If police in the U.S. have become robocops, whose fault is that?
reply to my “Exchange with a black reader,”
our Canadian leftist commenter Ken Hechtman went beyond the question of supposed police mistreatment of blacks and raised a new point about the relation of police to society generally. He argued that police now have an adversarial stance toward everyone, not just to blacks. Hannon and Philip M. have replied, and, since it’s a new topic, I’m putting the comments in a new thread.
Ken Hechtman wrote:
“My point is that the police see almost all civilians, regardless of race, in a much more adversarial way than they used to, they expect a lot more deference and compliance than they used to and they’re a lot quicker to go Rambo when they don’t get it.”
Mr. Hechtman would know much better than me, but I think he’s right. I presume this is a training strategy to send a signal that says “You need to take this as seriously as I do. I represent authority at this place and time.” This stance will naturally clash with any angry or contemptuous or drug-polluted personality. But the police profession also tends to attract those who identify with figures of authority and there is always the risk of authoritarianism.
I remember once I was pulled over at night in a small burg near Los Angeles for having green-tinted headlights. I had just bought the vehicle and was not the installer. The officer was civil, even polite, but also stern and serious in lecturing me about the local ordinance against tinted headlights. Serious to a ridiculous degree. I wish I had a witness with me because when I asked him why the fuss over colored lights he said that in the event of me (my vehicle) being present at a crime scene they would want accurate, colorless light. I didn’t think to blurt out “Say what??” but he did say that and I was floored.
So does Mr. Hechtman envision a sort of Robocop future at some point? Where does the escalation end? What comes to mind is that the more we rely on police to maintain the peace and livability of our communities, things will only get worse. We hand over the worst social problems to them, in much the same manner as we hand over responsibility for a hundred more things that have been consigned to government oversight.
Philip M. writes from England:
Much as I find Ken an agreeable and thoughtful person, I find his comments about the state of American policing very irritating. Ken says:
“My point is that the police see almost all civilians, regardless of race, in a much more adversarial way than they used to, they expect a lot more deference and compliance than they used to and they’re a lot quicker to go Rambo when they don’t get it. In other words, they treat almost everyone the way they used to treat blacks. So if you’re black and it feels like nothing’s changed, your encounters with the police are just as arbitrary and demeaning as ever, you’re probably right. If you think it’s just you, you’re probably wrong.”
Ken, mate, you wanted a society where people challenged authority, you wanted a society in which unrepressed individuals gave vent to their true feelings, people who would not be told what to do: and now you have it. If people will not restrain their own behaviour in a mature, adult way it is inevitable that the police will be forced to use ever more repressive measures to enforce a civility that used to be given freely. This willing consent to good behaviour is the cornerstone of Western civilisation. It is what distinguished us from the Communist Chinese and the Arabic Mohammedans. It is what being a citizen in a society where the government think highly of the governed is all about. The State no longer trusts our judgment Ken. Why?
These are not “fascist” police. You can’t pin this one on Mussolini, Ken. I won’t let you get away with it. Newsflash, Ken: the culture wars are over. [LA adds: as Mr. Hechtman boasted himself last September regarding the conservatives’ championing of the Bristol Palin situation, meaning that the conservatives had become life-style liberals.] You won. I have always accused those on the left of avoiding responsibility, Ken. Please prove me wrong. You have created a society in your image. Accept this fact. Even the redneck white policemen are lecturing in diversity politics these days, Kenneth. People like you have controlled the West for forty-odd years. Don’t pretend that there are shadowy cabals of racist WASP fascist-Republicans that are like, acting like real Nazis, man, because everyone on this site has his eyes open and will not believe you. You won, Ken. Congratulations. Your ideological fellow-travelers have reduced conservatism to a neutered, powerless rump, yet you come complaining to us about the society YOU have created. I think this is because you know that conservatives are the only people who would truly care, as opposed to feigning concern as a way to get laid. And about this, you are right. But at least when the Nazis pursued a scorched-earth policy they didn’t have the nerve to come weeping to Ukrainian peasants about how ugly the countryside looks these days.
You say that now the police treat everyone like blacks. You should welcome the fact that in post-racial America you have managed to achieve the only kind of equality that was ever going to be possible. If whites and Hispanics see blacks mouthing off and being disrespectful to the police, do you not think that some of them will insist on the same indulgence? Isn’t that what equal treatment is all about?
If people will not curb their own base instincts, if they will challenge authority at every opportunity, then don’t be surpassed when authority bites back.
