The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Deeply Broken American Police System

I remember, years ago, when the news of torture in Iraq first came out, I wrote an article entitled US Finally Treats Iraqis Just Like Americans. The point was that abuse and rape is so rife in US prisons and jails, that waterboarding and stress positions are really only embellishments. To an outsider it is evident that the US police and prison system is out of control.

So when I read that police in St. Paul pepper sprayed a jailed woman over her entire body, then refused to let her wash it off—I’m not surprised. When I read that a number of prisoners were on a hunger strike to convince guards to get medical care to an anemic women who had passed out, I’m not surprised.

‘Cause here’s the truth. Shoving people around can be a lot of fun. And being a cop or prison guard lets you do it almost as much as you want to. As a practical matter, brutality and abuse of power almost never leads even to a slap on the wrist, let alone being fired or criminal charges. Don’t piss off the really important people (of whom there are fewer and fewer every year) and you can be a petty tyrant to anyone else you please.

A lot of cops are good folks, but a lot of people who join the police or become prison guards do so because they want authority, because they want to be “the man”. Once inside, they join a society which has a strong undercurrent of hostility and contempt for civilians, who are seen, in many cases literally, as either sheep or criminals. In part this is natural, police interact with people when they’re at their worst or weakest—either with people who have committed crimes, or people who have suffered crimes. Neither group comes across well—the first are scum, the second are often shattered and seem weak. That’s the police life, day in, day out. So many police come to see civilians through that lens, because that’s most of what they see of civilians.
Add to this contempt the attitude of those who direct the police in operations like this, such as the Bush Secret Service, who have been corrupted by Bush into his Praetorian guard whose main job is less security than making sure no one can ever show dissent anywhere Bush could possibly see it, and you have a real problem. Most people are very malleable, they do what people in authority tell them to. People who stand up to authority are very rare. Police, by the very nature of the job, don’t actually tend to be mavericks, movie stereotypes aside. They tend towards authoritarian personality types. They like to give orders and they like to take orders. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are definitely not the rule.

Combine the fact that cops see civilians as an out-group (not like us) with official encouragement and fear mongering (terrorist anarchists) along with the personality profile of many folks attracted to the job and you have a group which is primed and ready to be brutal towards people they believe “deserve it”. Add to that the fact that police being disciplined for brutality and for violating people’s rights is actually quite rare, add in dollops of new police powers given by Congress, the executive branch and the Supremes over the last few years, and it’s practically a guarantee of police abuse of power, the destruction of the right to assembly and the end of real free speech. (The joke about free speech zones, of course, is “wasn’t the entire country a free speech zone?”)

Police are probably necessary in society. I do say probably, because large and complex societies often had  far far fewer people performing police functions than modern societies and most modern societies have even fewer than the US does. But as with standing armies, they’re profoundly dangerous not just for all the reasons listed above, but because large paramilitary forces (and US police are paramilitary, they have been systematically militarized, first by the war on drugs then by the war on terror, over the last 30 years) inevitably not only have to justify themselves by doing something (and what they’re best at is violence against civilians), but also provide a temptation to those in power. Why listen to people, why fix problems, when those who complain about the problems can just be intimidated or beaten into silence?

So a society which is really concerned about liberty and freedom has to watch its cops very carefully. They can’t be allowed to get out of control, to forget that they exist to serve civilians, not to shove civilians around. In the US the evidence is that the line has been crossed. This happens so regularly now that it’s just expected. It’s hardly commented on in the press, despite being the exact same behavior that has the press so excited and outraged when it happens in other countries like China. No major politician can be bothered to call it out as inappropriate. It’s just the new normal.

And so it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that if the US isn’t exactly a police state, it’s certainly not a free state. And with more people locked away than any other country in the world, it’s also impossible not to conclude that it’s also a prison state. Violence and the threat of violence is so endemic in the US that most Americans don’t even notice any more that they live in a an incredibly violent society which is kept on track by intimidation, and when necessary, actual violence. They don’t notice that their cops are out of control, ill-disciplined and essentially above the law.

Instead it falls mostly to those of us from outside, or Americans who have lived elsewhere to say “there’s something wrong here. Something deeply pathological.”

