Saturday, January 3, 2015

Police killings last year: US 459, Britain and Japan 0

    The Economist, a conservative economic journal in London, has recently offered these striking comparative figures on police killings.  In England and Japan, no people were killed by police in 2013; in America, 459 (there is also a figure below of 409 for 2012).  That grim contrast highlights the militarization of police by the Pentagon and the shocking role of racism even in an America that elected Barack Obama President twice.  For  in England, it is pretty bad toward the Afro-Caribbean community and other non-white people and yet...


     Here a brilliant summary of the differences, part of what increasingly make America, for most poor people, particularly blacks and Latinos, a police state:

    "The reputation of the Metropolitan Police’s armed officers is still barely recovering from the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian, in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London.
    In America, by contrast, it is hardly surprising that cops resort to their weapons more frequently. In 2013, 30 cops were shot and killed—just a fraction of the 9,000 or so murders using guns that happen each year. Add to that a hyper-militarised police culture and a deep history of racial strife and you have the reason why so many civilians are shot by police officers. Unless America can either reduce its colossal gun ownership rates or fix its deep social problems, shootings of civilians by police—justified or not—seem sure to continue."
The reporting in the second article is dishonest on the Michael Brown case (three witness saw Brown moving away, hands up as the officer gunned him down); McCullough played the role of a defense attorney in the Grand Jury hearing rather than a prosecutor; the fatal shots were fired when Brown was far away from the officer; to believe the lone cop's story, one must believe that the unarmed Brown assaulted an armed police officer in his car.  Pigs surely have wings...
     It also is dishonest about "the gangster" Mark Duggan, not including the fact that he was unarmed when gunned down in a British police car, the trigger to rebellions all over England.  See here  and here.
     This "summary" may be even more sickening than the one about Mike Brown.
      Nonetheless, the article draws some interesting factual contrasts of big city and small city "policing" and provides relevant statistics on the sheer murderousness of the American police.
      "Black Lives Matter!" and every demonstration, now going on all over the country, is a rebuke to American police gunsels and to the lies the police tell and which reporters in the corporate press breathe in and echo as far away as London.  This is a movement that needs to continue and get stronger.

     Mayor Bill de Blasio was right to warn  Dante,  his multiracial son, about not reaching for a cell phone while black when confronted with police.  If only this were untrue...

  The rabid police demonstrations against the Mayor, despite his mourning with the families of the two police officers (both minorities) who were shot, is an indication of how ingrained racist ideology among the police is. As with torturers versus former CIA professionals like Ray McGovern - see here - no police professional could sympathize with the behavior of "I Can't Breathe" murderers or the miserable creature who repeatedly shot Michael Brown.


      And no decent officer would believe that a crazed murderer of two policeman has anything in common with those protesting nonviolently against wanton - and continuing and unusual by the standards of every other modestly civilized country - police murders.


      In fact, decent officers would be inclined to fight for honest assessments of murders by police both for their own sake and to remove the otherwise reasonable thought that cops are dangerous to nonwhites, often enemies of decency.


        For the police as a whole  have never been friends of the community.  The blunt article below by Samuel Mitrani, a sociologist, on the creation of the professional police force in Chicago and elsewhere - a counterpart to rabid private detective armies of strike breakers, the Pinkertons - had much to do with keeping the immigrant working classes down, little with protecting ordinary citizens.


     If one asks "to protect and serve" whom, the answer - the rich - leaps out.


        Hava Gordon, a sociology professor at the University of Denver (we both spoke at an Occupy! forum), had the following brilliant statement in the Denver Post on New Year's Day, about the growing movements among Chicano and black students in Denver and around the country about how the lives of ordinary people matter.

      "For many of today's youth, Gordon said, the issues brought to the forefront by the cases in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere are not abstract, either. They're immediate.
     'I would say these young people, many of them are really marching out as experts on their own lives," Gordon said. "Some of them have firsthand experience of harassment or being profiled. They're speaking out as experts. They may have more of an expert voice than the adults watching them walk out — especially white adults who don't engage with police.'"


