Seeing Through Police

The donut is equivocal

A surprise of being around police is how much they touch you. They touch you without consent and in both seemingly friendly and unfriendly ways. The friendly touch is the first surprise. A policeman allowing protesters to cross the street touches you on the arm or back as you cross. Face to face, police will put a hand on your shoulder, from the front, intimate as a dog putting his paw up. It is unnerving. Women say male police know very well how to touch, even in public sight, in ways that are professional and neutral, and also in ways that are humiliating and sexual, with no demonstrable distinction dividing the two. The police know, and you know. Like a reversal of electric polarity from protective to hostile, this conversion of mood does not only follow the policeman’s individual initiative. It traces something like an atmospheric charge among police in groups, their silent experience of a phenomenon, their habitual tactics in response.

In confrontations on a curb (when you stay on your sidewalk, because the public street is forbidden except to police), they may press lightly on your collarbone, “holding you back,” just measuring out the distance with their arms. You can even be held up in this way, if you relax. Shoving you requires a separate, additional level of their energy. Batons and gloves extend the police field of touch, insulating them from the brutality that their arms and hands will do. A gray-haired professor of history I know put his hand on the top rail of a metal police barrier, at a protest, as one will do when standing still. An officer forbade him to touch it. All macho, the historian refused to move his hand. The policeman smashed it with his baton, splitting the flesh but not breaking the bone. That was a conflict over the reciprocation of touch: the rail and the baton were proxies. The unspoken rule is that the citizen must never return touch.

Singling out an individual for arrest, the next escalation is to grab the citizen’s body at the neck or shoulders — attacking from the front, black-gloved fingers grip the face, while from behind, the palm shocks the base of the skull — pushing at the fulcrum of the neck to hurl the person down. Sometimes the cop’s left hand pulls up or tears at the arrestee’s shirt or outermost garment while pushing with the right hand. A poet in his forties I know was thrown to the ground like this because he stepped outside a crosswalk at the beginning of a march. Other officers swarm the downed man or woman and pull at arms and legs, and kneel on the back or the neck or head, or mash the face into the pavement under their palm while cuffs go on. The final escalation is punching, beating, or kicking. Sometimes this is reserved for the arrestee on the ground who is already restrained, as a form of punctuation. Sometimes it is done in the van or on the way to it. Police are more likely to do this when they believe they cannot easily be recorded with cameras.

The purpose of touching by police is to make persons touchable. Touch readies more touch. The restraints in civilization on attacking anyone, especially a citizen who portends no harm or threat, are fairly high. For most forms of violence that breach civilized norms, even if it is one’s art or profession, steps of habituation are needed. The “sudden” violent arrest at a protest is almost never sudden if you have been watching the officer and the longer sequence. The process of change in an officer who brings someone down is not oriented to the target, but seems interior, oriented to the self; in the expressions that pass over the face — usually in an instant of stepping back, at the end of an interaction or negotiation — you can detect a change of availability that prefaces the attack. It very often seems to surprise nearby officers, even astonish or trouble them, but they still know to capture whichever citizens wind up on the ground (sometimes the wrong ones, as the trailing officers seem to cuff bystanders who happen to get knocked down indirectly in the attack).

Police are different things to different people. Not because each person has his or her own subjective view on the constabulary, but because the meanings of the functions of police vary with a citizen’s identity, as one or another possible target or beneficiary of policing.

What are the exemplary police activities, in ordinary vernacular? “Directing traffic.” This function of restricting and encouraging movement through a city may be the very oldest job of police. The most manpower and work time are still devoted to it. Police maintain a spatial order. What is traffic? Certain neighborhoods contain certain types of people and behavior. Others contain others. Various subjects must move through corridors of the city and redistribute themselves over the course of the day and night, but they must not unsettle police’s fundamental sense of who belongs where. Today, when police accused of racial bias in their traffic stops and pedestrian searches are asked to justify themselves, they speak with pride of the fact that they do not just stop and question black people, but also white people caught in black neighborhoods and rich people cruising in poor neighborhoods. This, to their minds, is parity. They don’t recognize their role in making up the boundaries of these neighborhoods in the first place, or why not all neighborhoods are functionally the same.

