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“Cops Are at War Out There”

A culture of racism, paranoia, and authoritarianism permeates American police departments. Piecemeal reform won't be enough.

Police officers equipped in riot gear line up on August 11, 2014 during a protest of the shooting death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Michael B. Thomas / Getty

On September 6, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger entered the apartment of her upstairs neighbor, Botham Shem Jean, removed her service weapon, and shot the twenty-six-year-old man, killing him. One week later, on the day of Jean’s funeral, a Dallas judge released to the press the results of a search warrant that claimed to find a small amount of marijuana in the slain man’s apartment. “There could only be one purpose for that,” family attorney Lee Merritt said of the search warrant. “The only purpose is to look for information to smear the dead. That is exactly their specific intent.”

For black residents of Dallas, it was a familiar story. From police dragging their feet in arresting Guyger to Guyger’s conflicting statements about what happened to the marijuana found in Jean’s apartment, it appeared the fix was in. “There’s a lot of anger in the streets,” Dallas Pastor Frederick Haynes told the Dallas Morning News. “We’ve seen this movie too often.”

In Texas, like elsewhere, it is extremely rare for police to receive any sanction — personal or professional — for killing another human being. As the Jean case lurches toward its seemingly inevitable, devastating outcome, there will be the usual calls for police reform; the handwringing about training and accountability. But a look at the trade journals, message boards, and public behavior of police shows that the authoritarian mentality runs so deep that even minor reforms will be met with an intractable, reactionary wall.

“Follow Commands or Die”

“I am going to say what no one else is saying,” police officer Travis Yates editorialized in 2016 in Law Officer Magazine. “Follow the commands of a police officer or risk dying.” After lamenting “the lack of submission to authority [that] is throughout our society,” Yates concluded: “The way I see it, we have two options to stop police use of deadly force. Police stop being police or . . . citizens can do what an officer says to do.”

Yates isn’t an outlier. In 2014, in the midst of the Ferguson uprising, veteran Los Angeles police officer Sunil Dutta wrote in a Washington Post editorial, “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.” The victim of “outright challenges to my authority” while he worked his beat, Dutta warned, “here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.”

This demand for complete obedience has real-world consequences. A 2011 investigation of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) found “a pattern or practice of using excessive force against individuals who express discontent with, or ‘talk back to,’ police.” A review of obstruction arrests — known as “contempt of cop” arrests — revealed the target of these police confrontations. In a city where black people make up 7.9 percent of the population, 51 percent of obstruction arrests were of black residents.

In one infamous incident, an SPD officer punched a seventeen-year-old black girl in the face for arguing over a friend’s alleged jaywalking violation. Several months later, a Native American wood carver named John T. Williams was shot and killed on a busy street during rush hour when he failed to turn around fast enough for an SPD officer. Williams was partially deaf. (Charges were never filed against the SPD officer who murdered Williams.)

The obsession with absolute compliance is an inversion of the rational order of things: in this case, it is the responsibility of the person being accosted by police to do and say the right thing, to be completely and totally accountable for all of their actions, real or imagined. The trained officer bears no personal responsibility for doing the right thing; they are simply an agent of violence and chaos acting on instinct — a difference between the police and the public enshrined in law.

Sometimes, it’s unclear even what constitutes compliance in the mind of a police officer. Video of the 2016 murder of Daniel Shaver, an Arizona man, shows a police officer with his AR-15 rifle trained on Shaver, who is face down on the ground in a hotel hallway. The officer screams contradictory commands at Shaver who tries to comply while begging police not to kill him. Then, out of nowhere, Officer Philip Brailsford opens fire on Shaver, shooting him five times and killing him.

Shaver had committed no crime, he posed no threat to Brailsford or any other officer present, he tried to comply with the officer’s impossible commands. He was gunned down anyway.

“Every Individual Is a Potential Threat”

Among the t-shirts marketed to police and their supporters online and at conventions — such as the popular “Black Rifles Matter” shirt and the classic “BDRT” (“Baby Daddy Removal Team”) shirt — is an assortment of warrior cosplay. Law Enforcement Shirts offers a confusing shirt featuring a Spartan helmet against an American flag backdrop and text reading, “Fate whispers to the warrior you cannot withstand the storm. And the warrior whispers back, I am the storm.” Another shirt features a skull with a Blue Lives Matter flag wrapped around it and the text, “I hunt the evil you pretend doesn’t exist.”

The police-as-warriors worldview appears frequently on cop websites.

“Being a police officer requires preparation for death, daily,” a popular listicle on the PoliceOne website states. “Officers put on bullet proof vests and carry guns for a reason: they are ready for the fight, and unfortunately not every warrior comes home. . . . Cops are at war out there.” The article goes on to restate another major theme on police blogs and message boards: “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

“Our officers often are thrust into the role of warrior to fulfill their obligation as guardians,” local police chief Chuck Jordan editorialized in the Tulsa World in 2015. “We are living in a world that is comprised of criminals who will visit violence on their victims as well as police officers without a second thought.” This is why Tulsa police must wear body armor and carry assault rifles and other “warrior equipment” — to protect themselves against the “ever-increasing levels of violence and types of weapons that we are facing.”

