Addendum: Problems with Policing

I wanted to revisit the topic I and Will Chavez wrote about in our earlier essay, To Secure These Rights, in order to react to recent developments (and nondevelopments) and to share an excellent article out of Vox. That topic, you’ll recall, concerned the set of solutions – remedies was the word we used – to the essential problem facing Americans, and Black Americans in particular, of bad policing.

In discussing the effects of local reforms, we took a look at what research on body cam usage teaches us about policing today. By and large, body cams alone don’t decrease the incidence of brutal violence relative to non-cam-wearing officers. We posited that this fits into a model of policing and brutal violence where what is critical is the reaction function of the officers who face high-tension situations, which are basically inevitable and occur at random.

While the body cam research showed that the presence of the body cam did not change the reaction functions of individual officers, we wrote about the potential for officer surveillance to spur another reform mechanism – namely by incorporating entry and exit into the model, and increasing the probability of the cops with the worst reaction functions leaving the force. That new method, we wrote hopefully, would make cameras a remedy once more.

Today’s excellent article out of Vox, by Zack Beauchamp, helps to fill in an important gap in the story we told, and also helps to quash our optimism. Beauchamp spoke (in over a month’s reportage, according to his Twitter) to a far-flung group of researchers, many of them actually former cops themselves, to pin down the reasons for why brutally violent reactions are common among police in response to high-tension situations.

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They make the case that brutally violent reactions to high-tension situations are an endemic component of the culture of policing throughout America, sustained and reified in training courses, in self-selection bias, and in popular civilian and officer symbology like the Thin Blue Line.

Wide Views of Thin Blue Line | The Highlands Current
Master documentarian Errol Morris’ 1988 movie, The Thin Blue Line, helped to popularize the term.

“In one version of the symbol,” Beauchamp wrote, “two black rectangles are separated by a dark blue horizontal line. The rectangles represent the public and criminals, respectively; the blue line separating them is the police.”

Citing the work of Michael Sierra-Arevalo, a sociologist at Rutgers, his article describes the police obsession with the “danger imperative,” the notion that violent death is imminent and prevalent in the course of policing work. Policing, of course, can be lethally dangerous, and some of the cases that crop up commonly among officers are terrifying, tragic encounters.

But if this attitude was perhaps justified by 20th century trends, data show that deaths among officers have been in precipitous decline, a 90% decline in “ambush killings” since 1970. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the annual incidence of occupational deaths among police more in the territory of farmers or truck drivers than in its own air as a phenomenon sui generis (13.1 for police vs 24 for farmers and 26.9 for truck drivers per 100,000).

Regardless, the attitude persists. Beauchamp describes the behavioral adaptations that follow from “danger imperative” thinking: “Because officers are hyper-attuned to the risks of attacks, they tend to believe that they must always be prepared to use force against them — sometimes even disproportionate force. Many officers believe that, if they are humiliated or undermined by a civilian, that civilian might be more willing to physically threaten them. Scholars of policing call this concept “maintaining the edge,” and it’s a vital reason why officers seem so willing to employ force that appears obviously excessive when captured by body cams and cellphones.” [emphasis mine]

This ideological brinksmanship, and particularly its institutionalization, make for a bad case for reformism. An important condition of the model we set out in our essay was the notion that the police force is merely a corporation of its current members – that is, that long-lasting cultural effects don’t exist. That allows the departure of the officers with the worst reaction functions to change the long-run incidence of brutal violence, as the force-wide distribution of reactions will skew less brutally in a linear way. If, however, the interplay is more complex and, for example, an officer’s reaction function depends both on his own reaction and a department-specific reaction, then merely firing bad officers may be insufficient to change the distribution of reactions.

That kind of phenomenon, a concave – or slower – change in force-wide reactions with individual departures, would make the hope for quashing these malevolent practices through slow generational reform a dead letter. The only real avenues left to us then would be disbandment or, more radically, abolition.

Speaking of avenues left to us, I watched the sparring between Congressional leaders over potential police reform with some dismay. After Democrats under Booker and Harris opened the debate with the Justice in Policing Act, about which much in our essay, Senate Republicans under Tim Scott of South Carolina came back with their own proposal. The measure, though far weaker than the Democratic bill, was said to have Trump’s approval, and there looked to be some real momentum for federal reform.

But Senate Democrats balked at the bill’s watered-down proposals, balking so far as to deny opening a floor debate on it. And I think I get it – there’s no reason to engage with the Trump administration at all for the Democrats; he’s going to lose like Mondale. Still, this was a good focusing moment, a real chance for new and needed federal oversight. Not giving the Trump admin a W seems a high cost to pay for the potential of never being able to get a bill like this passed again. We’ll see what happens on 1/21/21.

I worry moreover about some of what’s going on with the “solutions” being pushed by the rich and powerful in response to our current moment. Whether it’s 30 Rock taking its blackface episodes down from streaming, or getting rid of Aunt Jemima, or Goodell backing BLM now, or the statues, or the Confederate flag, it all feels like we’re getting a big sop in the mouth and being told it’s caviar. In case that homespun usage was completely nonsensical, what I mean to say is that these actions being taken by the ornamentally powerful classes are good, of course, in that they’re nominally anti-racist. But presenting these as achievements of the protest cause begun by George Floyd’s murder feels dishonest, orthogonal.

This cause sought as its achievements the arraignment of Chauvin et al, and of Breonna Taylor’s murderers, still not done. It seeks still long-run reforms to prevent this kind of thing from happening again – reforms like national police registries, like breaking police unions, like real efforts to reforge the relationship between officers and the communities they police. Very little of that is in the offing, and to be told that we’re making progress anyway is maddening.

2 thoughts on “Addendum: Problems with Policing

  1. Ryan, I’ve read this and your essay attentively, though I have naught of value to add, since I’m not sufficiently equipped to talk about these matters. They are limpidly written, that I may say.
    I’m commenting mostly because your first hyperlink, that which takes one to your initial essay, isn’t functional. It redirects to the editor and not the page, which is really odd. I thought you might want to repair it!

    Liked by 1 person

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