if the mission is defined in a complex and analytical manner, but it is much easier when the mission is framed using an enemy as the target. For organizations which are already well organized and whose existence is not in question, like the police and military, the stance helps motivate those inside the organization and provides a source of control and stability for their actions.

With respect to the police, the existence of this element of police culture increases the possibility of police violence against the community.  This can happen if other cultural definitions become conflated with the basic cultural stance, most commonly stereotypical ethnic or class definitions.  Violence is less likely to occur if only ethnic prejudices exists ; but when combined with a world defined as us vs. them, the probability will soar.  The probability of violence can also increase when the cultural stance grows beyond its functional core over time or is fed by cultural conceptions like the necessity for a war on crime.

“Having my comrade’s back” and the concomitant cover-ups stem from the cultural definition within the organization that such behavior is necessary when we are in the trenches fighting the enemy.  Other elements of the lack of transparency stem, in part, from the definition within the organization that “We have a difficult a job which only we understand; interference from the outside will only serve to screw it up and disable our effectiveness.”

The cultural elements  described above that once were a part of the natural development of the institution have, over time, become institutionalized, formalized, and codified. They are now recognized and formally taught, but constantly reinforced by informal relations on a day-to-day basis.


How does the consideration of the narrative above forward the public interest?  Such a consideration suggests a significantly different ameliorative strategy than that suggested by the three dominant commentaries.  Firstly, it does not reject the reform efforts forwarded in the existing commentaries.  In the short run, police intrusions on the well-being of the community, especially the minority community, must be addressed.  So prosecutions must be vigorously pursued, oversight must be instituted, and surveillance of police must be enhanced.  However, solely relying on these reforms will only serve to stick our finger in the dyke.  More sustainable reform must incorporate that which is suggested by the narrative above.

Although such a task will not be easy, simple, or accomplished quickly; there is a point of entry for the program.  Since police organizations are very formally organized, they have a well-articulated set of rules, regulations, and formalized protocols for behavior.  They also have a well-defined hierarchy of authority.  This formal structure not only facilitates the entry point for reform (top down), but reveals the institutional loci that require changes.  What changes?  The changes that should be pursued are ones that minimize the elements of police culture that facilitate police violence and lack of transparency.  These include the us vs. them definition of the world, the language that supports it, and the idea that the police alone can accomplish the task of public safety.

Not easy, since these elements have helped provide stability and commitment to the functioning of the institution.  In large part, that is the reason they came into existence in the first place.  So substitutes for the legitimate functions that they serve must be included.  Not easy, since these cultural elements are not only a consequence of formalized policy but are dependent and maintained by the culture emerging from the day-to-day interaction of police officers.  Consequently, the change will develop slowly after reform of the formal protocols have been instituted.  In the long run, recognizing the manner in which police culture emerges, is practiced, and maintained, while also recognizing that it has been an organic part of its development can only facilitate the sustainability of reform.

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