A note to my internet friends who say police are evil

This is written in response to a group of young (and less young) progressive types who I chat with online, in response to an argument that given the state of police departments as a whole, most individual police must be evil.

So I’ve written a lot, and unapologetically, about the need for police reform – like here, and here, and here too – and I stand by everything I’ve said.

But that’s not the same as saying most police are evil.

Have any of you ever read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography? “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”? It’s an amazing book, in which he tells the story of how he grew up a slave, managed to teach himself to read, and then escaped to be the nation’s leading orator and abolitionist leader. It’s incredible testament to the story of the human spirit and our capacity for greatness.

The only problem is that it has been used by … oh, let’s say less than sympathetic elements … to suggest that all slaves should have done this. “Hey,” they’ve said. “His story proves that if a slave really wanted to, he could educate himself and escape. So slaves who didn’t must not have really wanted it.”

It’s a batshit crazy argument, but it’s the kind of argument that comes up in a lot of contexts. Most recently in Republican Presidential Candidate Ben Carson (it’s really hard to say that with a straight face) when he argued that the problem with the Jews in Germany was that they didn’t arm themselves and fight back. Why didn’t they do that? It’s like they wanted to be exterminated.

It comes up in other contexts too. Are people homeless? Well, the fact that some people were able to work themselves out of homelessness must mean that the people who didn’t really want to be homeless.

(Living in San Francisco, one often hears about the homeless “Why don’t they just learn to code?”)

Get it? Now, certainly there are cases where somebody just isn’t trying to find a job or someone has given into despair, but the point is that simply pointing out that somebody else has managed to to do something incredibly difficult isn’t evidence that everybody can. Especially when we’re dealing with perniciously evil systems like slavery. In the case of slaves, the whole system was designed specifically to keep people from doing what Frederick Douglass did.

The point I’m making is: some people are heroes who are capable of doing what needs to be done and never compromising in the face of insurmountable odds. But we can’t expect everybody to be, and not being a hero isn’t grounds for being seen as a lesser person.

Which brings us to today’s police departments.

There are, absolutely, individual cops who are evil bastards.  Police departments have to be constantly vigilant against people who want to be cops just because they get to have power.  But the problem isn’t a few bad apples – and to suggest that it is, is actually to perpetuate the system. The problem is that cops live in a dysfunctional culture of law enforcement, and that system protects and defends itself.

First let’s look at the pressures the system’s under.

  • Crime is a high profile political hot potato that does not generally respond well to short-term tactics. But any time there is a high profile crime or series of crimes, municipal leaders are pressured to “do something now!” and they in turn pressure the police department. Police leadership is therefore under the near constant threat of being considered deficient – and being replaced – for factors that are not under their control. This creates a kind of Kafka-esque series of incentives where looking like you’re stopping crime is more important than actually doing anything about it: and it’s not coming from the rank and file, or even the police leadership, it’s coming from our elected officials, and even us. A lot of the stupid and destructive policies that police are tasked with enforcing and committing are set up in our name, because we voters are uncomfortable with the truth that creating a safe community is not a short-term-solution kind of task, and we punish politicians (and police leadership) who try to tell us that truth.
  • A terrifying trend in municipal government over the last several decades has used police departments as primary revenue sources – that is to say, has required police to meet budget goals through fines and enforcement in order to keep the city from deficit spending. This was the case in Ferguson, and it is another Kafa-esque nightmare. What it means is that police are told as a matter of policy that they need to make a certain number of arrests and levy a certain number of fines – no matter what crimes are actually being committed. Or not committed. This is monstrous, absolutely evil, and it quickly spirals into a series of surrealy dystopian bureaucratic farces with real victims – who are the only sane ones. It should not be allowed. But again, it is not the cops making these decisions or instituting these policies. It is the politicians, who are trying to placate the voters, who are us.
  • The justice system is adversarial.  There are good reasons for this, of course, starting with the right of everyone accused to a vigorous and unhindered defense.  But the justice system in the U.S. is a winner take all game (“innocent” or “not guilty,” “justified” or “career ending”) in which everything the police do is attacked by the defense team. I don’t mean this as a criticism of defense lawyers – they’re doing their jobs – but the point is precisely that there are no incentives for police to admit to nuance in their work. Just the opposite: admission of any mistake, no matter how understandable, means a perp walks and/or the city gets sued. In our jobs we can say “Hey, I did it 95% right,” and be rewarded or promoted or at least not disciplined. If a cop admits 1% error, no matter what it was, the system will jump on it, with severe consequences. The system, then, is designed to polarize everyone in it: nobody’s sitting down to say “what’s the best outcome here, let’s try to do right by everybody.” Just the opposite. And when, like police,  everything you do is put under a microscope with severe consequences for even the smallest mistake, of course the response is to create a culture in which mistakes aren’t admitted to or glossed over.


