Some scattered thoughts on cops, particularly cops in the US.
Police exist primarily to protect property arrangements. The war on drugs has paramilitarized police, with a heavy emphasis on overwhelming force. While police have always considered themselves above the common herd, and have always looked after themselves first and civilians second, it’s very clear that police today are much worse in this regard than they were 10 years ago, and 10 years before that, and 10 years before that. Police are well aware that they have near full immunity: they can beat people, kill people, plant evidence on people and they will, in most cases, get away with it. Even if caught on tape, the worst punishment is likely to be paid suspension.
Security forces who are expected to be brutal, as the US’s police are (and much of the rest of the West) can be staffed by two basic personality types: ideologues or thugs. Ideologues, as with the KGB in the USSR, have the advantage of being believers. They also have the disadvantage of being believers. They generally don’t get off on violence and cruelty, though they do it when necessary.
Thugs, on the other hand, want a license to allow them to be brutal and cruel. They like power and they like to be able to tell other people what to do, to force them to obey and even to grovel. The jokes about the crime of “disrespect of cop” aren’t jokes, it is very close to the most dangerous thing you can do around a cop, as any refusal to obey an order can be cause for a beating and a free-standing resisting arrest warrant (something which used to be impossible, but is now common.)
The problem with thugs is that they really aren’t that discriminate. They like hurting people and forcing people to grovel and under the right circumstances they’d be just as happy to do it to their lords and masters as to dirty hippies. From the point of view of a real reformer, security forces, whether police or otherwise, are a huge problem. They’re trained in violence, they like it and they want to keep doing it. If you fire them or lay them off in large numbers, they will turn their skill in violence against you. Mind, they are actually lousy at fighting anyone who can fight back, paramilitarized police are generally no threat to the real military, but they are excellent at terrorizing civilians.
One of the most notable things, to me, about the police, is that as they have become more and more “militarized” they have become more and more ineffective. It now takes 10 car loads to quell disturbances that 30 years ago a single car could have handled. I was recently treated to the spectacle of less than 50 Occupy Toronto protestors marching, surrounded on all three sides by police, a squad of horse-cops following and a bunch of paddy wagons in addition. Dealing with any sort of real crowds always involves bussing in cops from hundreds of miles around, and their reactions in crisis are slow, confused and yes, brutal.
The police have also been corrupted, especially in the US, by seizure laws in general and the war on drugs in particular. The ability to seize cash and property without proving and underlying crime has turned the police into a crime syndicate themselves. I have friends who won’t travel through entire US states because police systematically target out-of-state travelers in order to seize their money and property.
All of this is before we get to the problem of prison guards. Violent, brutal and numerous, they are politically powerful, their industry is the mainstay of entire towns, and they can’t be laid off in large numbers for the same reason you can’t get rid of police who are thugs, because they are trained in violence and cruelty and it can be reasonably expected that jobless ex-prison guards in large numbers will engage in violence.
This problem is an ancient one: teach men to be violent, and to enjoy cruelty, give them license and you become as much their prisoner as their master. For now the police are willing to do their master’s bidding, and brutalize the citizenry, because they enjoy it and see citizens as lesser forms of life, who need to be taught their power. But they are a danger to everyone, their masters and anyone who would fix society alike, for there is no road to fixing many nations which does not include de-militarizing the police. And that removal of their power and license to abuse is something they are unlikely to tolerate.