“Catching criminals.” This is the activity police truly like to identify with, however little of their time it occupies. Occasionally, police stumble on red-handed robbers or thugs fleeing an assault. But the bulk of “catching” people lies in traversing the city as necessary to find someone on the word of someone else. Police act as go-betweens for antagonists who may even be practically within arm’s reach — yelling outside their cars in a fender bender, or giving opposite accounts of a domestic dispute. Real “investigation” — the glorious business of tracing an unidentified malefactor after the fact of a crime, without just finding out who did it from the witnesses closest at hand — is an activity that does exist in police departments, but only among a tiny number of specialized personnel who don’t even have to wear uniforms.

When police identify crimes against the city, state, or law, rather than against an affronted person — the so-called victimless crimes of illicit possession, unlicensed work, or unlicensed sale — they perform the essential police function of distributing crime. The legislature declares certain objects and unlicensed commerce illegal; the police then go and distribute these violations. Street drugs are made illegal (prescription drugs are fine), hidden and unlicensed weapons are illegal (carried by people on unsafe streets, which is to say the poor), flawed cars are illegal (busted taillight, broken muffler, unpaid insurance). Thus police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals — the poor and marginal — and the prediction is prophetic: these people turn out to be criminals as soon as they are stopped and forced to turn out the contents of their pockets or glove boxes. Leave them alone, and most would never be “criminal” at all. The majority of violations technically listed in the tables of the law are of no interest to uniformed police. People who break laws in business are unlikely to be detected or sought out, and when their violations are disclosed — leading to the awkwardness of having to reach a settlement — they are dealt with by regulatory agencies, guilds, or accrediting bodies, and at the far extreme by civil-court proceedings and court-mandated money exchanges. Very rarely are police or criminal justice brought in.

The most admirable and defensible of the exemplary police activities may be “keeping the peace.” It is also the least discussed, the least subject to written laws and directives, and the least specific. In a democracy of equal citizens, people will inevitably come into conflict, even through no fault or crime of one party or the other. Someone will take advantage or threaten. The role of the police here is to pacify — and pacification, in a civil democracy, is no bad thing intrinsically. It is a vital, valuable thing.

But one mode of “keeping the peace” — enforcing racial terror — may be the very worst thing police do habitually. This exemplary function, unofficial or officially denied though universally known, owns no single familiar phrase. In recent decades, African Americans have made proverbial the facetious offenses that police seem to be pursuing: “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” “walking while black.” Only a limited number of Southern police forces can trace their lineage directly to slave patrols, but interethnic conflict after the Great Migration effectively nationalized Jim Crow policing through the 20th century. Police departments’ role in racial terror has survived even where racism has waned and their forces have integrated nonwhite officers. It may have been replicated in foreign municipalities, as in London policing of Caribbean and South Asian populations, and Paris policing of North Africans in the banlieues. Racial terror creates enormous complications for any ordinary theory of what American police do, for it carves a fundamental division between the experience of African American and non–African American citizens and the expectations they have of police.

I would like to add another essential function of police: being seen.

If you want sometime to sympathize with police, watch young ones when they don’t know they’re being observed. The young cop stands on a corner, squinting in bright winter sun. Pedestrians approach from every side: they ask questions, ask for directions, talk without introduction, boring him, because he is part of the street like a stop sign. Or, as one does with a stop sign, they ignore and veer around him (sometimes deliberately, pointedly, despising him for his uniform).

You can see how hard it must be to ready a face for each of these people that will look authoritative rather than deferential. Between encounters, you can watch the front fall, strained by all these obligations. That is why our comic picture of a moment of rest for the harried policeman requires him to take off his patrolman’s hat and wipe the perspiration from his face, as if smoothing down the instrument that’s put to such exhausting work.

The basic ambition of a policeman is to ceaselessly project force, stolidity, seriousness, intimidation. But that’s impossible. Policing contains daily humiliations at each inevitable failure of the policeman’s front. The uniform itself, the badge in its widest sense, with the luster of all shields meant to dazzle, is meant to maintain this front regardless of the individual inside. But the uniform can never succeed. You would need Robocop. There is something in the cladness of police, their preoccupation with holding the uniform together, that makes us aware of all their armor’s shortcomings, or inspires one to imagine these human beings naked, their uniforms taken away. The traditional English name for the mana with which police are invested is surely awe. Erving Goffman, in his famous conceptualizations of front, face, and performance, recalled Kurt Riezler’s point that the inevitable obverse of awe is shame.

