The role of police in society

Feb12 JDN 2459988

What do the police do? Not in theory, in practice. Not what are they supposed to do—what do they actually do?

Ask someone right-wing and they’ll say something like “uphold the law”. Ask someone left-wing and they’ll say something like “protect the interests of the rich”. Both of these are clearly inaccurate. They don’t fit the pattern of how the police actually behave.

What is that pattern? Well, let’s consider some examples.

If you rob a bank, the police will definitely arrest you. That would be consistent with either upholding the law or protecting the interests of the rich, so it’s not a very useful example.

If you run a business with unsafe, illegal working conditions, and someone tells the police about it, the police will basically ignore it and do nothing. At best they might forward it to some regulatory agency who might at some point get around to issuing a fine.

If you strike against your unsafe working conditions and someone calls the police to break up your picket line, they’ll immediately come in force and break up your picket line.

So that definitively refutes the “uphold the law” theory; by ignoring OSHA violations and breaking up legal strikes, the police are actively making it harder to enforce the law. It seems to fit the “protect the interests of the rich” theory. Let’s try some other examples.

If you run a fraudulent business that cons people out of millions of dollars, the police might arrest you, eventually, if they ever actually bother to get around to investigating the fraud. That certainly doesn’t look like upholding the law—but you can get very rich and they’ll still arrest you, as Bernie Madoff discovered. So being rich doesn’t grant absolute immunity from the police.

If your negligence in managing the safety systems of your factory or oil rig kills a dozen people, the police will do absolutely nothing. Some regulatory agency may eventually get around to issuing you a fine. That also looks like protecting the interests of the rich. So far the left-wing theory is holding up.

If you are homeless and camping out on city property, the police will often come to remove you. Sometimes there’s a law against such camping, but there isn’t always; and even when there is, the level of force used often seems wildly disproportionate to the infraction. This also seems to support the left-wing account.

But now suppose you go out and murder several homeless people. That is, if anything, advancing the interests of the rich; it’s certainly not harming them. Yet the police would in fact investigate. It might be low on their priorities, especially if they have a lot of other homicides; but they would, in fact, investigate it and ultimately arrest you. That doesn’t look like advancing the interests of the rich. It looks a lot more like upholding the law, in fact.

Or suppose you are the CEO of a fraudulent company that is about to be revealed and thus collapse, and instead of accepting the outcome or absconding to the Carribbean (as any sane rich psychopath would), you decide to take some SEC officials hostage and demand that they certify your business as legitimate. Are the police going to take that lying down? No. They’re going to consider you a terrorist, and go in guns blazing. So they don’t just protect the interests of the rich after all; that also looks a lot like they’re upholding the law.

I didn’t even express this as the left-wing view earlier, because I’m trying to use the woodman argument; but there are also those on the left who would say that the primary function of the police is to uphold White supremacy. I’d be a fool to deny that there are a lot of White supremacist cops; but notice that in the above scenarios I didn’t even specify the race of the people involved, and didn’t have to. The cops are no more likely to arrest a fraudulent banker because he’s Black, and no more likely to let a hostage-taker go free because he’s White. (They might be less likely to shoot the White hostage-taker—maybe, the data on that actually isn’t as clear-cut as people think—but they’d definitely still arrest him.) While racism is a widespread problem in the police, it doesn’t dictate their behavior all the time—and it certainly isn’t their core function.

What does categorically explain how the police react in all these scenarios?

The police uphold order.

Not law. Order. They don’t actually much seem to care whether what you’re doing is illegal or harmful or even deadly. They care whether it violates civil order.

This is how we can explain the fact that police would investigate murders, but ignore oil rig disasters—even if the latter causes more deaths. The former is a violation of civil order, the latter is not.

It also explains why they would be so willing to tear apart homeless camps and break up protests and strikes. Those are actually often legal, or at worst involve minor infractions; but they’re also disruptive and disorderly.

The police seem to see their core mission as keeping the peace. It could be an unequal, unjust peace full of illegal policies that cause grievous harm and death—but what matters to them is that it’s peace. They will stomp out any violence they see with even greater violence of their own. They have a monopoly on the use of force, and they intend to defend it.

I think that realizing this can help us take a nuanced view of the police. They aren’t monsters or tools of oppression. But they also aren’t brave heroes who uphold the law and keep us safe. They are instruments of civil order.

We do need civil order; there are a lot of very important things in society that simply can’t function if civil order collapses. In places where civil order does fall apart, life becomes entirely about survival; the security that civil order provides is necessary not only for economic activity, but also for much of what gives our lives value.

But nor is civil order all that matters. And sometimes injustice truly does become so grave that it’s worth sacrificing some order in order to redress it. Strikes and protests genuinely are disruptive; society couldn’t function if they were happening everywhere all the time. But sometimes we need to disrupt the way things are going in order to get people to clearly see the injustice around them and do something about it.

I hope that this more realistic, nuanced assessment of the role police play in society may help to pull people away from both harmful political extremes.We can’t simply abolish the police; we need some system for maintaining civil order, and whatever system we have is probably going to end up looking a lot like police. (#ScandinaviaIsBetter, truly, but there are still cops in Norway.) But we also can’t afford to lionize the police or ignore their failures and excesses. When they fight to maintain civil order at the expense of social justice, they become part of the problem.

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