Reading such fevered accounts, one could easily come away with the impression that policing is incredibly dangerous — maybe the most dangerous it has ever been. After all, as former officer Randy Sutton writes in Police, “The blood of police officers and sheriff’s deputies is running in the streets.” But the “blood of police” is most definitely not “running in the streets.” Even in 2016 — the worse year for police fatalities since 2011 — policing didn’t crack the top-ten list of most dangerous jobs in America.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is more dangerous to be a groundskeeper than a police officer. Garbage collectors’ job-related mortality rate is twice that of police. Roofers? Three times. Logging, the most dangerous job in the country, has a mortality rate more than nine times that of police. Policing is not only a relatively safe job compared to blue-collar occupations, it is getting safer every year. In fact, 2017 was the second safest year for police in the last fifty years; the safest was 2013.

Yet the siege mentality persists. “So, will 2018 be safer for you?” former LAPD captain Greg Meyer writes in Police. “The dozens of officers murdered in the line of duty each year reach out from the grave and answer, ‘Probably not.’”

War and Racism

It’s not surprising that many police take on the mentality of soldiers on a battlefield. Police wear military-style uniforms and carry military ranks. Federal initiatives like the 1033 program shower the police with all the weapons of war, including assault rifles, grenade launchers, tanks, helicopters, and drones. But far too little attention is paid to how deep that war mentality has is felt among police.

“There is a war against cops!” Travis Yates warns in another editorial for Law Officer. “The men and women behind the badge know it. Good leaders know it and decent communities know it.” Writing in Police, former San Jose police officer Ron Martinelli affirms, “There is indeed a war on police. It is, in fact, the age old battle of good versus evil.”

Officer Paul O’Leary writes, “Every morning and every night, thousands of cops say good bye to their families as they walk out the door not truly knowing if they will make it home.” The head of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, Ron Smith, compares SPD to embattled soldiers, writing in the SPOG’s paper, “keep your heads on a swivel and make sure you back each other up.”

It is fair to see police war rhetoric as just another part of their elaborate cosplay. But the relative safety that police enjoy on the job says little about the effect that those same police have on the community.

“Make no mistake: the police are at war and have always been at war,” David Correia and Tyler Wall write in their critical book Police: A Field Guide. “Policing is a form of domestic warfare, both in how police talk about policing and in how the state carries it out.” And the results of this war are incredibly stark and one-sided. Last year, 128 police officers were killed on the job, most in car accidents. Of that 128, only 44 were killed by gunfire. In that same year an estimated 1,147 people were killed by police. This estimate does not count the hundreds who die every year crossing the police line on the US-Mexico border or those that die in America’s massive prison system, which cages more than 2 million people and keeps another 4.75 million under state surveillance.

Further exacerbating police violence is the racist culture that has permeated American policing since its origin as slave patrols. In 2015, during the corruption case of San Francisco PD officer Ian Furminger, the Los Angeles Times described texts between officers that were made public: “Officers referred to minorities as ‘savages,’ used the N-word to refer to African Americans and suggested they be spayed like animals.” The case brought to mind the 1992 Christopher Commission’s analysis of mobile date terminal (MDT) messages between LAPD officers that “revealed an appreciable number of disturbing and recurrent racial remarks,” including messages like: “If you encounter these negroes shoot first and ask questions later.”

Online police message boards are frequently indistinguishable from Stormfront or 4Chan. Commenting on an article from the Root about Hurricane Florence and its aftermath, a member of TheRant, a message board for current and former members of the NYPD, refers to black people as “thieving savage animals . . . who are content to live in filth and squalor.” A post on a particularly heinous thread called “The Black Dilemma” praises “white southern segregationists” as “prophets” for protesting integration.

A police officer on an Officer.com forum chalks up the murder of victims like Botham Jean, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland to black people’s disrespect for authority. Perhaps this was the sentiment that compelled members of the LAPD to rewrite the lyrics of Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” to “dead, dead Michael Brown” or inspired a retired Baltimore police officer to put on a blackface routine to raise money for Freddie Gray’s killers.

Prospects for Reform

An institutionalized culture of racism, paranoia, and a siege mentality permeates American police departments, creating a major barrier to police reform. Groups like Black Lives Matter are referred to as terrorist organizations in police publications — and even worse on police message boards.

In recent decades even modest efforts at reform have been stymied. In 1992, when New York City mayor David Dinkins convened the Mollen Commission to investigate corruption in the NYPD and called for a civilian complaint review board, as many as ten thousand off-duty police officers, many drunk and armed, rioted outside City Hall denouncing the “nigger mayor.” Two decades later, NYPD officers engaged in a massive work slowdown in a (failed) effort to drive up crime in retaliation for Mayor Bill De Blasio’s criticism of stop-and-frisk policies. In Seattle, federally mandated reforms to SPD have stalled due to police resistance and political inside dealing. Journalist Dominic Holden summed up the situation: “When there is misconduct, the union protects bad cops, the chief protects the union, the mayor and his consultant protect the chief, and the US attorney protects the mayor. The rot goes all the way to the top.”

Can an institution obsessed with dominance and control, imbued with racism, and convinced it is at war with the community around it truly be transformed through normal channels? Can the usual liberal solutions of training and education break through the blue wall? If the public postings and behavior of cops is any indication, piecemeal reform remains a naive dream.