"Are Cops Really That Bad?"

[Recently a friend and correspondent of mine
asked the question,"Are cops really that bad?"
Here is his message and my response.]

Hi Scott. I would like to return to the topic of bourgeois legality. I have noticed that many communists regard the police as the bosses' shock troops. While I agree that a number of police are certainly racist thugs, I would argue that a majority - if not most - are actually decent human beings who genuinely believe that they are helping the community. At the time of the WTC attacks, police officers risked their lives to help others. This - in my mind - does not constitute a Nazi.

Also, what if you had a car accident and the police came to help you? Would you refuse their help? If you saw a bank robbery unfold and there was a police station nearby, would you let it pass?

Even if the ruling class does want the police to behave brutally towards ethnic minorities, such behaviour would not find unbriddled favour within the police departments of the respective cities. There would be many officers who would not "go along with it." And how exactly does the bourgeoisie translate the message to the police to terrorise people? Surely they don't write letters requesting this and that?

Hi .....

Sorry for the long delay in answering your recent letters. Of course there has been a lot going on recently, with the latest U.S. war, against Afghanistan, to start with, and so forth. But you raise an important point about how to view the police.

In trying to evaluate anything—whether it is a work of art, a social institution, a political party, a group of people, or even a particular individual—we always face a conflicting mass of pros and cons. Sometimes there are more pros, and sometimes more cons, but almost never is the situation 100% pure. What we virtually always have to try to do is sort out these conflicting attributes based on their relative importance. That is, we have to find the most essential aspects first of all.

Thus if a political party, for example, serves the interests of the rich then we must in general oppose that party even if, on this or that secondary issue, they might (for reasons of their own) take a stand which is actually in the interests of the people. When they—on some rare occasion—take the side of the masses, then we will be happy to join with them on that particular issue. But most of the time, and in general, we quite properly oppose such a party and do everything we can to expose them as agents of the rich.

The situation is similar with regard to the police. Sure, on occasion, a cop will happen to be on the scene and will intervene to stop some mugger, say, from robbing a worker. Sure, it happens fairly frequently that a traffic cop stops a speeder who actually is endangering the masses on the highways. (Most speeders, however—those going a little bit faster than the speed limit—, are not really endangering anybody. I say this even though I don't speed much myself.) And sure there are cases where the cops recover a stolen car for an ordinary person (i.e., one of the masses).

But the question is, are these the typical sorts of things that the cops do? Is this the main reason for the existence of the police? And the answer to questions like these is definitely "NO".

The main reason for the existence of police forces in bourgeois society is the protection of the rich and their property.

If you are a Black man walking down the street in a rich white neighborhood of San Francisco such as St. Francis Woods, for example, it is very likely that you will be stopped and harrassed by the cops. Why? Because you are in an area where "you do not belong". There are much heavier police patrols in the rich neighborhoods than in the working class neighborhoods—because the cops are there to protect the property of the upper classes.

Do you think the police give the same attention to every house that gets burglarized? No way. If you are rich and "important", then they will investigate carefully, take fingerprints, and make a serious effort to recover your stolen property. They will also increase police patrols in that neighborhood, and be instructed by their political supervisors to "buckled down on crime" and the like. But if you are an ordinary person who gets buglarized, then the investigation will be a brief formality. The cops will show up and take down information for their "report", and that will likely be that.

Or perhaps even worse. Here is a true story about a political acquaintance of mine about 25 years ago. Somebody broke into his apartment and stole his TV set. So he (foolishly) called the cops hoping to get it back, and they—in their good time—eventually came to his apartment "to investigate". They didn't bother checking for fingerprints or looking for any evidence about the break-in. But once in his place they did insist on searching it—not only the living room where the TV had been, but the whole apartment. In a drawer in the bedroom they found part of a joint (marijuana cigarette) and hauled the guy off to jail. Of course the cops never looked for the stolen TV set at all, and my friend never got it back. True, the police are there to protect property, but not the "petty property" of the working man or woman. For them a poor man's property is as insignificant as the poor man himself.

This incident impressed me enough that I later wrote the following limerick, entitled "Cops and Property":

The cops protect property mainly;
They work for the rich very plainly.
     "Will they help poor little me
     Get back my ripped-off TV?"
If you think so, you're thinking insanely!

