Sunday, June 17, 2012

Kristian Williams: Our Enemies in Blue

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The second edition, the one I read, of "Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America" was published in 2007. Excluding the omission of Occupy the book could have been published this week. To me, this shows the accuracy and timeliness of the theories Kristian Williams advances: he has written a book about how policing got to the state it's in, what that state is, and how it manifests itself that could as well describe the events of the early and mid- 2000s that are included in the book as it could describe the policing tactics surrounding Occupy or even Oakland Mayor Quan's "100 blocks plan." This is a book that anyone affected by law enforcement should read, and really, that's everyone: Protesters, people in "urban" neighborhoods, proponents of "community policing," officers themselves, and just "normal" people. The thing is, few of these people will read it: it's too academic for most people, Occupiers don't seem to care about history (in my experience) and are falling into the exact traps that you would expect them to based on "Our Enemies in Blue," cops are part of the "why let logic get in the way of tradition" school and/or change-adverse, politicians think that "community policing" is the answer, etc etc.  This book is full of big ideas that are too big to swallow, for most people. So I can' only spread the word and maybe a few key ideas.

There is a traditional history of The Police, which, while not super familiar to me, revolves heavily on the bobbie, or English policeman. American police, the myth goes, are direct descendants of London's Metropolitan Police, or "Bobbies," created in the 1820s. Williams complicates this picture by first introducing characteristics of modern policing, which the Bobbies didn't meet until after some of their own institutions. For Williams, modern policing meets the following criteria (good to keep these in mind):

1. The department operates under a single organization.
2. The department has centralized control and citywide jurisdiction (ie: not a neighborhood).
3. Procedures and offices are uniform/continuous.
4. The police have a specialized function (ie: not parking enforcement, just policing).
5. The department operates 24/7 (ie: not night watchmen).
6. Personnel are paid, not volunteers.
7. The department focuses on preventing crime.

Thus, Williams can easily show that American policing met many of these standards well before the Bobbies, and as direct descendants of their very own (ugly) traditions: slave patrols, city guards, and day and night watchmen. The very things that we worry about now with policing: racism, police brutality, discriminatory laws, targeting of specific neighborhoods, etc, are built into the very foundation of policing; they *are the reason for policing. Slave patrols were mandated to bring black slaves back to their white masters, the police in Boston were tasked with dispersing what we would now call loiterers.  Williams describes slave patrols as one "straightforward route to modernization, because rather than serving primarily as officers to the crown or the court, the slave patrols existed solely as a means of preserving the status quo through the enforcement of the slave codes."

In time, (as Williams detailed), both urban and rural forces evolved hand in hand with increased industrialization and urbanization, and this in turn required the increasing bureaucratization of the city: "policing is thus tied to a more general trend in government administration, the rise of bureaucracies..." This allowed (and allows) local government to use the police "to enforce its will, regulate the behavior of the citizens and generally keep an eye on things with unprecedented efficiency and regularity." Local governments and police departments continued to get more professional, more bureaucratic, and more centralized, (Williams has a fascinating section on the ways machine politics and the police worked together), and as they did, they became harder to separate. Police bureaucracy, however, is inherently flawed: cops on the street have an enormous amount of autonomy and discretion, and the military structure does not actually mimic the discipline and order of the military. Williams breaks it down: "This allowed corruption, prejudice, favoritism, and political influences some amount of latitude on the street- where the police did their work- while limiting these factors in the offices of management, where policy was set." Meanwhile, post-machine politics, local governments were now in a great position: they could depend on the police to enforce their will and status quo, while blaming excesses in the process squarely on the head of the chief. If this sounds too good to be true, remember the events of November, 2011, when OPD raided Occupy Oakland, which ended in a disaster. Mayor Quan denied knowledge of the affair, though clearly having authorized the removal of the encampment. The police did their jobs, enforced the status quo, brutally, at the behest of local government, who threw them under the bus.

Here's another trick about the policed society: modern police have been shaped and "softened" by things like the Kerner Commissions after the excesses of police reaction to the civil disobedience of the late 1960s. Williams describes it as "schizophrenic": the new models try to prevent disturbances created by protests, through "non-aggressive" demeanor and cooperation of organizers:
they [the Commissions] decry social injustice with criticisms of racial discrimination, prison conditions and the plight of the urban poor. They push for greater inclusivity at all levels of society. But they also denounce the activities by which attention was successfully brought to these problems, and change effective. The Eisenhower report explicitly denounces civil disobedience; and the Scranton report insists that those responsible for campus unrest be disciplined. These reports push for rigorous adherence to Constitutional guarantees of free speech and the like, while at the same time offering precise instruction on the means of limiting, containing, and controlling protests.
This is not, Williams says, the Commissions trying to walk a fine line between defending protester's rights and keeping the peace. It's instructions for "controlling dissent" in a new, sophisticated way. It's a big question: Americans use protest and dissent to change things, and in theory, the US and democratic governments support citizens in striving for improved equality. However, protest, free speech, and actions which will enable this change may take the form of actions that threaten powerful stakeholders, causing localities to rely on policing. Only the police are vested with the authority to use violence and/or brutality, and only they and the government can define violence and/or brutality or illegal behavior, and they can define it broadly: . This is a lot of power, and when they get to use this power to deny others to voice objections to the power, problems arise. Williams has written the book on how to evaluate where we are, how we got here, and more: where we go from here. Life without police sounds fantastical, but when we understand what's really at stake, worth the discussion.