For the last several months, there has been an ongoing debate about police reform in this country. Some people argue the police should be defunded or even abolished, while others argue they actually should get more money.
However, there is a separate problem with police that has so far gotten less attention — the lawless, thuggish politics of police departments as they currently exist. For weeks it has been clear that police departments in many cities are conducting a deliberate work slowdown for political reasons. They are upset at being criticized for violent brutality, and they are deliberately trying to incite a crime wave — and in some cities, it appears to be working.
No matter where one stands on the police reform debate, this kind of behavior should be absolutely intolerable. The police cannot be allowed to act as a protection racket.
One major example seems to be Minneapolis, where the city council is currently debating proposals to drastically reform its police department, and the cops are apparently fighting back by trying to turn the city into The Purge. Brandt Williams of MPR News recently reported on a city council meeting where members grilled the police chief about why “their constituents are seeing and hearing street racing which sometimes results in crashes, brazen daylight carjackings, robberies, assaults and shootings.” Both violence and property crime are up compared to 2019, and arson is up 55 percent. (The plague of arson is particularly suspicious, and some Minneapolis residents have been forced to organize de facto neighborhood protection squads on their own.) Council President Lisa Bender relayed constituent stories that “officers on the street have admitted that they’re purposely not arresting people who are committing crimes,” writes Williams.
Now, it’s not at all clear that police slowdowns always worsen crime. During a slowdown in New York last year, crime actually fell considerably. But it appears that under some circumstances crime will rise — in New York today, city officials have alleged that the NYPD is deliberately dragging its feet, and response times are indeed down while murders are up. (The NYPD sergeants union, in a display of the calm professionalism we have all come to expect from American law enforcement, called one critical New York councilman a “first class w****” on Twitter.) Baltimore has been in the grips of a major violent crime problem since the city’s police basically quit even trying to solve serious crimes in 2015, in response to the Freddie Gray protests — indeed, some of them got in on the racket instead. In Atlanta in June, cops staged a “blue flu” sickout in response to an officer being charged with murder for the killing of Rayshard Brooks. (This sort of thing is tantamount to an illegal strike, and used to be routine in decades past.)
We should be clear about what is happening here. There is a nationwide and entirely justified surge of outrage against police brutality and racism. Cops in these cities are responding by attempting collective punishment against the citizenry whose taxes pay their salaries and whose safety they are sworn to protect. In other words, it is a protection racket scheme. The message is: Say, anxious middle-class homeowners, nice neighborhood you have there. Sure would be a shame if violent hordes burned it to the ground. Better keep that in mind before you go about meddling in police business.
Perhaps the most outrageous police challenge to democratic government is happening in Portsmouth, Virginia. There the police department has directly charged (which is possible to do in the state due to peculiar legal structures) the top Black member of the Virginia Senate, local NAACP officials, and other activists with felonies because they were present at a protest where a Confederate statue was pulled down after they left. The department has also attempted to keep the progressive local prosecutor out of the case by claiming she is a witness. (The police chief is currently on a leave of absence while the charges are being processed.) As Alex Pareene writes, it is a brazen attempt to topple elected representatives for criticizing the police and threatening their impunity.
The implication of all these stories is clear. Any city with a case of protection-racket police should, at a minimum, start by abolishing the existing department entirely, and rebuilding from scratch. What replaces it can be a matter of debate, but whatever it is, the foundational organizing principle must be that the police are at all times subordinate to the elected government leadership.
It’s important to note that this is not so much about individuals as it is about organizational culture. There are many corrupt and lawless cops, and cops involved in straight-up organized crime, but these are the minority even in a pretty bad department. The real problem is that the police who aren’t corrupt, or gangsters, or white supremacists, are unwilling or unable to rein in the ones who are. Probably the biggest reason for this is that almost every police department has established a powerful “blue wall of silence” social norm — the expectation that a cop should never, ever turn in or testify against another cop for any reason. This norm is reinforced through hazing, punishment, intimidation, and violence. Whistleblower cops can expect to be ostracized, placed on leave, fired, threatened, beaten, or shot.
As the famous NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico said about his efforts to expose stupendous police corruption way back in 1971:
I was made to feel that I had burdened [my supervisors] with an unwanted task. The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. We must create an atmosphere in which the dishonest officer fears the honest one and not the other way around. [New York Times]
Now, as I have argued elsewhere, police reform cannot possibly be a complete solution to America’s crime problem. We also have far too many guns, extreme inequality, and a threadbare welfare state that allows social problems to fester. But even in a country like this, we can at least demand the basics of democratic government from armed agents of the state.