The protests in St. Louis over the vindication of yet another cop in a seriously questionable shooting have been dealt with by outrageous police tactics. Protests are met, broken up, people are arrested and abused, and the justification is some broken windows, most of which the vendors suffering the damage have come out to say has been worth it to support the point being made.
So the question is—since the people the police claim to be protecting are repudiating that protection when it entails martial-law-style crackdowns—just what is it the police are serving?
I think this is thoroughly misunderstood. You see emblazoned on police cars, held up as motto, proudly owned by the men and women in blue: To Serve and Protect.
But when the majority of a community is in profound disagreement over what its police do, just what does that mean?
It means what it has always meant. The police exist to protect and preserve one thing: Order.
Often, even usually, protecting the public and serving the people is congruent with preserving order. You can’t, usually, have any kind of peace of mind when order breaks down. You can’t defend something in the midst of riot.
But when the issue involves political and judicial incompetence, corruption, or malfeasance, the police are put in a quandary. What are they defending and protecting against what? They can’t take sides. So the default is—order.
Now, whose definition of order I will let you figure out. Obviously there are distinctions. A bunch of sports fans trashing cars after a Big Game doesn’t get the same kind of crackdown as a phalanx of peaceful protestors clogging a street. (Hint: the fans aren’t challenging authority.)
Get people off the streets, reestablish the appearance of normality, make it easier for the police to seem to do what everyone thinks they’re supposed to do (which they often, even usually, do). But when it comes to a break-point over principle, as in this case, as in the case of Ferguson, as in so many cases of late, they will default to establishing and preserving Order.
I point this out so there can be less failure to interpret actions that defy expectations.
Holding the police department up to ridicule, recording them doing clearly unjustified if not illegal things in pursuit of this function, further erodes their mission—to preserve ORDER. Respect or at least fear is essential for that, because if no one believes the police are working for them, why should anyone do what they say?
On the other side is the gross mishandling of cases like this one where prosecutors aimed for an impossible target. I’m not saying the charges brought against Stockley were wrong, only that, on a practical level, they were not achievable. (The Justice Department—Obama’s Justice Department—knew this and decided not to prosecute. Frustrating, but there it is.) First degree murder is difficult to prove and get convictions on at the best of times. With an officer-involved-shooting, you might as well send Bilbo into the case without a ring and nothing but a slingshot. The lesser charge brought, Armed Criminal Action, was more likely, but since they were bundled together the judge was able to vacate both at once.
But even before this, there seems to be a dearth of more ground-level legal actions that ought to take place before something like this blows up into a media circus. Something simpler, seemingly innocuous, something that might get a lot of folks to say “Well, what the hell does that do?”
Like passing an ordnance requiring police to apologize when they get something wrong.
Yeah, I know, doesn’t sound like much. But it would begin to lay the foundation of a kind of community-responsive accountability that would eventually lead to a healthier relationship between the community and its police. Because when they bash in the wrong door, arrest the wrong person, abuse someone illegally, without an apology we tell them that they’re doing what we want them to do. When some cop shoots someone’s dog “just because” and no apology is forthcoming, we tell the police they are above civility. Outside community.
The second thing I think should be done is reinstate the requirement that cops must live in the community they serve. Allowing them to live elsewhere severs connection and ultimately accountability. You might as well call them what they are, then: hired guns.
These smaller things may not seem as significant as convicting a cop who steps so far over the mark that it makes national news, but without them, going for the gold ring with a murder conviction is made to fail and bring out the divisions on the street and promote the ugliness of realizing, if we did not already know, that the police, at the end of the day, are not there to serve Joe Smith. They serve The People. But what does that mean? Its means a vast aggregate that is faceless, unindividuated, impersonal, something that once you are separated from it and become an individual, you no longer are the subject of their service. The People is a useless concept on the street, because The People aren’t there when the shit goes down—just some poor human being and an armed representative whose basic mission is and always has been to preserve ORDER.
Which kind of makes a community into a giant classroom and the citizens students who are required to sit quietly at their desks and maintain the illusion of conformity so the teacher can appear to be doing a Good Job.