Quite a few of the police are indeed "racist thugs", as you recognize. But many of them who are not outright thugs in their everyday dealings with the people are still racists. And most of those (such as most minority cops) who are not racists themselves still work for an institution that is overall racist, and engages in systematic racist policies.

But as bad as the ingrained racism of the police is, and as bad as their role in keeping down many ethnic minorities is, even that is not their most essential attribute. The most essential thing about them is that they are there to protect the rich and their property. This class nature of the police (and the army and all agencies authorized to use force in class society) is the first and most essential point about them.

It does not matter whether individual cops fully understand this or not. (And in the U.S., at least, class consciousness is so low that most of them certainly don't understand much about this.) A particular cop may have only a vague understanding why he is assigned to patrol an upper-class neighborhood, and may even wish he or she could be "serving his or her own community". All this is completely irrelevant to the role they are playing and the job they are actually doing.

George Bernard Shaw expressed the central point quite well:

I fully admit and vehemently urge that the State at present is simply a huge machine for robbing and slave-driving the poor by brute force. You may, if you are a stupid or comfortably-off person, think that the policeman at the corner is the guardian of law and order.... But the primary function of the policeman, and that for which his other functions are only blinds, is to see that you do not lie down to sleep in this country without paying an idler [capitalist] for the privilege; that you do not taste bread until you have paid the idler's toll in the price of it; that you do not resist the starving blackleg [scab] who is dragging you down to his level for the idler's profit by offering to do your work for a starvation wage. Attempt any of these things, and you will be hauled off and tortured in the name of law and order, honesty, social equilibrium, safety of property and person, public duty, Christianity, morality, and what not, as a vagrant, a thief, and a rioter.

Let me briefly address your more specific questions: First, didn't NY cops risk their own necks to attempt to rescue people after the Sept. 11th attacks? Yes they did. Many individual cops showed bravery and heroism in doing so, and some of them lost their lives. And probably every day there are a few cops who do similar things around the country in less drastic, but still serious, situations. But are these individual acts of heroism what the cops are there for, primarily? Not at all. This sort of very exceptional activity by a few cops is—as Shaw said above—one of the very secondary functions of the police that serve as a "blind" to hide their most essential and important activities.

Many cops have a military background, and have even been in wars (such as in Vietnam). In those wars they may have done very horrible things (such as murdering civilians), though just being in these wars on the side of U.S. imperialism was horrible enough. But at the same time they may have often acted "bravely" from the point of view of their fellow soldiers. It is quite possible to be brave and yet wicked. To take an extreme case, many Nazi soldiers were also very brave. We generally view bravery as a positive attribute, and most of the time it really is. (It really was in the case of the cops rescuing people at the World Trade Center too.) But my point is that bravery, and exceptional brave actions, are very secondary in the evaluation of cops in general, and their general role in society. And bravery, in and of itself, does not prove anyone to be a "decent human being".

Cops are not decent human beings, because of the role they play in society. Even if some individual cop is the greatest person ever, who would never hurt an innocent person, and so forth, his or her actual overall role and job is determined for him by others—and ultimately by the ruling class which sets up the institution of the police and makes the rules about how it will operate. In such a circumstance an individual's personality, motivation, and even—for the most part—their behavior, counts for very little by way of mitigation.

Again, it helps to look at an extreme case. Where there brave cops in Nazi Germany, ones who saved people in individual acts of heroism? No doubt there were. It was still certainly immoral to be a cop in Nazi Germany—because of the everyday sorts of things you would be called upon to do, or at least support. Maybe you might not personally turn in some hiding Jewish children, but if others did it would be your job to guard them and put them on the train to Buchenwald, and you would "reluctantly" do it.

While the viciousness and role of cops in this country is in general not as extreme as it was in Nazi Germany, their social role is still primarily to serve the interests of the ruling bourgeoisie, and not that of the people. And for that reason alone, they cannot be considered moral or "decent human beings"—whether or not they are also racists and/or thugs. Most of them are not in fact Nazis, though like the Nazi police they have certainly sold their services as agents of force to the bourgeoisie.

If I had a car accident, and was injured, and the police came would I refuse their help? Of course not. But this is another of the very secondary roles that cops might play, not their most essential role. It is another of their minor functions which is "only a blind" to cover up their more essential role for the ruling class.