The coupling of awe and shame among police comes out in our awareness of police symmetry and asymmetry. A shield is worn on the peak of the hat, while a second one covers the heart. The gun descends from one side of the utility belt, and, traditionally, the nightstick hangs from the other. Sometimes a flashlight substitutes. Looking at individual police, they almost always seem lopsided. The belt pulls down on one side. The blouse comes undone. They are constantly hiking up their pants. The regulation shoes are the same as those of nurses, waiters, and mail carriers. Heaviness gathers at the waist, in a sedentary, slow, caloric job. There is something in police that droops.

The symbol of police in this dimension in North America is the donut. The donut is equivocal. It is not loved as apple pie is. It has no national standing as apple pie does. It has a local message only. Donuts, like other deep-fried delicacies, do not travel well.

Yet donuts have our rueful affection. Really, it is the pursuit of coffee that drives police to donut shops. Donuts confirm what they will not admit with their badge and gun, that they are the ones who must be awake all the time, in public, in the extremely boring job of sitting in a place, either to assure passersby and the public that they are sitting there, watching, or to ensure that other people don’t sit there. So they are living traffic cones. Traffic cones, too, would drink coffee and eat donuts to stay awake.

Most surprising, perhaps, is that to spend time looking at police is to see that the law is not a true resource for them. A rationale, yes, but a thin one. Police lack law. I hadn’t noticed this until I really started watching them, thinking about what I saw, reading research done on them. The original television version of Law & Order split each episode into two parts. First, policing; second, courtroom proceedings. It took me years to notice that the title was backward. Police are order. This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to clean up dirt. The cliché from Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, her cross-cultural study of the constitution of dirt and taboo, holds up here: What we call dirt is only “matter out of place.”

It is always hard to remind or convince police that their stated loyalty is to the Constitution. It’s not their fault, really, so much as it is the fault of a municipal organization of authority that keeps legal and political thinking at a level “above their pay grade.” A bad consequence is that it’s quite difficult to make police feel responsible for civil rights violations or unjust laws, since rights and the law of the polity are not theirs to know or decide. The police reformer David Harris describes the experience of a friend in the Oakland Police Department that crystallizes a general truth:

In 2001, Captain Ron Davis, a twenty-year veteran . . . led an in-service training session on racial profiling. . . . Davis began by asking the assembled officers a simple question: “What is your job?” . . . “What I want to know,” he asked, “is, what is your mission, and the mission of your department? To what are you dedicating your time, day after day?”

Most of the answers were variations on “fighting crime”: “Catching bad guys”; “Getting criminals off the street”; “Keeping the streets safe from predators”; “Chasing crooks”; “Taking down the guys that need to be taken down”; “Responding to 911 emergencies”; “Helping the department achieve its goals”; “Carrying out the chief’s orders.” . . . Then he asked, “What does your oath say? When you graduated from the academy and became a cop, you all raised your hand and took an oath. What did you swear to do?” . . . Silence. . . . Eventually, an officer gave Davis the answer he sought: “We swear to uphold the law and the Constitution.” Another officer spoke up. “Well, sure, that’s the oath,” he said, “but everyone knows what this job is really about.”

I’m not sure anybody knows. Not us, but also not police themselves, not politicians, and not political theorists.

Part of the reason police seem at present unreformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy. It’s possible they never have. When our theories of democracy took shape, police as we know them were a minor tertiary agency and an afterthought. If police don’t take stock of the Constitution, I sometimes wonder, might it be because our Constitution can’t conceive of them?

Police as a word and concept exists in Europe from the 15th and 16th centuries forward, as a word for the administrative state management of population and territory — Polizeiwissenschaft, for the incipient German bureaucracies. Modern Anglo-American police forces date to the urban development of private hired watchmen and guards for merchant or guild-professional spaces. Benjamin Franklin helped reorganize and rationalize one such force in Philadelphia before the American Revolution, as he relates in his Autobiography. The major urban institutionalization of police occurred in London under Robert Peel in 1829 in the Metropolitan Police Department (yielding officers nicknamed “bobbies,” for their founder, and the traditional abbreviation for the department, “the Met”).