As a concrete example of what I am talking about, think of the Child Support Agency in the UK. This was set up to force absent fathers to pay for their children. Their powers and relentless pursuit of such men is almost legendary amongst the immoral gutter-class. While I find it sad that the State now has the power forcibly to deduct money out of my bank account, I accept that this is the outcome of a society in which people will not properly constrain and properly channel their desires. And so it is with American policing, Ken. You are an intelligent man, why can’t you join the dots? Can you not see that your police act the way that they do exactly because of people that have been arrested forty times, and see this as the left-wing version of a purple heart? How did you expect them to react to the gauntlet you threw down?
Left-wing types love to mythologise about the “innocence” of the ’60s and ’70s. But this innocence was not the product of LSD and free love. It was the innocence of a conservative, Christian society which tolerated a high degree of dissent from the youth it loved and who it earnestly sought to accommodate and understand. You knew as a youth in those halcyon days that when you were arrested the police would act in a bemused, but usually non-violent way. These people did not hate you, Ken. They merely despaired of you. They lacked the sophistication and wit to articulate why they felt aggrieved about your behaviour. And you ran rings about them.
I like you, Ken. But you must do what you secretly know you ought to do. Admit you were wrong. Renounce your pride and bow the knee to lawful authority, and sin no more. If liberals are repulsed by liberal society, then who on earth has this mayhem benefited?
Philip M.’s letter is an outstanding contribution to your site. It left me speechless.
I would like to say, with regard to my agreeing with Ken H. on the same point, that if the quote of his I used were modified by removing the superlative qualifiers (“much” and “a lot” twice) then it would sound more reasonable. As it is, it is not unreasonable but it is unbalanced. Mr. Hechtman paints a certain picture of U.S. police officers, but he fails, as Philip M. devastatingly points out, to pair this up with the corresponding, and largely causative, liberal society itself. I failed to see this pairing as well.
Agreed, a standing “O” for that comment.
Terry Morris writes:
I too applaud Phillip’s wonderful response to Ken’s assertions. It’s what a many a conservative has been trying to articulate in a variety of ways on a host of societal related subject matter for years, even decades now.
I remember the first time I figured out that the term “self-government” means different things to different people. Or, to be more exact, that the term’s primary signification is to some “self-determination” rather than what the term clearly indicates—self control, self restraint; self-govern-ment. I was debating with a libertarian friend, and we could not get past some rather obscure point as I recall it now, when it suddenly occured to me: “Wait a minute!, you’re saying that self-government means primarily “self-determination,” is that right?”” So I asked the question of him in that exact manner. His answer to me was “Of course that’s what I’m saying, you think it means something else?”
Well, at least it got us out of the rut we were stuck in as my question opened the way for us to debate the primary and secondary significations of the term self-government. I, of course, conceded that self-determination is an aspect of self-government, but not the primary one. My friend, however, could not come to grips with the idea that self-determination is secondary to the term’s essential meaning. But that incident was something of an epiphany for me. I could hardly see, prior to the exchange, how an intelligent person could possibly misallocate the primary and secondary significations of such an easily discernible concept as “self-government.” It was also the first real indication for me personally that libertarianism is a product of liberalism, whereas before I had thought of libertarians as “the faithful opposition.” I suppose the principle still holds true, the minimum requirements for intelligent conversation to occur:
(1) A mind capable of transmitting an intelligent thought; (2) a mind capable of receiving an intelligent thought; and (3) a mode of communication common to them both (a common language).
That third one has ever been the source of mass confusion between otherwise intelligent, thoughtful creatures. And it ever will, I suppose. Worldview is everything!
Laura W. writes:
Philip M.’s letter left me speechless as well. I particularly liked his point about why Ken comes to VFR, aside from his enjoying the unparalleled opportunities for discussion. He knows we care.
And, this is one of the best descriptions I have read about what the ’60s were really about:
Left-wing types love to mythologize about the “innocence” of the ’60s and ’70s. But this innocence was not the product of LSD and free love. It was the innocence of a conservative, Christian society which tolerated a high degree of dissent from the youth it loved and who it earnestly sought to accommodate and understand. You knew as a youth in those halcyon days that when you were arrested the police would act in a bemused, but usually non-violent way. These people did not hate you, Ken. They merely despaired of you. They lacked the sophistication and wit to articulate why they felt aggrieved about your behaviour. And you ran rings about them.
