Recently I finished watching a series of relatively newer Cops episodes. It got me thinking about some of the changes in perception we’ve had toward law enforcement in the past decade or so. It seems like opinions have been altered due to social media, so it’s a topic I wanted to explore in more detail.
The first point I’ll make, which I think most of those who are familiar with history will understand is that corruption is not a new phenomenon. Even in law enforcement, consider the Rodney King beatings of the 90s, or going further back, corruption in the NYPD which the movie Serpico was based on (Pacino’s character is a total hipster before the term even existed). I feel the main difference between then and now is that technology places this in our face and makes it more accessible than ever. Prior to the combination of smart phones and social media, stories about police corruption would have to compete on the airwaves and paper, where airtime and front page space were limited. this is why only major stories such as Rodney King made the news. Technology has broken down these barriers.
I look at this as a positive. Technology via smart phones offers a new check, as in check and balance, that not only police but all of us must consider. In a way, we are Big Brother. Now if a cop fucks up in front of the public, his entire career could be ruined; the same goes for individuals. Just imagine that not so long ago, it was possible to get away with a far, far more.
Why Does Abuse Happen?
Getting back to corruption, there is a theory that I didn’t come up with but I’ve read before, which goes something like this: when you give someone power but their role in society does not come from a commanding standpoint ie they are not a senator or elected leader, it lends more easily to abuse. Consider how a bouncer at a club, under certain circumstances, can really rough up a drunk person. In the case of a dance club, the bouncer has nearly god like status relative to the patrons because there is no check and balance on his actions. The theory explains how this huge gap creates temptations for abuse. This happens in the army as well, Vietnam had its My Lai massacre; the 2nd Iraq war had Abu Ghraib. If you watch this Ted Talk, you’ll find a very logical explanation as to why this occurs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsFEV35tWsg
In case you are too lazy to watch the Ted Talk, the main take away is a perversion in human nature whereby people tend to abuse the power they are given over someone else. I think this is important because, as the talk mentions, the blame should be placed on the institutions doling out the power. This is not to say any type of corruption is acceptable, rather one should address the rule makers, not the enforcers. Although it’s not the fairest of analogies, imagine a bar that gave away unlimited free drinks on the weekends to anyone who visited. I’d hazard that in the first night of this experiment several fights would break out and more than a few people would drive home drunk. The people are guilty of course, but such a situation easily lends itself to abuse. If you can connect the dots between the bar example and the power given to those in law enforcement, I think you can see my point. Once again I’m not excusing anyone for abusing power, rather trying to help understand why this problem occurs.
My Thoughts & Experiences
Getting back to the subject of the police as a whole, I defend the police force because if I ever found myself in peril, I wouldn’t call a friend or rely on my limited self defense skills, most of which I’ve learned from 80s action movies and playing Street Fighter II. I’d dial 911. That being said, my experiences have been mixed.
I had an example of this type of over use of power, namely when I was a student. I spent a semester in Berlin where one can have open containers throughout the city, something unique even to Germany. When I returned to the US the next semester I forgot about the habit I had fallen into. It was my first beer of the the night and a light one at that. I got picked up by the campus police, fortunately they only had jurisdiction on campus so this never went on my record. To be honest, the amount of resources needed for my college campus would never really be put to full use. Because I walked outside my campus with an open beer I was detained with handcuffs and then placed in the back of the police car. What’s interesting is that the officer told me I was fidgeting too much in the car and said I was making him nervous. I never realized this but the back of a police car is not like a normal car, there is no upholstery whatsoever, it’s just plastic, kind of like an amusement park ride but even less accommodating. The fact that I had to sit on my handcuffed hands into this plastic bucket sit would make the majority of people fidget. While I sat in the car they tested my beer to confirm it had alcohol in it, and then put me in the paddy wagon where I had to be handcuffed to the seat. I was then brought into the station where I was once again handcuffed to the bench and got bailed out. Keep in mind I was completely sober this entire time.
The one thing I can say after being quasi-arrested is that one should be as compliant as possible. Unless you think you can get away without a trace, being an asshole only gives those with alot of power over you free reign to abuse it completely. I was thanked for my cooperation, which I feel makes both parties lives easier. Nevertheless, I outline this story to show how unnecessary this campus resources were utilized for a bunch of relatively harmless college kids. It reminds me of the transition period between medieval Europe and the pre-industrial mercantile system that had begun to take shape. Previously, knights were like the modern day hired goons, whose main job was to protect the lord’s territory, which included the serfs (yesh me lord). As the mercantile system began to evolve it slowly eroded the stronghold the lords, state, and church held over the system, the end result being a bunch of bored knights. Many were used for the crusades but alot went around robbing and harming people because they had nothing else better to do. This is the takeaway. My campus police had so many resources at their disposal, were being paid, yet were probably bored as hell most nights, so no wonder they jumped at an opportunity to catch me. I’d say this also goes for more wealthier areas of America, where the town can afford a larger police force, something the citizens demand. These areas are probably over saturated when compared to poorer areas, although it’s just a hunch.
How To Make This Better
Getting back to Cops, I must have watched about 20 episodes this past week. Granted, this show is entertainment, so you are seeing a very biased view. For example, I’ve yet to see an episode where they don’t apprehend the suspect, it’s like watching only the winning games of your favorite sports team.
My biggest take away is that most of the perpetrators in these recent episodes had some type of drug related issue which caused them to eventually be arrested, either as dealers or consumers. And in cases where a crime did happen, it had some connection to drugs.
Taking an aside, if there is anything policy makers can do in America, and to be honest I have little faith this type of issue gets much attention, is look into ways to reform the criminal justice system. The war on drugs was an obvious failure, and it’s funny in the episodes when you hear the cops saying they want to take drugs off the street. I respect them for doing their jobs but it’s the equivalent of saying you want to limit the amount of sand on a beach. It’s impossible to ever stop the flood of drugs coming into the country. I feel in a place like America legalization would be too extreme, however, something needs to change. Based on these episodes we have sort of a welfare state for the poor and unskilled. Lack of education and limited opportunities lend themselves to either drug abuse or distribution, in most cases it seems the line is blurred. The majority of the people I saw arrested had already been to jail, or had outstanding warrants. Granted, I am making many assumptions from a TV show, but these are real people and real problems. The current system is like some nasty revolving spiral, once the person enters the justice system it seems chances of a successful future diminish significantly.
Taking the human treatment aspect out of the equation, from an economic standpoint this makes little sense. How much tax money goes into policing drug users, putting them into the correctional system, and maintaining those systems? If you think too many taxes are spent on welfare, why not look at the penal system when it comes to non-violent offenders. Wouldn’t it make more sense to separate the two? With so many petty criminals currently using resources, isn’t it more difficult to focus on those who belong behind bars because they are a threat to society?
It’s idealistic, but imagine if resources were focused more on rehabilitation. Many of my analogies are not fair, but look at how quickly tobacco use has dropped in America. Other drugs are much more challenging to deal with but I am speaking currently of the approach. Imagine if steps were taken, not to go after the suppliers, but attack demand. Getting back to cigarettes, nobody ever said let’s stop the production of cigarettes, rather through education, laws, and taxes demand dropped significantly. I envision a similar approach to drug use. Go after the demand, and supply will adjust.
My solutions are not clearly outlined nor easy to adapt but the current system we have is pitiful. It’s one of the many contradictions that the so-called land of the free locks up more citizens per capita than even China. And even as violence in America has dropped, incarceration rates have gone up. Currently my tax dollars and yours go to subsidizing the roughly 2 million Americans behind bars. It’s not only a waste of resources, but a sad approach to life.