I should say that I have never in my life received one bit of help from any cop, though I have witnessed a number of occasions where cops have stood idly by and refused to offer help to people which they could have (and should have) done. I have also seen cops beating innocent homeless people, one time right in public view (though at night) on Market Street, downtown in San Francisco. And I have seen them attack, brutalize, and arrest strikers and political protestors on many occasions.

One time, I saw a scab in a truck try to run down a striker on a picket line. He missed killing him, though only just barely, and did knock the guy down and hurt him a bit. (This was either aggravated assault with a vehicle, or more likely attempted murder.) There were a couple cop cars there, and at least 3 or 4 cops who saw the whole thing, but did nothing about it—despite our demands to arrest the scab. You see, their role is to break strikes, protect corporations and their scabs, and harrass strikers—not the other way around. And most of them know this quite well.

"If you saw a bank robbery unfold and there was a police station nearby, would you let it pass?" Well, this is a pretty unlikely hypothetical, and my answer would depend on several particulars of the situation. Were any of the masses harmed in any way? If not, probably I would choose "not to get involved". While I don't advocate individual rip-offs of corporations, I see no reason to stick my neck out to help any corporate bastards either (who after all are only a gang of thieves themselves). On the other hand, if a bank robber harmed or threatened to harm any working class person (such as a teller), I would do what I reasonably could to try to stop them. Usually calling the cops would be something too late to make any difference, however.

You remarked that:

Even if the ruling class does want the police to behave brutally towards ethnic minorities, such behaviour would not find unbriddled favour within the police departments of the respective cities. There would be many officers who would not "go along with it." And how exactly does the bourgeoisie translate the message to the police to terrorise people? Surely they don't write letters requesting this and that?

Actually, the police oppression of ethnic minorities is something the ruling class prefers to do in ways which can be hidden or "plausibly denied". They "need" to do it—because often these minorities are in such desperate shape that they have no alternative but to be on the verge of rebellion, either individually or otherwise. But they also need to make it look like—in the media—that their oppression is "a measured response" to crime, and the like. So police behavior and policies which serve these partially conflicting desires is rewarded, promotions are determined by it, and the message gets through in general outlines to most of the individual cops. Some cops will "go too far", or get caught in a video recording beating people or doing things which the ruling class cannot publicly defend and support. Such individual cops will, reluctantly on the part of their superiors and the ruling class, at least have their hands slapped. In a few of the more egregious cases, the offending cops will be fired or even prosecuted. But many other cops will be disciplined in one way or another for not showing sufficient enthusiasm for ghetto occupation duty. And those who do a good job in keeping down the Blacks and others will get rewarded.

It is not necessary to spell this all out in a handbook; the resulting message to the police is clear enough in general. The basic message is "keep them down, but don't get caught going 'too far' in the process". The police know they will be backed up by their superiors and the legal system, except in the most outrageous cases, and they know that even then the penalties that are apt to come down on them are mild. They are predisposed (by their racism and general attitudes toward the masses) towards brutalizing people when they get the chance, and they know if they "do it well" and "keep it within reasonable bounds" they will be rewarded. The cops that don't have a stomach for this are moved into other sorts of work, but still go along with the general program.

And so I would say that the bottom line is, yes, cops really are "that bad".


P.S. Here's a few more interesting quotes on the police:

"Why does everyone think that he can be decent enough without the policeman, but that the club is need for 'the others'?" —Alexander Berkman

"I was sick and tired of watching innocent people get framed, especially members of minority groups, and that includes African Americans and Mexicans. I was disturbed about officer-involved shootings, and how they covered up the incidents." —Zvonko "Bill" Pavelic, upon quitting the Los Angeles Police Dept, and giving up a generous pension package, after nearly 20 years on the force. (Quoted in the "San Francisco Examiner", July 22, 1994.) [Any really decent person who gets a job as a cop, gets out of that line of "work". —S.H.]

"The only people who still ask the police for protection, thought George bitterly, are the fascists." —A cop in a small town in England, c. 1950, in the mystery novel "Fallen Into the Pit" (1951), by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter).

"There is no need for police when the people are armed and organized." —From a banner at a demo against police brutality and murder, San Francisco, Oct. 22, 1997. (Actually I improved on it a bit by adding the last two words. —S.H.)

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