These are just some of the pressures that police systems are under which bend them towards both committing terrible acts and then covering them up, and the point is that individual officers taking a stand aren’t going to change that because the systemic problems are caused by the political system and the voters.

A cop refusing to do the bad things that the system demands won’t change the system – it won’t make crime any less of a political hot potato, or make his city’s budget less dependent on criminal fines, or the justice system any less adversarial. What it will do is get him fired and replaced by someone who will,

It’s not a question of individual cops being bad apples – though surely some are – it’s a problem with a kafka-esque system needing the police to do these things or else.

Yes, of course, if every police officer were to take a stand against the system, it would grind to a halt. But if you as an individual take a stand, you’re going to get crushed.

But shouldn’t the police always do the right thing anyway, as individuals? Well of course. But giving in to systemic pressure isn’t the same as being evil. Especially when the whole point of your job really is to put yourself in harm’s way for other people. It in no way excuses, let alone justifies, the evil that police systems do to acknowledge that many members of police forces will risk their lives to save strangers on a regular basis.

Consider a sadly not really hypothetical instance: a cop shoots a man down in the street, only to discover that he were mistaken, and the guy wasn’t armed. You’re a cop on the scene. Is the right thing to do to report what happened and send your partner to Internal Affairs, where he’ll likely be disciplined – possibly fired – and then face a civil suit?

Absolutely, yes. That is the right thing to do.

But your partner says he honestly thought the guy had a gun, and you believe him. Nevermind (very real) questions of institutional racism at this moment – the time for that discussion was way before your partner  was given a badge and a gun – the question you’re asking yourself is: should my partner lose his job for making an honest mistake?

It’s not like admitting to wrong-doing will bring the guy back.

Your partner has a family to feed, and times are tough. Plus if he admits wrong-doing, he will be sued and the city might not indemnify him (because he admitted an error in judgment, so it’ll be easy for the city to cut its losses), at which point his kids lose their college fund and their house. Does he really deserve that? For a mistake?

Meanwhile you’ll be disciplined informally: not just by your fellow officers, but by the chief (who can’t have a department looking like it employs people who make mistakes) and by the mayor who is up for re-election next year and doesn’t want to look like he employs people who make mistakes. You’ve just fucked them both, and they won’t forget it. And your kids don’t have a college fund yet.

Plus, anything you say about this incident will by part of the public record and could be used against you too. If you admit that you also thought the guy was armed? Then every time a defense attorney wants to challenge your credibility, they’ll bring that up. Good arrests you make down the line will be endangered if you admit to a human capacity for error – even in this tragic situation.

So you’d be screwing your partner’s kids and your own future and good arrests you’ll make later, all to … what? Since nothing’s really going to change in the big picture, what good are you going to do? (You ask yourself.)

Now – is telling the truth and admitting that your partner made a mistake the right thing to do?

Yes, absolutely.

But if you don’t do it, does that make you evil?

Gritting my teeth in anger at the thought of a planted weapon (or a lying with a “he was charging at us” scenario), and the rank injustince being done – I would say that no, it doesn’t necessarily make you personally evil.  I would say it makes you sadly human. I think it is entirely possible for a good person to get caught up in a bad system, and make terrible decisions as a result.  (A contention that liberals use to defend criminals all the time, but have a curious allergy to applying to police.)

Worse, if you make this an argument about the moral lives of cops – if you say “all we need to do is get good people in uniform” – then you’re missing the larger structural issues. You’re not solving the problems that pervert police culture in the first place – problems that, as a voter, you helped create.

You’re focusing on what the cops should be doing instead of what you should be doing. Making them a scapegoat.

I can accept “police, as a class, are evil,” to the extent that I can accept “voters, as a class, are evil.”

Which you can believe if you want to. But I don’t happen to think either statement is true, or helpful.

Nor do I think anyone who has never been fired from a job for being a whistleblower or refusing to carry out routine orders for moral reasons (which I have) can understand just how lonely and frightening an experience it is. Unless you turn into a celebrity case, nobody’s congratulating you. Nobody’s patting you on the back. Nobody’s offering to help pay your mortgage. You’re all alone, ruining your life, because of some abstract principle – and usually nobody’s even getting helped from it.

Most voters, like most cops, don’t have it in them to be Frederick Douglass. They’re decent people – sometimes very good people – trying to deal with the system they’re in. We can do more, we are called upon to do it, obliged to do it. But we need to change the system, not demand heroics from the people called upon to implement the bad laws we live by.