Anyone following the news is probably aware that body-cam footage of Daniel Shaver’s murder was released earlier in December right after the officer who murdered him walked away with no conviction. A day after the video’s release, Oklahoma prosecutors chose not to file any charges after a deaf man walking with his cane was killed when police fired a taser and five bullets into his chest, pelvis, and arms after he failed to hear them shouting at him. Also during the same week, an 11-year-old black girl was held at gunpoint, hand-cuffed, and stuffed into the back of a police cruiser by officers who were searching for a middle-age, white, female suspect in Michigan. Meanwhile, an unarmed person was being shot to death in San Francisco by a rookie cop on his 4th day. As this post is written, US police have killed 1,132 human beings in 2017 so far and yet — in spite of this ongoing state-sponsored terror — questioning the integrity or usefulness of police institutions is still somehow seen as a pretty extremist thing to do.
There are a lot of very good reasons, however, that no one has ever written a song called Fuck Tha Fire Department…
History & Origins of the Police:
A Tale of Two Law Enforcement Paradigms
The police — or, more specifically, the policing institutions that exist today — are younger than most people imagine. The type of policing that exists today first emerged in France during the 1700s and the earliest use of “police officer” only appears in the USA in 1794, while the first known use of “police station” is from 1817. Just 200 years ago. The concept of policing has existed for a long time, of course — but these cops are something else…
Traditional Concepts of Policing:
Watchmen & Community Self-Policing
Long before the police institutions of today were established, policing was mostly a grassroots enterprise. In pre-industrial Europe, the law was usually enforced by volunteer watchmen who formed local groups known as the night watch or simply the watch. With the exception of large cities ( which is where empires, such as Rome, liked to keep their armies ), most towns and communities did not expect government authorities to deal with everyday criminal activity — so people did it themselves. While a lack of official oversight meant watch-groups could be prone to corruption, the fact that similar groups appear all over world-history shows that self-policing at the local level is a viable model that can spring up spontaneously in human society.
Private Security & Mercenary Forces
In cities with greater levels of crime, the watch might be assisted by inspectors or constables employed by the city’s authorities to protect commerce and help with more serious crimes. Merchants and traders who had a lot of valuable goods typically hired private security guards to protect their wares. Even with the watch and a city official on duty, businesses did not expect the government to take responsibility for guarding their interests — it was, after all, their business.
The Modern Police Department:
A Government Takeover of Policing
Then, the police changed in a big way. As the feudal power-structures of Europe broke down beneath a wave of revolutions in the 18th century, governments took a more active role in law enforcement and the first centralized policing organization was created in France by King Louis XIV. The duties of the new police were bluntly described as a mechanism of class-control over workers and peasants:
“ensuring the peace and quiet of the public and of private individuals, purging the city of what may cause disturbances, procuring abundance, and having each and everyone live according to their station and their duties“
While France’s Gendarmes were seen as a symbol of oppression in other parts of Europe, the French policing model spread during the early 1800s as Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of the continent. By the mid-1800s, modern policing institutions — publicly-funded, centralized police organized in a military hierarchy and under the control of the state — had been transplanted everywhere from Tsarist Russia to England and the United States.
& Political Policing
Policing became the exclusive right of governments as other law enforcement groups were absorbed into new and “official” institutions. The new police were not just tasked with serving the public, however — they also protected the political power of their new employers. It was a revolutionary era and the new police were shaped by rulers facing a particularly mutinous population. The use of police as the vanguard of state-power was a major development and it was adapted to repress popular movements all over the world. Early police organizations in the US, for example, pretty much handed blue uniforms to former slave-patrols and anti-union mercenaries who had historically protected the interests of plantation-bosses in the South and industrial capitalists in the North.
