All Cops Are Bad: How Modern Policing Negates Moral Responsibility

ACAB: All Cops Are Bad Because Modern Policing Negates Moral ResponsibilityAnyone 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

Daniel Shaver, Police Murderer
Daniel Shaver & the cop who got away with murdering him

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

Evolution of the Police: Militarization, Authoritarianism, & Class Control

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

Anti-Police Poster 1800s UK, Resistance to Police, Police HistoryWhile 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.

Power, Paramilitary,
& Political Policing

Slave Patrol Badge, the Economic History of PolicingPolicing 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.

Never Trust the Cops, Sesame Street, A.C.A.B. #FTP

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

What Police Say About Police Brutality GraphicMoral 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.

Police in Classroom, Obey Us or We'll Kill Your Dog, ACAB

Why All Cops Are Bad
( Yes, Every Last One)

ACAB, All Cats Are Beautiful, All Cops Are BastardsIf 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

Police Violence, ArtworkAs 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.

In solidarity,
John Laurits

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Leon Stephens
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I had a friend who after he returned to Australia from Spain, where I knew him, joined the Melbourne Police Department. At a certain point he disappeared from the internet, he couldn’t be reached by phone, and those of us who had known him here had no way of knowing what had happened. Finally one of his friends went to Australia to work, and went to Melbourne to inquire. His parents said that he had had “an accident”, and talking with other people learned that in Australia this is a euphemism for “committed suicide”. Completely impossible in the light of his known character. Another friend, who had been… Read more »
Wesley Sandel
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Wesley Sandel

In the US that police have the highest incident of suicide of any profession and the highest incidence of domestic violence of any profession. Fuck the Police.

C.A. Matthews
Guest

Thank you for this enlightening history of policing. I’ve always felt that “America is an Oil Company with an Army” and now I know why. The cops are just private mercenaries hired to protect the interests of the 1%. They can deny their own humanity and the humanity of their victims when they are given a paycheck, a patrol car and a gun. It’s time we restructure and re-conceptualize our ideas of what “policing” means in our society.

mike blyskal
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mike blyskal
Pamela Geller Victim Impact Statement Sentencing David Daoud Wright It is impossible to overstate the devastation that Daoud Wright has brought to my life and that of members of my family. Not only did he target me for a brutal, cruel and violent death, but he targeted family members, and this will not even be over with his sentencing. Daoud Wright wanted to kill me over my First Amendment right, free speech – speech he was indoctrinated to think was an immense evil by his violent and absolutist belief system and ideology. There has been no indication that he has given up these beliefs. If he says he… Read more »
You
Guest

She is justified in being angry.

But the point is that simply being a cop is traumatizing. Meaning the police are also victims.

jd
Guest

Giving new meaning to the phrase, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Who hasn’t gotten themselves into a situation which later turned out to be not such a good idea? How to extricate oneself from such a situation is the challenge. The peer pressure to go along to get along is enormous, as seen in Washington, Hollywood, the FBI, the Catholic Church, anywhere power is concentrated. I want to hear the stories of those who quit, who never made it to stardom, who left the priesthood, who refused to give up their integrity for money, fame or power.