Roland D. writes:
Having worked with law enforcement agencies across the USA at the local, stated, and federal level at various points throughout my career, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are six main factors which have affected the fundamental psychology of law enforcement with regards to their interactions with the citizenry:
1. The pervasive dominant-left-cultural promotion of the supremacy of the state over the individual. As agents of the state, law enforcement officers and administrators view themselves as inhabiting a privileged position in relation to hoi polloi; this viewpoint has become the norm at all levels and in all sectors of government, and is not exclusive to law enforcement.
2. The abdication of personal responsibility and common sense on the part of the general public.
3. The ever-increasingly litigious nature of American civil society.
4. The morally corrosive effect of the “War on Drugs” in making law enforcement desirous of search-and-seizure revenues; given the seeming universality of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy (“In any bureaucratic organization, there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. In all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”), #1 plus the “War on Drugs” inevitably led to the regrettable paramilitarization and rent-seeking of law enforcement agencies even peripherally involved in drugs-related policing.
5. The toxic combination of the wholesale opening of immigration flood- gates coupled with the abandonment of the principle of cultural assimilation (i.e., the “melting pot”), which has led to the dilution of standard culturally acceptable norms of behavior.
6. The ever-increasing, pervasive glamorization of violence and outlawry in popular culture.
Ken Hechtman wrote:
“My point is that the police see almost all civilians, regardless of race, in a much more adversarial way than they used to, they expect a lot more deference and compliance than they used to and they’re a lot quicker to go Rambo when they don’t get it. In other words, they treat almost everyone the way they used to treat blacks.”
Surely Mr. Hechtman realises that this is a direct consequence of living in a non-discriminatory, race-blind society? The black community must still be policed effectively, but, since blacks cannot be singled out as a group (which would be wrong), the only way to keep public order is to treat everyone the way blacks used to be treated.
Ken Hechtman writes:
I honestly don’t know where to start on Philip M.’s comment. I don’t know who he’s arguing with but it’s not me. You never heard me say “fascist” or “conspiracy.” You never will. I don’t think any one group of people sat down 50 years ago and planned all this out. But I can point out some structural changes that happened over and above the culture wars. These are all factors that have made the police more of a closed-in-on-itself society within the larger society.
Fifty years ago, police still patrolled on foot. They’d get a chance to talk to civilians on the street. When car-patrol became the norm, the older cops would talk about how the younger ones were “seeing the world through a windshield.” They’d only get out of the car when there was trouble.
All cops used to rotate through night shifts and day shifts. Once police unions became strong, day shifts got assigned by seniority. Depending on the city, a cop might have to work nights for his first 10 years or more. That makes it more likely for cops to socialize exclusively with other cops.
By the 1980s, half of law enforcement, by any measure you want to use, was drug enforcement. And the difference between drug enforcement and law enforcement is that when there’s no victim, there’s no complainant which means there’s no citizen expressing gratitude that the cop has done his job. Instead, cops will drive through blighted neighborhoods where everyone is a target and everyone is hostile. P.J. O’Rourke wrote about this, riding on patrol with the DC police and seeing bustling activity on the street at four in the morning. He got this extremely disconcerting feeling when he realized that every single person he could see was breaking the law in one way or another.
Federal money and other assistance influences what kind of policing gets done. In the 1990s, a small town couldn’t get federal money for arson, rape and bloody murder. But there was always money for drug enforcement. Today, there’s always money for counter-terrorism too.
There was always a high proportion of military veterans in the police but there wasn’t a specific DoD program that funneled demobilized veterans into city police forces (“Troops to Cops”). There’s another program that provides military hardware and another that provides training on it. And all this changes the understanding of what police work is. A man who wears a Stetson hat and brown polyester suit and drives around in a beat-up Crown Victoria has one idea of what his job is. A man who wears cargo pants and jump boots and web gear and drives an armored personnel carrier has another.
Philip M. wrote:
You knew as a youth in those halcyon days that when you were arrested the police would act in a bemused, but usually non-violent way. These people did not hate you, Ken. They merely despaired of you. They lacked the sophistication and wit to articulate why they felt aggrieved about your behaviour. And you ran rings about them.
This is largely true. They didn’t hate us. We didn’t hate them either. For the most part, both sides treated our activities like a football game with politics. We (and the police) even used those words from time to time. There were rules to the game. Nobody ever wrote them down but we all knew what they were. Nobody gets permanently injured (we crossed that line more than the cops did). Nobody gets jumped by a gang when they’re walking home from the riot (the cops broke that rule more than we did). Nobody goes complaining to the press about the other side’s “brutality” (nobody even thought about doing this, it would have been beneath us).