This metropolitan form of police organization marked a dividing line with the tradition in Europe. On the Continent, crown monarchs had kept even the prosaic functions of policing tied to the sovereign. This meant that the European tradition, emanating from France, wove military power, spying, and control of the poor in with urban regulation and penal justice. First abolished by the Revolution, police surveillance was reconstituted a decade later under Napoleon. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault described the position of European police with the 1768 motto of Vattel: “‘By means of a wise police, the sovereign accustoms the people to order and obedience.’”

Police and policy are cognate: our liberal political tradition has focused on the second. The most revealing juncture in classical liberalism for police theory may come in a rare discussion from Adam Smith, in the 1763 lecture given the title “Of Police.” For Smith, what matters to civil government as “police” only possesses sufficient dignity when it speaks to what we would call economic policy. The constabulary is acknowledged as a necessity for its execution of the criminal law but is beneath political notice:

Police is the second general division of jurisprudence. The name is French, and is originally derived from the Greek πολιτεία [politeia], which properly signified the policey of civil government, but now it only means the regulation of the inferiour parts of government, viz. cleanliness, security, and cheapness or plenty. The two former, to witt, the proper method of carrying dirt from the streets, and the execution of justice, so far as it regards regulations for preventing crimes or the method of keeping a city guard, tho’ usefull, are too mean to be considered in a general discourse of this kind.

“The proper method of carrying dirt from the streets” and “the method of keeping a city guard”: twin practicalities.

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy — those that begin from Hobbes and Locke and that form the official philosophical background to the American Republic that was constituted in 1787 — do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. This is perhaps because, on a strong version of contract theory, police ought not to exist. How could democratic agreement fail to be self-enforcing in its daily practice if the agreement is real, sustained by each individual’s consent? Social-contract theory does include the discouragement and rectification of error after definite breaches of the contract, as punishment will address the convicted wrongdoer who either gave in to the temptation of self-interest or was perverted to it by some personal flaw. But the right agency for requital is penal law. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact. There is no location alongside or outside the citizens and their contract for a supplementary force or additional locus of authority and violence, for mediation or interruption. There is no place for any intervening agency with political standing, only as a kind of collector or picker-upper of persons — hence, an agency very much like that of a trash picker or one who carries dirt from the streets, as Smith proposed.

With the growth of the role of police in democratic societies, a theory of their presence and place in government has simply not emerged in proportion to their power and variable function. The only really worthwhile thing we have is empirical description, from the late 20th-century field of police sociology — and this research has been most useful in dispelling illusions, not creating comprehensive philosophy. An impressive number of practical things have been studied and yielded surprising findings on such topics as work hours, organization, decision making, dramaturgy, constituencies, professional attitudes, and differential application of the law to people of different identities and situations. The radical theorist Mark Neocleous described the results in 2000:

Both the “law and order” lobby and its Left critics have failed to take on board the implications of a mass of research on the police. . . . The overwhelming majority of calls for police assistance are “service” rather than crime related: in an average year only 15 to 20 percent of all the calls to the police are about crime, and what is initially reported by the police as a crime is often found to be not a crime by the responding police officer. Studies have shown that less than a third of time spent on duty is on crime-related work; that approximately eight out of ten incidents handled by patrols by a range of different police departments are regarded by the police themselves as non-criminal matters; that the percentage of police effort devoted to traditional criminal law matters probably does not exceed 10 percent; that as little as 6 percent of a patrol officer’s time is spent on incidents finally defined as “criminal”; and that only a very small number of criminal offenses are discovered by the police themselves. Moreover, most of the time the police do not use the criminal law to restore order. In the USA police officers make an average of one arrest every two weeks; one study found that among 156 officers assigned to a high-crime area of New York City, 40 per cent did not make a single felony arrest in a year.