( For more on the historical links between slavery, anti-union security, and law enforcement, read “Private Property Is the Police-State” )
The Problem of Modern Policing:
The Negation of Moral Responsibility
This was a fundamental shift — police were no longer organized as a response to the needs of communities but as an instrument of state-authority. With government officials deciding the scope and extent of policing practices, watchmen became employees of the government and ordinary citizens no longer had any control over the police. A watchmen’s authority could be challenged if they pissed off too many peasants because it was the peasants who organized the patrol to begin with — the authority of the state, however, is trickier to challenge.
Today, the police are a military hierarchy organized in a chain of command of captains, sergeants, etc — patrols do whatever their superior officers’ say, those officers do whatever their superiors say, and so on into the bureaucratic abyss. To be part of the police, officers must obey orders, just as the members in any military must. Since failing to obey orders is a pretty quick and reliable way to leave a police force, cops who disobey orders are pretty rare ( and only employed as officers very briefly ).
Because of this, cops lack what philosophers call moral agency.
Moral Agency & Diffusion of Responsibility
Moral agency is the ability to know whether an action is right or wrong. For example, if a bear kills a person, there is no moral issue because that’s just how bears operate but, if a person kills a person, they need to hire a lawyer because people typically have more options than bears do, which means they can be held responsible for their actions. Murder is not just killing — murder is having a choice not to kill and killing anyway. Without moral agency, there is no murder. In fact, the whole idea of “justice” assumes that moral agency exists, which is why most legal systems do not prosecute kids or folks with certain mental illnesses — if someone lacks the ability to do the right thing, it is pointless to punish them for not doing it.
Modern policing deprives cops of moral agency at a structural level. With a militaristic chain of command as the institutional core, moral responsibility for the actions of individual officers is transferred to the abstract spook of governmental authority. The result is that nobody can be held responsible and the officer becomes an inanimate tool in the spooky hand of an unseen and unaccountable bureaucracy — the police officer becomes no more than a vessel for policies, totally devoid of agency and free of its consequences.
And without agency, there can be no accountability. There can be no justice.
Why All Cops Are Bad
( Yes, Every Last One)
If you are stopped by a cop, then A.C.A.B. means ‘All Cats Are Beautiful’ — but, in any other situation, A.C.A.B. stands for All Cops Are Bad or All Coppers Are Bastards, depending on how edgy you wanna be. There is extreme social pressure from all sides to support the boys in blue ( as the Ninja Turtles call them ) and criticism of the police is supposed to be followed by reassurances that “most cops are good” or that “it’s just a few bad apples.” But all of that sidesteps the actual problem, which is a structural problem. The fact that 3.3% of all injuries treated in US emergency rooms are inflicted by police is not because some cops are unpleasant people — it is because the institutions are structured to shield officers from being held responsible for their actions as individuals.
All cops are bad because no cop has moral agency. They might be a good parent or a good friend or even a good saxophonist — but they are not a good cop. Without agency, moral responsibility is negated and the result is that nobody is responsible for executing Daniel Shaver on his knees as he pleaded for his life. Nobody is responsible for Philando Castille being shot to death in front of his partner and her child and nobody is responsible for firing the bullets that extinguished the life of a 12 year-old black child named Tamir Rice as he played in the park.
“Fuck the Police” Is a Moral Statement
As the first paragraph of this post was written, 1,132 human beings had been slaughtered by US police so far in 2017 — as its last paragraphs are written, that number has grown to 1,142. And it will grow more by the time most of you read this. Instances of particularly despicable police violence, such as the execution of Daniel Shaver, sometimes force their way onto the newsreel — but the vast majority who are killed by police simply slip into the oblivion beneath the headlines. There are not enough hours each day to report on that much suffering.
And none of this is going to change, either — not until more of us have had enough. Not until our courage to speak out against the police is greater than the social and political pressure to deny that the problem exists. Not until more of us are more offended by cops shooting kids than by someone saying “fuck the police.” Fuck the institution of policing. Fuck the structural mechanisms that rob police of their humanity as much as they rob our mothers of their children. And even if your brother-in-law or [insert family-member or relative here] is a really nice person — when they wear that badge — fuck them, too.
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