More on this in some later pieces. For now, though, look at the US, at the RNC, at your prisons, as if you weren’t American, and see what you see. Because I can tell you now, no other western first world nation is like the US in this regard. And it’s not one of those things Americans should be proud of.

Originally posted at FDL on Sept 3, 2008.




Want Something Fixed? Make Sure Important People Have Skin In the Game


  1. Tim McGovern

    I’m rereading Nixonland by Rick Pearlstein right now, and it’s just so heartbreakingly obvious how much of this is born of simply some people who like their drugs (cigarettes, alcohol, food) disapproving of people who sampled some other stuff.

    Amanda Marcotte posts something along these lines every coupla weeks, be it about sex or drugs, and the fact remains the same – something’s goin on and Mr. Jones doesn’t approve. The last post Paperwight ever made, a joke about Pat Buchanan saying some racist nonsense, with his picture next to a caricature of an Irish immigrant from (I think) the early 20th century, is as apt nowadays when it comes to the prison population.

    Today I bought my local Philadelphian paper, the Daily News. The front page was about the SHOCKING STATEMENT BY HARRY REID. Unfortunately, the back page was about the terrible performance by my Eagles.

    Far, far worse was the editorial about our prison population. The author, not a right winger really, just a go-along type who’s trying to curry favor with his readers, which is more working class than Main Line, basically played off the fact that our prisons have more per capita than China, etc.

    Nothing about pot laws (let alone California’s way out of the housing crisis), or racism, just a jokey thing about how ‘just a million’ in jail out of 300 million isn’t a biggie, couched in what is a good first part about demographics. I remember Stirling talking about that ‘echo boom’ or something along those lines describing that crime drop in the 90s compared to the horror stories in the 80s.

    Words fail. The economy’s bad, sure, but, as your writings have shown, how can the elites of this country not see that imprisoning people for victimless nonsense might be the first thing to go in a non-productive society? Or, if rational thinking is gone, which I know is the right answer, then at least, don’t try to teach the teabaggers who, Maureen Dowd-like, want their strong daddies, that the only way to compete for the jobs that are left is to revert to the chimpanzee style of authority that that Stanford Prisoner experiment taught us? Pork for Appalachia, sure, but wtf? Are all our elites in gated communities?

  2. Bolo

    My own take on this situation in this country is that there are two experiences:

    For the privileged, usually white, middle-class and higher people, the US doesn’t look like a police state or a prison state. Most of these people (myself included) understand the limits of behavior and acceptable protest/speech. In fact, we conform ourselves to them so thoroughly that most of us forget that strict social rules exist or never even wake up to realize what they are. We read abstracted stories about the prison system in the newspaper but never really connect them to our daily lives–because our daily lives don’t involve the prison complex in any major way and, if they do, we are not usually on the receiving end of its punishments.

    But if you’re non-white (esp. black or hispanic), subscribe to radical political views, or are poor, then you get the prison state experience. You have a higher chance of incarceration. You’re a suspect. The police treat you like crap. Your rights are not protected.

    Of course, if any of us middle-class whites step out of line to a significant degree then we’ll get the prison state experience, but we police ourselves pretty tightly and usually get lesser sentences. Middle-class hispanics and blacks walk an even tighter rope.

    The rich elite can do just about anything they want–they run the prisons.

  3. tjfxh

    Don’t get me going on this. The horror stories abound to the degree that one has to conclude that the problem is endemic.

    However, the US is not monolithic, and there are better and worse places. But there are no good places.

    BTW, the RCMP didn’t have a great rep with the DFH’s either. And when I was traveling in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, you would much rather have been busted in the US.

    The big difference is that well-off people have the wherewithall to broker a deal just about anywhere. I can tell some stories about that too. The poor don’t.

  4. tjfxh

    Don’t get me going on this. The horror stories abound to the degree that one has to conclude that the problem is endemic.

    However, the US is not monolithic, and there are better and worse places. But there are no good places.

    BTW, the RCMP didn’t have a great rep with the DFH’s either. And when I was traveling in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, you would much rather have been busted in the US.