I don’t know … Maybe you’re confusing me with the “Seattle generation” of anarchists. You’d need to be an anarchist yourself to understand the differences completely but they really are a different breed. Technically, they’re better at streetfighting than we ever were, but they take it (and themselves) so seriously that all the fun’s gone out of it. And God forbid one of ‘em should skin his knuckles on a cop’s face. He’ll go screaming “police brutality” to any reporter who’ll listen. Kids today … I tell ya …
I think this is because you know that conservatives are the only people who would truly care, as opposed to feigning concern as a way to get laid.
One of the downsides of winning the culture war is that nobody needs to pretend to be a liberal just to get laid. Even conservatives can get laid these days.
Mark P. writes:
I think I can distill what Philip M. wrote into the following:
1) Liberals wanted to create a sociey based on individual freedom and the autonomy of the person. A large part of that autonomy comes from “challenging authority.”
2) The problem with individual freedom is that people become concerned with how they are treated. If people are allowed to do whatever they want, or if there is a presumption that individuals rule, then the number one concern of every individual is how other individuals will treat him.
3) The concern over personal treatment leads to formalized rules and regulations created by government. What used to be regulated through culture and tradition must now be done through a police apparatus because the culture and tradition was destroyed. Ironically, individual freedom leads to the growth of the state.
4) To prevent individual from abusing freedom, the state needs the authority to act out its will.
5) But liberals have created a society where authority is “challenged.”
6) Therefore, the authority must clamp down harder on everyone.
As can be shown, the power and brutality of the state today is a direct consequence of the actions by people like Ken Hechtmann. Welcome to the world you created.
By the way, Ken’s response to Philip is just the usual “community policing” nonsense. Why would having a “beat cop” walking the streets change anything? Is this because the grey-haired hippies are remembering the old days of beat cops and the society that went with it?
Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 28, 2009 12:39 AM | Send
“For the most part, both sides treated our activities like a football game with politics. We (and the police) even used those words from time to time. There were rules to the game. Nobody ever wrote them down but we all knew what they were.”
Really? The police described your antics as “like a football game with politics”? I don’t believe you. You are superimposing your ideas onto the police. Because you saw the police as representing a political power-structure you want to destroy, you are now imputing political motives to them that they did not have. It wasn’t political sport to them, Ken. They were just doing their job—you know, arresting people who break the law.
“There were rules to the game. Nobody ever wrote them down but we all knew what they were.”
What you are talking about here, Ken, is unspoken, shared, cultural assumptions. The kind of unspoken assumptions only possible when similar people are brought up in a stable, family-based patriarchal society which respects its cultural values. Whatever happened to those days, Ken? Those policemen looked at you, an intelligent, English-speaking white boy, and thought that deep down, you must be on their side. Hence their bewilderment. Our society was geared up to external threats, and had no idea how to respond when it was attacked by its own, apparantly for a game. By abiding by the same “rules of engagement” the police were guilty of not treating you as an individual, but as part of a group—their group. The police know better now. It is wrong not to treat people as individuals. The result? Now the police look on everyone as a potential Henry Gates. I repeat, Ken, that this was the only kind of equality that you were ever going to get.
“I don’t know … Maybe you’re confusing me with the ‘Seattle generation’ of anarchists. You’d need to be an anarchist yourself to understand the differences completely but they really are a different breed.”
Ah, I see. It wasn’t your fault, I didn’t understand the subtle differences between the various different types of good-and-bad lefty. Could you do me a favour, Ken? Could you please get together all the various wings of your Church and thrash out between you who’s the responsibilty actually is? Because there are some people round here that would really like to take a few things up with them. “It was only supposed to be a game … it was those Seattle anarchists that took it to far… ” Your evasions are in their own way an eloquent testimony to the horror you feel when you get flashes of insight into what you have brought on your people. You want to flee your political Chappaquiddick, Ken. I don’t blame you one bit.
Mark P. has already touched on Ken’s response about bringing back bobbies on the beat. Ken seems to see society entirely in political terms. This gives him an illusion of control he doesn’t have. He believes that every cultural or spiritual sickness can be cured by tinkering with a few laws—change a tax rate here, dish out some welfare over there, get policemen to walk round there. We are always just a few pieces of legislation away from utopia, aren’t we Ken?