      Experience makes people experts on police brutality in a way that the inexperienced (and often "influential" including academics) do not grasp.  The same is true about war - find the black person aside from certain prominent Republicans who was for the aggression in Iraq... - and poverty and many other aspects of American society


      As the Economist's figures make clear, class policing does not have to be murderousness.  It is American circumstances, an insane gun culture in which those who urge it on the rest of us pay little price..., the militarization of the police through the Pentagon, and the fierceness of racism - toward the descendants of indigenous people, too - which provide a deeper picture of these differences.


     Still, Mitrani's  is a fitting point about the American police now and in the past.  It deserves to be remembered.


"The Economist


Don’t shoot

America’s police kill too many people. But some forces are showing how smarter, less aggressive policing gets results

IN THE basement of St Gregory’s church in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighbourhood where kosher pizzerias compete with jerk-chicken shacks for business, the officers of the 77th precinct are giving away colouring books for children. “Police officers are your friends,” the book’s title proclaims. Around the city, protests at the decision not to prosecute the officer who choked Eric Garner to death suggested that plenty of New Yorkers did not agree.
A few blocks away, not long after the precinct’s black commanding officer listened to complaints of police racism from 100 mostly black residents of the neighbourhood, a mentally disturbed man with a knife stabbed an Israeli student at an Orthodox religious school. Police shot the knifeman dead, after he threatened to stab more people, to the relief of some of the assembled faithful. The police were their friends after all.

If it is to work well, the relationship between police and policed requires mutual trust. “Public safety without public approval is not public safety,” says Bill Bratton, New York’s police commissioner. After Mr Garner’s death, which was captured on camera, complete with his last words (“I can’t breathe”, gasped ten times or so), and the shooting by a policeman of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, public approval is in short supply.
Both cases involved white officers killing unarmed black men, and neither of the officers has been indicted for wrongdoing. The two cases are not the same, however. Mr Garner was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes in the street and posing no threat to anyone. Mr Brown’s case is murkier, since there is no video footage. A friend of Mr Brown’s, with him when he robbed a convenience store shortly beforehand, says that the policeman shot him in cold blood. The policeman says he acted in self-defence, after the 292lb Mr Brown attacked him and tried to grab his gun. The forensic evidence tends to support the officer.
Public opinion divides along racial lines. Nearly all African-Americans think the failure to indict the officers involved was wrong in both cases. Whites make a distinction: 64% think the grand jury made the right decision in Mr Brown’s case but only 28% think that about Mr Garner’s, according to a Pew poll.
The FBI counts over 400 “justifiable homicides” by American police officers every year. This number includes only those shot while committing a crime. Reporting such shootings is voluntary, so the true number is surely higher. Even undercounting, America easily outguns other rich countries: in the year to March 2013 police in England and Wales fired weapons three times and killed no one.
Such comparisons should be read in context. America’s police operate in a country with 300m guns and a murder rate six times Germany’s. In recent years the New York Police Department (NYPD) was called to an annual average of almost 200,000 incidents involving weapons, shot 28 people and saw six of its officers shot (mostly non-fatally). Despite the headlines, it is one of America’s more restrained forces.
The more trigger-happy police departments tend to be found in smaller cities where fewer journalists live. Peter Moskos of John Jay College has come up with a measure to identify them, which checks the number of police shootings against the number of murders in a city. The places that stand out as having a lot of police shootings relative to the number of murders are Riverside, San Diego and Sacramento in California; and Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona.
In general, smaller police forces are less likely to have proper oversight. (This matters: half of America’s 12,500 local police forces have ten or fewer officers.) Larger jurisdictions can employ people whose job is to prosecute policemen. In Brooklyn (population 2.5m), the current district attorney made his name prosecuting an officer for sodomising a handcuffed Haitian immigrant with a broomstick in the lavatory of a police station. In a small town policemen are investigated by people they work with all the time. “The prosecutor is the guy who went to your kid’s confirmation,” says Mr Moskos. In the whole country, fewer than six officers were charged with murder or manslaughter each year, on average, between 2005 and 2011, according to Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University.
If the problem were just one of scale then the answer would be simple, at least in theory: merge small departments to form bigger ones. But even in some fairly large cities some officers are too eager to use force. When a police force has been the subject of frequent complaints, the Department of Justice (DoJ) is often called in to investigate and make recommendations.
Under Barack Obama’s administration, the department currently has 27 active cases, looking at city forces such as Seattle’s or Cleveland’s and also at some individual sheriffs’ departments. Though the DoJ finds that, even in the worst departments, most shootings are justified, they also show that the shooting of unarmed people who pose no threat is disturbingly common.
The body count in Albuquerque

Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a strong contender for the country’s most violent force. In 2009, according to the DoJ, one of its officers pulled a man over for driving with no rear lights. The driver, Andrew Lopez, ran away. One of the officers chasing him thought Mr Lopez had “the biggest handgun that he had ever seen”, says a DoJ report, though he was in fact unarmed. The cop shot him three times and, as he lay wounded, shot him again in the chest, killing him. In 2011, when the case came to a civil trial, a police training officer called the officer’s actions “exemplary” and said he “would use this incident to train officers on the proper use of deadly force”.
A year later the city’s officers were called to an incident in which Kenneth Ellis, a 25-year-old army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, had a gun to his head and was threatening to kill himself. An officer prevented Ellis’s suicide by shooting him in the neck, fatally. Another potential suicide poured petrol on himself: Albuquerque police tasered him, not realising that this would set him alight.
Violence against people who are in the midst of a mental crisis is a common theme of the DoJ’s reports. A 2011 investigation of Seattle’s police department turned up a case of a man whom police had found in the street, “yelling at traffic lights while holding a stuffed animal”. An officer ordered him to move to the side of the road and, when the man disobeyed, pepper-sprayed him. When the man made a fist, the officer hit him with a baton. When he ran, four officers chased him and punched him several times, kneed him, elbowed him and hit him again with their batons. He was then arrested on charges of pedestrian interference and obstruction.
Using violence to enforce footling laws is also a common theme. Mr Garner died while being arrested for selling single cigarettes on which he had not paid the full New York duty, which is so high that 76% of the cigarettes smoked in the city are bootlegged. Letitia James, New York’s public advocate, partly blames the “broken windows” theory of policing for Mr Garner’s death. This theory holds that police should use statistical models to identify areas where crime is likely to happen and then flood them with officers who crack down even on minor offences in the hope of preventing more serious ones. It is widely considered a colossal success.
A more obvious culprit is the way policework is measured. Police managers fret about lazy officers. To keep them away from the doughnuts, most forces judge officers by how many arrests they make. Preventing a rape does not count; busting someone for jaywalking does.
There is a paradox in all this. American cities have become much safer in the past two decades. Too many urban forces do not seem to have noticed. In Cleveland, the DoJ found a sign in a police parking lot that read “Forward Operating Base”, as if it were an outpost in Afghanistan.
This is an unhelpful mindset. In 2012 a car containing Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams drove past the city’s police headquarters. Officers thought they heard a shot from the car and gave chase, though in fact neither the driver nor the passenger was armed. At least 60 police vehicles and over 100 officers joined in. The chase ended in a school car park, where 13 cops fired 137 shots at the car, killing its occupants. “The officers…reported believing that they were being fired at by the suspects,” said the DoJ. “It now appears that those shots were being fired by fellow officers.”
The federal government stokes the culture of the warrior cop by offloading surplus military kit to local police. The Los Angeles School District Police Department has acquired three grenade-launchers and a mine-resistant armoured vehicle, perhaps to keep its sophomores in check.
Sacking the bullies
Yet there are examples of police forces that have reformed. The Los Angeles police department made its police less like an occupying army after the riots that followed the beating of Rodney King in 1991, which like Mr Garner’s choking was filmed by a bystander. New York’s department did something similar, banning officers from firing shots as warnings, from shooting at vehicles or from firing unless they thought a life was in danger. The number of shots fired by police in New York has fallen by more than two-thirds since 1995.
In both cities the police are now blacker than the populations they serve—the opposite of Ferguson, Missouri. New York has begun a pilot programme under which officers will wear body cameras. The recordings will be used to deter bad behaviour both by police and by the public; to provide evidence after violent encounters; and to protect officers against baseless complaints.
Even with these changes, “There is at least one crazy cop in every precinct,” says a retired NYPD officer. Everyone else knows who they are, but they are impossible to sack until they do something really stupid. The officer who choked Mr Garner had been sued for wrongful arrest, and was accused of ordering two black men to strip naked in the street for a search. (He denied it, and one case was settled.) Reformers think the procedure for sacking bullies in uniform should be much swifter. Those who enforce the law should also obey it.