    The big difference is that well-off people have the wherewithall to broker a deal just about anywhere. That still holds. I can tell some stories about that too. The poor don’t have that ability.

  5. Lex

    Bolo has an excellent point; much of this is class-based. My parents live in a nice suburb very near Detroit (with a long legacy of some of the meanest, most racist cops you’ll ever meet). Nobody bats an eye over the fact that the PD has APC’s or assault rifles. Travel two miles east from the edge of that suburb and you’ll be in Detroit proper, where gun crime that doesn’t result in death is swept under the rug through paperwork tricks.

    In the city the unwritten, but strictly enforced, rule of “no snitchin” holds more power than a badge…the gun is immaterial as both sides of the equation are well-armed. The police can arrive at a shooting with the victim still bleeding out and 30 people milling around; they won’t find a witness.

    And the semi-frequent pleas (or harangues) of syndicated, black columnists in newspapers don’t change a thing. Those poor, black, people of the inner city know the rules, and they know that they cannot trust the police. It isn’t even really about the retaliation they’ll see from perpetrators (not that the police can or would protect them from the retaliation). It’s about trust.

    I live in a really nice place, and the local police force is made up mostly of decent men and women who like their quiet life. I still wouldn’t trust any of them under any circumstance. Ask a lawyer, s/he will tell you not to speak to the police…not even as a witness or a victim. The police are trained to get people to waive rights. For example, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” If you answer that question you’ve already waived your 5th Amendment rights.

    The issue is similar to our war machine. So long as it doesn’t seem to affect/inconvenience the middle and upper classes, it’s fine. Kids from rich neighborhoods aren’t getting drafted to fight in Afghanistan and they’re not getting thrown in jail for pot possession, so their parents don’t care that other kids are.

  6. Ed

    If you travel by air these days, the US looks alot like a police state. Even if you are white or middle class. That is one change in American life compared to fifteen years ago.

    Also, television news. PBS showed some Soviet TV news broadcasts in the early 80s, just to show people what the propeganda was like. I’ve been struck for about twenty years about how similar American TV news broadcasts were to the Vremya broadcasts PBS showed. And that has also been getting worse over the years.

  7. I really noticed the difference in the States. I’m a middle class white guy with excellent manners (I grew up in a prep school). I regularly get treated like shit by American cops. Canadian cops, not so much. Not saying they can’t be brutal, but default mode (other than Quebec) doesn’t seem to be set to brutal when dealing with middle class white guys.

    If American cops treat people like me like shit, I can’t even imagine what they treat hispanics, blacks and white trash like.

    Also, no one has ever demanded my ID on a train traveling internally in Canada.

    The statistics also tell the story.

  8. Lex

    There’s no truth in the News and no news in the Truth. Homo americanus is little different than Homo sovieticus except in its self-perception…i.e. delusion.

  9. For example, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” If you answer that question you’ve already waived your 5th Amendment rights.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist; this is not correct. You can always insist on your right to remain silent, even if you’ve already answered some questions, etc. Same goes for your right to an attorney. Although police often try to get you to waive those rights later on.

    And, no matter what anyone might tell you, no, refusing to consent to a search does not give the cop probable cause to search without your consent. I am amazed at how many people have this erroneous belief, which is partly why it’s so easy for cops to get consent to search.

    It’s a well-known fact of law enforcement and prosecution that practically everyone (1) quickly waives Miranda, expressly, and often in writing, and (2) consents to searches.

    OK, I’m done. Pardon the side bar.

  10. Mason


    Having excellent manners can be precisely what brings out the brute in certain American cops; it marks you as a sheep who doesn’t have recourse if he (usually a man, of course) oversteps his authority. In my estimation the people who receive decent treatment are the ruthless types with a lawyer on retainer and personal connections to the local hierarchy; the young-and-wild of the same ethnicity who remind them of their own misspent youth; and the blondes with an ample rack.

    For someone with a predatory mindset, only another predator is not worth the risk of confrontation.

  11. Ian Welsh

    Yes Mason, good point, and one I’ll have to remember. Certainly I remember it when dealing with other bullies/predators. (Never show fear, rule #1. Being high protestant I sometimes forget that manners can be seen as fear.)

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén