December 11, 2014
There are two ways that people think about police, and they butted heads December 8 at the second Ferguson Commission meeting.
First, there is the “serve and protect” view. From this vantage point, policing is a noble profession, entered into by those who want to help their community. Police catch the “bad guys,” putting themselves in danger to protect the innocent. This is the image police have of themselves. Chief Dotson began his Ferguson Commission presentation with an ode to this model of policing. The crowd could not contain itself with rage and indignation.
Why? Because there is a whole other view of police, and it is the motivating force behind the uprising that began here and is sweeping the country. This viewpoint was reinforced by the actions of police in response to protests in the streets. In this second view, police are the primary organ of the state used to repress “undesirables,” primarily blacks. American policing began as an institution to catch runaway slaves. It was the frontline enforcer of Jim Crow. Under the new Jim Crow its mission has been to sweep people of color into the prison-industrial complex. Much of the repression has been implemented through the War on Drugs, which, because of disparate treatment, has been essentially a war on communities of color. Along the way, police milk the poor for money to run city governments, whether through municipal court fines or asset forfeiture. “Serve and protect” simply does not apply to whole groups of black, brown, and other disadvantaged people.
For those holding the first view, needed police reforms are relatively minor. Want more officers of color? Recruit in the high schools. Excessive use of force a problem? Better training is the answer.
But if the problems in policing are more systemic—intricately bound up with its underlying mission to protect the interests of the elite—those reforms can seem ludicrous or even traitorous to oppressed peoples. After decades of declared war on their communities, how can you ask youth of color to join the enemy? No Police Athletic League or Officer Friendly in the schools can make that relationship right. And no individual training will fundamentally change police behavior if policing’s ongoing mission remains the repression that is so bound up with its history.
Fact is, both views are correct. Police serve two contradictory functions in our society. No doubt that the police “serve and protect” those privileged by race and class. That selective protection is highly tainted support for one viewpoint but also proof of the second. But even in communities of color cops do rush into danger and protect people from harm. Police are not wrong in saying that many in those communities are asking for that protection. Still, it is also undeniable that police often do more harm than good in those same communities, frequently brutalizing innocents and catching people up in a system of overincarceration that provides few services for personal growth and few chances for success after one is criminalized.
The Ferguson Commission, if it is to succeed, needs to show itself capable of rising to acknowledge these two realities. The Commission is by its very nature set up to create reforms within policing as currently structured. But tinkering, even major tinkering, is not enough. The Ferguson movement is calling for a transformative change in policing—systemic change. That change is still being imagined. But any contemplated reforms must serve the dual purpose of providing short-term relief of current suffering and also moving us step-by-step toward long-term liberation of oppressed communities.