Armed police

Trigger happy

THE shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, is a reminder that civilians—innocent or guilty—are far more likely to be shot by police in America than in any other rich country. In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police—409 with guns. That figure may well be an underestimate. Not only is it limited to the number of people who were shot while committing a crime, but also, amazingly, reporting the data is voluntary.
Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero. In 2012 the figure was just one. Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans. Between 2010 and 2014 the police force of one small American city, Albuquerque in New Mexico, shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more than the number of Brits killed by all of England and Wales’s 43 forces during the same period.
The explanation for this gap is simple. In Britain, guns are rare. Only specialist firearms officers carry them; and criminals rarely have access to them. The last time a British police officer was killed by a firearm on duty was in 2012, in a brutal case in Manchester. The annual number of murders by shooting is typically less than 50. Police shootings are enormously controversial. The shooting of Mark Duggan, a known gangster, which in 2011 started riots across London, led to a fiercely debated inquest. Last month, a police officer was charged with murder over a shooting in 2005. The reputation of the Metropolitan Police’s armed officers is still barely recovering from the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian, in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London.
In America, by contrast, it is hardly surprising that cops resort to their weapons more frequently. In 2013, 30 cops were shot and killed—just a fraction of the 9,000 or so murders using guns that happen each year. Add to that a hyper-militarised police culture and a deep history of racial strife and you have the reason why so many civilians are shot by police officers. Unless America can either reduce its colossal gun ownership rates or fix its deep social problems, shootings of civilians by police—justified or not—seem sure to continue."

"Youth protests: Denver's next generation is finding their voice

Senior Jose Romero, nephew of the late Chicano activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzáles, addresses 400 students from Abraham Lincoln High School
Senior Jose Romero, nephew of the late Chicano activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzáles, addresses 400 students from Abraham Lincoln High School who marched to the Capitol to support national protests on Dec. 4. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Surrounded by a police escort, they chanted.

About 200 students from Denver-area schools marched down Colfax Avenue through the dark of early evening — after school hours — carrying signs and banners toward the State Capitol.

"This is our right."

"This is our choice."

"We the students have a voice."

Protests have erupted nationwide in the wake of recent grand-jury decisions not to indict police officers for their roles in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City.

In Denver, though, it's been the city's young people protesting the loudest, organizing school walkouts and youth marches on a scale not seen in this community for decades. They've vowed not to quiet down, either, when school resumes after winter break.
Miles Holland (with megaphone) and Mykail Gholston (right) talk to Denver students and backers at City Park, protesting grand jury decisions not to indict
Miles Holland (with megaphone) and Mykail Gholston (right) talk to Denver students and backers at City Park, protesting grand jury decisions not to indict officers in the deaths of black men in Missouri and New York. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)
Before the holidays, some 1,000 students walked out of East High School on Dec. 3. The next day,hundreds followed at Abraham Lincoln High School, walking more than six miles to reach the Capitol steps.
Within a week, students at more than a dozen schools in Denver and Aurora had staged walkouts. The Colorado Student Unity March on Dec. 12, organized by students from at least eight area schools, drew about 200 young people to walk Colfax during evening rush hour.

It wasn't the only time students organized mass protests in the past year, either. In the fall, Jeffco Public Schools students staged numerous walkouts at high schools in the suburban district to protest school board policies and proposals, including one plan that called for curriculum to promote only "positive aspects" of U.S. history, not civil disorder or social strife.

Hava Gordon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Denver, studies youth activism and said this generation is active — much of their organizing just happened behind school doors until now.

"I don't think they're using this as an excuse to walk out of school," Gordon said.

"They're doing it this way because we're not giving them a voice in other ways," she said. "We need to question why we're not giving youth power in some other realms."

For many of today's youth, Gordon said, the issues brought to the forefront by the cases in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere are not abstract, either. They're immediate.
"I would say these young people, many of them are really marching out as experts on their own lives," Gordon said. "Some of them have firsthand experience of harassment or being profiled.

They're speaking out as experts. They may have more of an expert voice than the adults watching them walk out — especially white adults who don't engage with police."

Bringing awareness

Until the day he convinced hundreds of classmates at Lincoln High School to walk out of school, Jose Romero had never led a protest.

Not that he had far to look to find a role model.

Romero, 18, comes from a long line of activists — his uncle was Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, the late Chicano activist and founder of the civil rights organization Crusade for Justice. His grandfather,
Ricardo Romero, was also active in the Chicano rights movement and later, as his grandson was growing up, immigration issues.

"To see a man who didn't even graduate high school speak with such conviction and captivate so many people, it inspired me," Jose Romero said of his grandfather. "It's what really made me delve into domestic and foreign issues, human rights, civil rights, religious rights. It made me very fervent."

And after seeing students at East High School walk out to protest the Ferguson case, the senior turned to Facebook to rally his school to the cause.

He didn't expect Dec. 4 to walk all the way to the State Capitol Dec. 4, but the experience was "exhilarating," he said. His goal was just to bring awareness to police brutality, racial profiling and the failures of the justice system — both for the community and his peers at school.

"The whole reason in the first place that protests happen is to bring awareness," Romero said. "I personally believe that's exactly what I did with starting the walkout.

"Yeah, the kids may have missed school, but they walked away from that protest more socially aware than they woke up that morning," he said. "We don't learn about stuff like that in school."

Since the walkout, a forum was held for students with Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a Denver-based social justice organization. Multiple students have also interviewed Romero for school essays about police brutality, he said.

None of that would have happened without the walkout. Romero isn't done, either, and said it's up to student leaders to keep the movement alive.

"This is a problem that affects us as a community. Lincoln is 98 percent Latino," he said. "But I don't want this to just be confined as a minority problem. It's about human beings dying."

"We're the future. The future is in our hands," Romero said. "Obviously, people who are leaders today, they're not bringing about changes. "

For Romero, the future also holds a choice of college offers, including merit scholarships to Loyola University Chicago and Regis University to study political science. He hopes to become an employment attorney in Denver, advocating for the rights of workers, and "eventually, hopefully a politician ... without losing my label as a human being."

"It all goes back to human rights," Romero said. "That's my main passion."

Speaking up

As protesters gathered on the steps of the State Capitol on Dec. 12, Mykail Gholston and Miles Holland manned the megaphones.

From a distance, it would have been easy to mistake the poised speakers leading chants and directing the crowd for much older men.

Gholston and Holland, though, are 17 and seniors at the Denver School of the Arts, an actor and a musician, respectively. Both are active in the Black Actors Guild and lead organizers of their school's Black History Month project.

"Our community needs to hold our youth to a higher standard," Gholston said. "People are saying,

'They are just a bunch of kids,' instead of 'They are the kids who are going to be in charge of the world when I'm gone.' That's what they should be saying. They should be praising children who seem intelligent."

"Who aim to make a difference," Holland added.

"Who are passionate about some subject," Gholston said.

Organizing an impromptu walkout Dec. 8 at DSA was a game changer for both students. It was in that moment, Holland said, he realized he had a voice, that he was able to walk through the halls of his predominantly white school and rally students of all races and ages to speak up, too.

"Prior to this, we had no real way of speaking to it, except for maybe through our art form, on projects we do later," Holland said. "But even then, how much heat does your project does get? How much notice does your project get?

"I want people to know, I want children to know they have a voice and I want them to know they can use it," he said. "It's taken me so long to figure that out."

Both Holland and Gholston wanted to do a second, larger school walkout, too, but after talking with administrators, they decided an after-school march Dec. 12 involving students from multiple schools would be a better way to show just how serious they were.

"We wanted to promote peace, we wanted to promote unity, we wanted to promote our youth speaking their own opinions," Gholston said. "We wanted to do everything in a constructive manner so no one under the sun could say, 'These kids are doing this for the wrong reasons.' "

As black men, Gholston and Holland were both taught by their parents from a young age to avoid interaction with police — and if it was unavoidable, "to be as compliant as possible," Gholston said.
Gholston vividly remembers one incident a few years back when he was stopped by a police officer on his way to school.

The officer "immediately was really aggressive," Gholston said, demanding to know why he was where he was and where he had just come from. Later, after his information checked out, the officer told Gholston there had just been a breaking-and-entering in the area perpetrated by a "black teenager."

"Thinking back on it now, it would been nice to have the mindset that I have now back then," Gholston said. "I would have asked him what the description was that I fit so perfectly."

Being viewed as a threat just because of your physical appearance is "terrifying," said Holland.
"This is not how people are supposed to live with people."

Like Romero at Lincoln High, Gholston and Holland aren't finished making their voices heard, either.

The two are working to organize workshops in February to give their school community a chance to express their thoughts and feelings — on Ferguson, New York City, police brutality, racial profiling — through their art, whether it be literature, songwriting, theater or visual arts.

"We will march again, we will organize, we will have protests again because statements need to be emphasized," Holland said.

Emilie Rusch: 303-954-2457, or

 "Stop Kidding Yourself: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People

In most of the liberal discussions of the recent police killings of unarmed black men, there is an underlying assumption that the police are supposed to protect and serve the population. That is, after all, what they were created to do. If only the normal, decent relations between the police and the community could be re-established, this problem could be resolved. Poor people in general are more likely to be the victims of crime than anyone else, this reasoning goes, and in that way, they are in more need than anyone else of police protection. Maybe there are a few bad apples, but if only the police weren’t so racist, or didn’t carry out policies like stop-and-frisk, or weren’t so afraid of black people, or shot fewer unarmed men, they could function as a useful service that we all need.
This liberal way of viewing the problem rests on a misunderstanding of the origins of the police and what they were created to do. The police were not created to protect and serve the population. They were not created to stop crime, at least not as most people understand it. And they were certainly not created to promote justice. They were created to protect the new form of wage-labor capitalism that emerged in the mid to late nineteenth century from the threat posed by that system’s offspring, the working class.
This is a blunt way of stating a nuanced truth, but sometimes nuance just serves to obfuscate.
Slave patrol badge, 1858. Slave patrols to hunt down escaped slaves were the original police in the South.
Slave patrol badge, 1858. Slave patrols to hunt down escaped slaves were the original police in the South.
Before the nineteenth century, there were no police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world. In the Northern United States, there was a system of elected constables and sheriffs, much more responsible to the population in a very direct way than the police are today. In the South, the closest thing to a police force was the slave patrols. Then, as Northern cities grew and filled with mostly immigrant wage workers who were physically and socially separated from the ruling class, the wealthy elite who ran the various municipal governments hired hundreds and then thousands of armed men to impose order on the new working class neighborhoods.

Class conflict roiled late nineteenth century American cities like Chicago, which experienced major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886, and 1894. In each of these upheavals, the police attacked strikers with extreme violence, even if in 1877 and 1894 the U.S. Army played a bigger role in ultimately repressing the working class. In the aftermath of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization, by which they meant bourgeois civilization, from the disorder of the working class. This ideology of order that developed in the late nineteenth century echoes down to today – except that today, poor black and Latino people are the main threat, rather than immigrant workers.
Chicago police cast themselves as the defenders of civilization for a society ordered by capitalist premises. After Haymarket in 1886, they contended that they stood between civilization and anarchy.
Chicago police cast themselves as the defenders of civilization for a society ordered by capitalist premises. After Haymarket in 1886, they contended that they stood between civilization and anarchy.
Of course, the ruling class did not get everything it wanted, and had to yield on many points to the immigrant workers it sought to control. This is why, for instance, municipal governments backed away from trying to stop Sunday drinking, and why they hired so many immigrant police officers, especially the Irish. But despite these concessions, businessmen organized themselves to make sure the police were increasingly isolated from democratic control, and established their own hierarchies, systems of governance, and rules of behavior. The police increasingly set themselves off from the population by donning uniforms, establishing their own rules for hiring, promotion, and firing, working to build a unique esprit des corps, and identifying themselves with order. And despite complaints about corruption and inefficiency, they gained more and more support from the ruling class, to the extent that in Chicago, for instance, businessmen donated money to buy the police rifles, artillery, Gatling guns, buildings, and money to establish a police pension out of their own pockets.

