Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Officer Friendly (continued)

The intersection of political theory and reality manifests itself in very physical, very real ways. Lewis Mumford, in The city in history: its origins, transformations and prospects, writes of Washington, D.C.:

Despite [D.C. architect Pierre] L'Enfant's firm republican convictions, the design he set forth for the new capital was in every respect what the architects and servants of despotism had originally conceived. He could only carry over into the new age the static image that had been dictated by centralized coercion and control. The sole feature that was lacking was the original sixteenth century fortifications, since there was no apparent need for military defense.

While Mumford's comments relate to the layout of D.C. as originally designed (and not specifically to the architecture of the Capitol or White House), and might be read as an indictment of classical architecture generally, I think it's an insight that is worth thinking about.

Our public monuments, and buildings in general, are very real manifestations of ideas. Whether those ideas are a grand republic in the case of D.C. or 21st-century hypercapitalism in the case of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Salt Lake City, those buildings can almost be seen as the calcified protective shells that form when Ideas intersect with Reality.

I note buildings in particular in this regard because they are the largest, and most obvious, examples of what could be called manifested ideology. There are ubiquitous examples of this, everything from stop signs to the AK-47, but one in particular that I would like to discuss: the police officer.

Now, I do not intend to discuss police in general, per se - to make an argument for or against the existence of peace officers as a class of humans authorized to use force up to and including lethal force against other humans. There is a long, hairy, extremely impractical theoretical debate that can be had on that subject, and I'm more than happy to have it, but the point I'd like to make about the police is much simpler.

I'm grateful to the New York Times for the following informative diagram:

Within my lifetime - specifically, in the years after 9/11 - we've seen a phenomenon that is usually referred to as the militarization of police departments in the United States. The NY Times reports:

...the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the federal Homeland Security dollars that flowed to police forces in response to them, have further encouraged police forces to embrace paramilitary tactics like those that first emerged in the decades long "war on drugs." 
Both wars - first on drugs, then terror - have lent police forces across the country justification to acquire the latest technology, equipment and tactical training for newly created specialized units...Radley Balko, a journalist who has studied the issue, told a House subcommittee on crime in 2007 that one criminologist found a 1,500 percent increase in the use of SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams in the United States in roughly the last two decades.
That same article in the Times quotes a political scientist from UC Berkeley who notes that competition for status and dollars between police departments leads to additional incentives to amp up the Storm Trooper routine: "The problem is, if you have these kind of specialized units, that you hunt for appropriate settings to use them and, in some of the smaller police departments, notions of the appropriate settings to use them are questionable," says Franklin Zimring.

Now we also have the so-called "1033 program," which scores the rare double distinction of lining military contractor pockets while ensuring that local PDs bristle with equipment like futuristic shock troops in a bad Kurt Wimmer movie:

Through its little-known "1033 program," the Department of Defense gave away nearly $500 million worth of leftover military gear to law enforcement in fiscal year 2011 - a new record for the program and a dramatic rise over past years' totals, including the $212 million in equipment distributed in 2010. 
The surplus equipment includes grenade launchers, helicopters, military robots, M-16 assault rifles and armored vehicles.

The police officer is the clenched fist at the end of the long arm of the State. His authority - not in a chain-of-command sense, but in a philosophical one - begins in those enormous, austere buildings in Washington, D.C., whose shadows swallow up the puny individual. When police dogpile a 150-pound, unarmed protester, kneeling on his throat and twisting his spine:

...that is your political economy making a very special guest appearance in the very real, very painful life experience of a fellow citizen.

Notions of "community policing" and police officers as members of (nay, servants of) the public are nice, and certainly a worthwhile direction to push policing in the short term.

But for all that warm, fuzzy, New Left we-love-the-police kumbaya-ing, the point at which the police are your friends ends exactly where your individual circumstance fail to comply with any one of thousands of laws or regulations, entirely at the discretion of the officer shaking you down. Speaking of those laws:

Since the start of 2000, Congress has created at least 452 new crimes...the total number of Federal crimes [alone] as of the end of 2002 exceeds 4,450. Ninety-one of the 452 were contained in new laws that created 279 new crimes, and the remainder were contained in amendments to existing laws. The total of 452 new crimes breaks down by year as follows: 65 for 2000; 28 for 2001; 82 for 2002; 51 for 2003; 48 for 2004; 13 for 2005; 145 for 2006; 20 for 2007.

So to paraphrase the Firesign Theater, should you be worried about Officer Friendly? Hell, no! Just ask the cop on the corner. Ask the cop in front of the bank. Ask the cop in the public park. Ask the cop monitoring your phone, internet, or (if you're lucky!) written communication. Ask him! He'll tell you - nothing to see here, move along.

No comments:

Post a Comment