The disillusioning thrust of this work on the usual mandate for police — stopping crime — had already been distilled forty years ago by the most famous and influential sociologist of police, Egon Bittner. As he put it in 1974: “When one looks at what policemen actually do, one finds that criminal law enforcement is something that most of them do with the frequency located somewhere between virtually never and very rarely.” The work that followed from this knowledge, also identified with Bittner, inscribed this ironic mode in the theory itself. What even the most original sociology of police seems to show, again and again, is that police are paradoxical and their strictures unworkable. They don’t fit philosophically. As a stopgap profession poised between other philosophically grounded institutions, police are “impossible.” Perhaps police ought not to exist, thinking theoretically, since their behavior is inadequately supported by the democratic social order’s explicit justifications. Yet they must exist, practically — despite their errors — precisely because they have proved themselves in democracy as both “first responders” and a “last resort,” a mobilization of nondefinition and nonfixity for all sorts of situations: the agency thrown at anything in society that can’t be accommodated or that we don’t want to see. Bittner’s formulation haunts the field as the only really original and lasting philosophical contribution to our understanding of what police are:

I propose to explain the function of police by drawing attention to what their existence makes available in society that, all things being equal, would not be otherwise available. . . . My thesis is that police are empowered and required to impose or, as the case may be, coerce a provisional solution upon emergent problems without having to brook or defer to opposition of any kind, and that further, their competence to intervene extends to every kind of emergency, without any exceptions whatsoever.

And that’s all they are — that’s their essence. “The assessment whether the service the police are uniquely competent to provide is on balance desirable or not, in terms of, let us say, the aspirations of a democratic polity, is beyond the scope of the argument,” Bittner adds drily.

The key term from his definition may well be “impose,” or “coerce” — and the sine qua non for Bittner’s picture of police becomes availability of force (or even violence).

Surprisingly, the damning body of Bittner’s work has been embraced by police chiefs, perhaps because it furnishes executives with the only plausible apology in the face of continual criticism. One major professional association now gives out its annual Egon Bittner Award—not ironically, but in earnest—to a municipal chief who has survived more than fifteen years of service  .

Imagine we did want to find the place of police in a democratic polity. What version of their role can be desirable for democracy?

One genuinely useful function of police is the way they lift accidents, events, and gatherings into vision. Police make things visible. They enhance situations, but no one mistakes them for the main show. The officers are a blue aniline dye poured into channels of society, down alleyways and interstates, sketching in blueprint the lines of public space, how we distribute assembly, how we distribute dispersion, how we distribute crime, how we distribute safety. One knows to walk toward where police are standing, where they mark the significance of something else: a parade, a concert, a demonstration, or an arrest, an abuse, an accident. One can go to enjoy them — to watch their offer of theater and ritual to daily occurrences, as they establish a space of eventfulness — or to watchdog them, to make sure that their handling of people can’t occur invisibly and unaccounted for.

Secrecy by police in any public place always identifies them as suspect. Yet police departments hold tightly to their capacities for secrecy and claim them to be necessary for their heroic function of detection and investigation. Insofar as detection of crime is what police wish their job were about, police are likely always to strain for greater secrecy and silence.

Where sight disappears, in the paddy wagon and the police station, abuse becomes possible. (And indeed these are the sorts of places, along with jails, that a democratic police might seek to eradicate or open up.) One knows the hush that occurs in a crowd when an arrestee disappears into the closed, windowless wagon; the citizen has temporarily disappeared from the democratic public (until arraignment, the space of salvation by habeas corpus — then one looks for marks on the face, marks on the wrists and the body, from abuse). This is one of those gaps into which citizens fall where democracy can disappear.

Yet the real rival of sight is not just secrecy but touch, which registers itself only between bodies that know what has actually been done but can’t prove it by other means. Police possess touch; citizens should possess sight. A question is why a third element that could stand between sight and touch doesn’t come much more to the fore: talk. Talk is the actual basis of a democracy. It is the specifically democratic dimension of human relations. It restores the assurance of neighborliness. Talk is what police mostly do in encountering the public. Yet one doesn’t think of police as talkers and listeners first, but as bullies. What happens when citizens and police talk in the fateful encounter? How do they talk? And if they don’t talk, why not?

Suppose we say this: Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law, or eloquence. Their medium is not law. They do not always use memorable or wholly coherent words. Usually they confront situations of conflict they did not cause, but which they are required to enter as third parties. There, they become deliberately distracting, grandstanding observers, turning the attention of other parties away from each other and toward themselves.