There was a never a time when the big city police neutrally enforced “the law,” or came anywhere close to that ideal (for that matter, the law itself has never been neutral). In the North, they mostly arrested people for the vaguely defined “crimes” of disorderly conduct and vagrancy throughout the nineteenth century. This meant that the police could arrest anyone they saw as a threat to “order.” In the post-bellum South, they enforced white supremacy and largely arrested black people on trumped-up charges in order to feed them into convict labor systems.

The violence the police carried out and their moral separation from those they patrolled were not the consequences of the brutality of individual officers, but were the consequences of careful policies designed to mold the police into a force that could use violence to deal with the social problems that accompanied the development of a wage-labor economy. For instance, in the short, sharp depression of the mid 1880s, Chicago was filled with prostitutes who worked the streets. Many policemen recognized that these prostitutes were generally impoverished women seeking a way to survive, and initially tolerated their behavior. But the police hierarchy insisted that the patrolmen do their duty whatever their feelings, and arrest these women, impose fines, and drive them off the streets and into brothels, where they could be ignored by some members of the elite and controlled by others. Similarly, in 1885, when Chicago began to experience a wave of strikes, some policemen sympathized with strikers. But once the police hierarchy and the mayor decided to break the strikes, policemen who refused to comply were fired. In these and a thousand similar ways, the police were molded into a force that would impose order on working class and poor people, whatever the individual feelings of the officers involved.
Though some patrolmen tried to be kind and others were openly brutal, police violence in the 1880s was not a case of a few bad apples – and neither is it today.
Graffiti, location unknown.
Graffiti, location unknown.
Much has changed since the creation of the police – most importantly the influx of black people into the Northern cities, the mid-twentieth century black movement, and the creation of the current system of mass incarceration in part as a response to that movement. But these changes did not lead to a fundamental shift in policing. They led to new policies designed to preserve fundamental continuities. The police were created to use violence to reconcile electoral democracy with industrial capitalism. Today, they are just one part of the “criminal justice” system which continues to play the same role. Their basic job is to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system – who in our society today are disproportionately poor black people.
A democratic police system is imaginable – one in which police are elected by and accountable to the people they patrol. But that is not what we have. And it’s not what the current system of policing was created to be.
Sam Mitrani, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department, will be released in spring 2015 from University of Illinois Press
Sam Mitrani, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894, available from University of Illinois Press
If there is one positive lesson from the history of policing’s origins, it is that when workers organized, refused to submit or cooperate, and caused problems for the city governments, they could back the police off from the most galling of their activities. Murdering individual police officers, as happened in in Chicago on May 3rd 1886 and more recently in New York on December 20th, 2014, only reinforced those calling for harsh repression – a reaction we are beginning to see already. But resistance on a mass scale could force the police to hesitate. This happened in Chicago during the early 1880s, when the police pulled back from breaking strikes, hired immigrant officers, and tried to re-establish some credibility among the working class after their role in brutally crushing the 1877 upheaval.
The police might be backed off again if the reaction against the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and countless others continues. If they are, it will be a victory for those mobilizing today, and will save lives – though as long as this system that requires police violence to control a big share of its population survives, any change in police policy will be aimed at keeping the poor in line more effectively.
We shouldn’t expect the police to be something they’re not. As historians, we ought to know that origins matter, and the police were created by the ruling class to control working class and poor people, not help them. They’ve continued to play that role ever since.

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