On police

See updates through April 25, 2021, at end of post


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here: Police are the only people in our society authorized to use even lethal force against others. The fact of this authorization means that any other approaches they may apply in the course of their duties ultimately reduce to the potential of lethal force: The officer might seek to persuade you by other means, but if you don’t comply, s/he can charge you with disorderly conduct (pretty much a catch-all for not doing whatever the nice officer tells you to do[1]), and if you resist arrest for that conduct, s/he may shoot you and kill you. This is force of the most brutal sort and the threat of this force is implicit in every interaction the police have.

Further, police deploy this force principally in defense of property and of the wealthy. If you doubt this, try driving, as I have, through a wealthy community in an old, beat up car. You will—and I can guarantee this—have a black and white on your tail in very short order. The very fact you appear to be poor is, for police, sufficient cause. Because the poor are a threat to the rich.[2]

By contrast, report a crime in a poor neighborhood and see how long it takes for police to arrive. That is, if they even show up. The poor know from long and bitter experience that the police do not protect them but are rather a threat to them.

Police say that they “protect and serve.” Whom do they protect? What do they protect? The answer from the preceding paragraphs seems inescapable: They protect and serve the rich. They protect the property of the rich.

By contrast, they serve the poor when they get around to it and protect their property not at all.

Police are meant to enforce the law. But whose law? Passed by whom? Against whom? Inequities in whose (poor people’s) offenses are even treated as criminal, as opposed to whose (rich people’s) are treated as civil, even when the offenses of the wealthy harm more people and cause more property damage, and in who (the poor, especially of color) are suspected, investigated, arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced how harshly[3] clarify that the law is passed by mostly wealthy white men; it is their law, deployed overwhelmingly against others.

Finally, even if we admit the purposes which police are supposed to fulfill, how do they address the causes of crime (often economic desperation[4])? And are police the correct solution to these problems?[5]

One thing I can promise you is that the answer to all of these questions is different from what we were taught in elementary school.


Update, August 12, 2020: This post was written based largely on my own experience of interactions with police as a white man and therefore does not address racist policing. This experience has been unpleasant enough;[6] I can barely begin to imagine the experience of Blacks in their interactions with police, though, here again, what I have personally witnessed has been horrifying enough.[7] Citations have been added as I have reflected further on this post. Text has been added and refined, both within and outside of citations, for clarity, since this post was first published. The argument is unchanged.


Update, January 9, 2021: Allegations of police bias particularly against Blacks are longstanding and well-documented,[8] but it is hard to imagine more visceral evidence than the contrast between the often vicious police response to Black Lives Matter protests and the arguably complacent U.S. Capitol Police response to mostly white male rioters overrunning the Capitol building[9] in an effort to disrupt the final electoral vote tally certifying Joe Biden’s election victory in November 2020.[10] It appears the rioters enjoyed support from among the very police tasked with protecting the building.[11]


April 22, 2021: A larger question in the aftermath of Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd[12] is whether politicians will go beyond symbolic gestures and follow through on what so far have been empty promises of police ‘reform,’[13] itself a woefully inadequate approach.[14] Too many people are calling this conviction ‘justice,’ when justice would mean that Floyd would still be alive and breathing;[15] that the systemic and blatant white supremacy in policing that killed him and so many others[16] had been abolished; that the economic injustice[17] and the systemic bigotry of the criminal injustice system that sends so many people, particularly of color,[18] into a largely ineffective but hugely damaging system of mass incarceration[19] had been remedied; and frankly, that reparations had been paid, not only to Blacks,[20] but really to all colonized people, defined in critical theory as all who are subject to the structural or overt, implicit or explicit violence of economic, political, military, or religious authority,[21] who pay with their lives in countless ways for the curtailment of their potential and the deprivation of their rights[22] so that the rich may be richer and the powerful more powerful.