When you look at them this way, focusing on the middle range between space-holding inaction and violent attack, you can see how negotiating is actually what the police do unendingly, habitually — but unfamiliarly, because in some way they refuse to recognize or care about the original goals of the relevant parties. They bring a separate set of criteria to bear, and not always an appealing one. Is this chargeable? Should this person be removed or transported temporarily? How soon can I leave, and how do I scare these citizens a bit so they won’t come into conflict again and police won’t need to come back? Police negotiate without a unitary reference or goal — other than to end the necessity for their being present, unless they’re in a location they want to forbid the use of to others. And they are always asking themselves a separate question, of whether to lift a person out of the horizontal conflict and into the vertical mechanism of criminal justice — a process they will not ultimately be responsible for, and which they won’t have to enter into themselves.

Even minor infractions and victimless crimes become negotiations between cop and citizen over the reach of a law that stands beyond both of them. Here the negotiated outcome may be a “warning”: “OK, I’m going to let you go with a warning.” A warning is ostensibly a name for something official. Yet the “warning” is not known to the statute book. It does not exist as a juridical category. It is one of the major categories of police thinking, and one that we might want to preserve rather than object to for its arbitrariness or uneven application. It is a key moment when police, without breaking “front” or admitting deficiency, acknowledge that a negotiation has been in some sense won by the citizen.

Let’s make the best case for police: police exist so we can see them on the corner or the subway platform, so that we know, when we move in public, that no other person can take from us unseen, to rob us or molest us without defense. Police exist sometimes just to mark a lane closure (by standing in it) or road construction (by standing in front of it) or a town fair (by standing at its entrance). They announce eventfulness, and in some way their mere presence stands against danger.

Of course we feel different if we think the danger they might think they see is us. Or if we resemble their idea of obstruction, or of a notable event. When police eye African Americans, harass African Americans, obstruct the movements of African Americans, and wind up drawing their guns and murdering African Americans — which even in the 21st century they do with regularity, no matter the police department or region of the United States — it’s first because America still sees racially. Kidnapping an African labor force to build the country is still the country’s unrepented sin, concomitant with the annihilation of Native Americans. The mad but ingenious mechanism of coding the difference between free and slave by “color,” not by an actual spectrum of tans but “white” and “black” — as metaphysical as day and night, bright and dark, noble and base — still lingers. Police, as votaries of sight and seeing, sustain this way of looking at every citizen of recognizable African ancestry.

What differentiates a place that seems clean, orderly, and peaceful, from the same location with items out of place, mixed up, confusing, noisy, and conflictual, isn’t just aesthetic norms in the neighborhoods police come from, but what they think that “we” want, by how “the public” sees. But who are we? The police sociologist Peter K. Manning, one of the best ethnographers of police behavior, has strongly made the point that one thing police tacitly depend on most is how they think their client citizens view them as they undertake patrols and arrests. Yet many of the formalizations they use to imagine such “law-abiding citizens,” “good people,” “the public,” as they rigidly enact an absent standard of order, alienate them from the actual citizenry. The idea about which police possess the least clarity is what “good people” want and how we want to be treated.

The police were designed to respond to citizen demands and requirements for service as much because this represented prevention or deterrence of the sources of crime as because the police were intended to act symbolically as one citizen would to another in time of need. The symbolic centrality of police action as standing for the collective concern of people, one for another, cannot and should not be underestimated. Law has grown up as a means of formalizing the conditions under which the police must act and cannot act but does not provide the basis on which they do or should act.

Violence, too, is given to police as a technique they alone can use in the service of preserving the general nonviolence of society, wherein citizens need never use violence legitimately against one another — they route it through police, so to speak. But this formal device, too, winds up defining police by their application of violence.

Police are left to instigate violence as a means of resolving any social deadlock, to add violence to situations they feel to be ambiguous. But if we can really see, and see through, police, we may see that this becomes a way of injecting testing violence into the heart of society in a public way. Police test what violence we, as citizens, will allow, and against whom. Small comfort, perhaps, since there is no guarantee that we will oppose the wicked things that police may show us. Our neighbors may support that wickedness. We may have no idea how to fix it. Still, police violence differs from forms of violence and domination that have no visible presence or public check. The police measure out in public what the society will tolerate, even to our shame.

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