Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Sympathy for the Devil

I've never been (and still am not) a police abolitionist. I've also never felt any particular way about police officers -- neither lionizing them nor deploring them. If anything, my main feeling towards cops has been to be intimidated by them, though that sentiment is based more on certain idiosyncratic personal neuroses than any political instinct.

However, I've noticed recently an interesting trajectory in my own thoughts on the subject of policing that seems counter-intuitive, and so I wonder if it resonates with anyone else. To wit:

As I grow more sympathetic to police officers in controversial situations ("it's a hard job", "what would you have them do in this situation", etc.), I also grow more inclined toward abolitionism.

This certainly runs counter to the prevailing narrative, where abolitionism pairs up with ACAB views towards individual officers. So how come it's working differently for me?

As best I can tell, here's what's happening. When I read a story about egregious police misconduct -- the sort that would make me endorse the view "that guy's just a plain old bastard" --it doesn't on its own suggest a problem with policing as a concept. If the problem is that some people are bastards, the solution is to remove the bastards. When a nasty sort of person commits a murder in Oregon, that doesn't indicate that the very idea of "Oregon" is a failure. Bad people can do bad things in all sorts of systems without demonstrating that said systems are irredeemably flawed. Thinking of the problem in terms of individual moral failings leads me in a reformist, not abolitionist, direction -- ensuring that bad officers are punished, that systems of accountability are made more robust, that officers are given the proper training so that when they do bad things, it is obviously because they chose it rather than that they were thrown into a situation nobody told them how to handle, and so on. Even widespread instances of police misbehavior or ego tripping, such as the refusal to vaccinate, can resolve down to "then fire the bad actors en masse and replace them with better people--good riddance!"

But increasingly, one sees stories where policing injures, humiliates, even kills, vulnerable civilians in circumstances where I'm not sure the conduct can be reduced to or even characterized as a particular police officer being a plain old bastard. These are circumstances where I can imagine even someone who is, in some sense, perfectly public-spirited and who fully intends to serve and protect can nonetheless be the vector of terrible injustices upon innocent Americans. That's the hallmark of a systemic problem. It's one thing if a system generates injustices when bad people abuse it. It's another when a system generates injustice even when good people are doing their best.

The fact is, our system of policing regularly places officers in fraught situations with regular Americans; scenarios that are fast-moving, have murky expectations, and carry undertones of threats (especially given the absurd proliferation of firearms among the American populace). The police are simultaneously the violent arm of state enforcement and the enforcer of first resort for ordinary public disputes and missteps (imagine telling a Martian that the same agency has both "solve murders" and "stop drivers from turning right on red" in its portfolio!), and that will often put even decidedly non-bastard sorts in exceptionally difficult or precarious circumstances. That's not a problem that can be fixed by better training or better hiring, because it's not a matter of officers failing to do their jobs. It's a matter of the very contours of the job, as we've constructed it.

So yeah--that's where I'm moving. The more cases I see where a terrible injury inflicted on a civilian pairs up with a genuine "... but look at it from the officer's point of view", the more skeptical I grow of policing as a system, because if these problems persist even in cases where there isn't any obvious individual failing on the part of the officer then it suggests a problem that lies deeper than individual-level reforms could reach. It's very much not All Cops Are Bastards, and much more It Doesn't Matter If Any Cops Are Bastards. Do I stand alone on this?

1 comment:

Benjamin Lewis said...

This is a very good analysis. The point should always be why is this negative outcome happening, not "does the officer need fired for generating this negative outcome", which begs the question.
I've been struck by anecdotal accounts and academic analysis of how features of the current system like curricula and culture of Police Academies push new officers in the direction of Bastardy. But even that, as you say, isn't intrinsically evidence for abolition, because the obvious solution would be just to thoroughly revamp the training environments. It's if the current training environments are legit and necessary, when this revamp would hinder police effectiveness, that the broader system encompassing the training is indicted, because then the negative interactions are (meta-level) on purpose.