Update, April 25, 2021: Even as Derek Chauvin was convicted for the killing of George Floyd,[23] police around the country continued killing people.[24] Which shouldn’t surprise anyone.[25]

  1. [1]Consider for example, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Lowry Heussler in Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates,” Atlantic, August 12, 2010, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/08/the-arrest-of-henry-louis-gates/61365/
  2. [2]Indeed, the minority rights that James Madison sought to protect in arguing for a republic rather than a democracy were not those of any subaltern group, but the property rights of wealthy white males, often slaveholders, from the poor: James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (New York: Bantam, 2003), 50-58. For my analysis here, see David Benfell, “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10,” Not Housebroken, June 7, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/22/a-constitutional-oligarchy-deconstructing-federalist-no-10/
  3. [3]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  4. [4]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  5. [5]Amanda Arnold, “What Exactly Does It Mean to Defund the Police?” Cut, June 12, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/what-does-defund-the-police-mean-the-phrase-explained.html; Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html
  6. [6]David Benfell, “To a Pennsylvania House Minority Leader: When cops profile you, they don’t actually need an offense,” Not Housebroken, January 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/01/16/to-a-pennsylvania-house-minority-leader-when-cops-profile-you-they-dont-actually-need-an-offense/
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Hey cops! Do you know what year it is?” Not Housebroken, August 27, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/27/hey-cops-do-you-know-what-year-it-is/
  8. [8]Mark Berman et al., “Protests spread over police shootings. Police promised reforms. Every year, they still shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people,” Washington Post, June 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/protests-spread-over-police-shootings-police-promised-reforms-every-year-they-still-shoot-nearly-1000-people/2020/06/08/5c204f0c-a67c-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html; James Downie, “Time to toss the ‘bad apples’ excuse,” Washington Post, May 31, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/31/time-toss-bad-apples-excuse/; Wesley Lowery, “Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no,” Washington Post, July 11, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/07/11/arent-more-white-people-than-black-people-killed-by-police-yes-but-no/; Brentin Mock, “What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings,” CityLab, August 6, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/08/police-officer-shootings-gun-violence-racial-bias-crime-data/595528/; Elie Mystal, “There’s Only One Possible Conclusion: White America Likes Its Killer Cops,” Nation, May 27, 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/white-america-cops/; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Do We Change America?” New Yorker, June 8, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america
  9. [9]Kurtis Lee, Jaweed Kaleem, and Laura King, “‘White supremacy was on full display.’ Double standard seen in police response to riot at Capitol,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-07/la-na-washington-capitol-police-attack-race
  10. [10]Ted Barrett, Manu Raju, and Peter Nickeas, “US Capitol secured, woman dead after rioters stormed the halls of Congress to block Biden’s win,” CNN, January 6, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/06/politics/us-capitol-lockdown/index.html; Talia Lavin, “The Violent Crescendo of the MAGA Conspiracies,” New Republic, January 6, 2021, https://newrepublic.com/article/160814/trump-protesters-attack-us-capital; Rebecca Tan et al., “Trump supporters storm U.S. Capitol, with one woman killed and tear gas fired,” Washington Post, January 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trump-supporters-storm-capitol-dc/2021/01/06/58afc0b8-504b-11eb-83e3-322644d82356_story.html
  11. [11]Kyle Cheney, Sarah Ferris, and Laura Barrón-López, “‘Inside job’: House Dems ask if Capitol rioters had hidden help,” Politico, January 8, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/08/congress-democrats-capitol-riot-inside-job-456725
  12. [12]Kurtis Lee, “Derek Chauvin is guilty of murdering George Floyd,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-04-20/jury-verdict-derek-chauvin-george-floyd-death
  13. [13]Arelis R. Hernández and Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., “Black Americans are buoyed by Chauvin conviction, but they worry it will blunt pace of reform,” Washington Post, April 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/04/20/chauvin-verdict-black-americans/
  14. [14]Amanda Arnold, “What Exactly Does It Mean to Defund the Police?” Cut, June 12, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/what-does-defund-the-police-mean-the-phrase-explained.html; Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html
  15. [15]Jeet Heer, “How Not to Mourn George Floyd,” The Time of Monsters, April 21, 2021, https://jeetheer.substack.com/p/how-not-to-mourn-george-floyd
  16. [16]Mark Berman et al., “Protests spread over police shootings. Police promised reforms. Every year, they still shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people,” Washington Post, June 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/protests-spread-over-police-shootings-police-promised-reforms-every-year-they-still-shoot-nearly-1000-people/2020/06/08/5c204f0c-a67c-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html; Kyle Cheney, Sarah Ferris, and Laura Barrón-López, “‘Inside job’: House Dems ask if Capitol rioters had hidden help,” Politico, January 8, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/08/congress-democrats-capitol-riot-inside-job-456725; Tim Craig, “Proud Boys and Black Lives Matter activists clashed in a Florida suburb. Only one side was charged,” Washington Post, February 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/florida-protest-bill-unequal-treatment/2021/02/01/415d1b02-6240-11eb-9061-07abcc1f9229_story.html; James Downie, “Time to toss the ‘bad apples’ excuse,” Washington Post, May 31, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/31/time-toss-bad-apples-excuse/; Kimberly Kindy, Mark Berman, and Kim Bellware, “After Capitol riot, police chiefs work to root out officers with ties to extremist groups,” Washington Post, January 24, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/police-capitol-riot-extremists/2021/01/24/16fdb2bc-5a7b-11eb-b8bd-ee36b1cd18bf_story.html; Maggie Koerth, “The Police’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration,” FiveThirtyEight, January 7, 2021, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-polices-tepid-response-to-the-capitol-breach-wasnt-an-aberration/; Kurtis Lee, Jaweed Kaleem, and Laura King, “‘White supremacy was on full display.’ Double standard seen in police response to riot at Capitol,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-07/la-na-washington-capitol-police-attack-race; German Lopez, “Police officers are prosecuted for murder in less than 2 percent of fatal shootings,” Vox, April 2, 2021, https://www.vox.com/21497089/derek-chauvin-george-floyd-trial-police-prosecutions-black-lives-matter; Wesley Lowery, “Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no,” Washington Post, July 11, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/07/11/arent-more-white-people-than-black-people-killed-by-police-yes-but-no/; Brentin Mock, “What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings,” CityLab, August 6, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/08/police-officer-shootings-gun-violence-racial-bias-crime-data/595528/; Elie Mystal, “There’s Only One Possible Conclusion: White America Likes Its Killer Cops,” Nation, May 27, 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/white-america-cops/; Jon Schuppe, “Police across U.S. respond to Derek Chauvin trial: ‘Our American way of policing is on trial,’” NBC News, April 15, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/police-across-u-s-respond-derek-chauvin-trial-our-american-n1264224; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Do We Change America?” New Yorker, June 8, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america
  17. [17]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against the Poor (New York: Basic, 1995).
  18. [18]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004); Dan Simon, In Doubt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2012).
  19. [19]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons (New York: New Press, 2011).
  20. [20]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
  21. [21]Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University, 1956, repr. 2000).
  22. [22]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002); Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).
  23. [23]Kurtis Lee, “Derek Chauvin is guilty of murdering George Floyd,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-04-20/jury-verdict-derek-chauvin-george-floyd-death
  24. [24]Alanna Durkin Richer and Lindsay Whitehurst, “1 verdict, then 6 police killings across America in 24 hours,” Associated Press, April 24, 2021, copy in possession of author
  25. [25]Jeet Heer, “How Not to Mourn George Floyd,” The Time of Monsters, April 21, 2021, https://jeetheer.substack.com/p/how-not-to-mourn-george-floyd; Arelis R. Hernández and Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., “Black Americans are buoyed by Chauvin conviction, but they worry it will blunt pace of reform,” Washington Post, April 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/04/20/chauvin-verdict-black-americans/; Jason Johnson, “I'm not happy. I'm not relieved. The verdict is a cultural make-up call. This ruling means it takes a Black man being murdered on TV in front of millions, a years worth of protest and a phalanx of white cops saying "this is wrong" for a black person to get a scintilla of justice,” Twitter, April 20, 2021, >https://twitter.com/DrJasonJohnson/status/1384637989444325378; Raphael Warnock, “Today’s verdict affirming Derek Chauvin’s responsibility for killing George Floyd is the right outcome in this trial, but it is not justice. . . .” Twitter, April 20, 2021, https://twitter.com/SenatorWarnock/status/1384651251061858323