Thursday, January 11, 2018

The American City: A Police State in the Making

Crime in 2017 was down the 30 largest cities in the U.S, but police levels remained robust. Specifically, less crime did not result in fewer cops on the street. “In 2016, there were slightly more officers per capita than in 1991, when violent crime peaked,” according to the FBI.[1] American cities were on a trajectory toward becoming police states. A mentality of excessive dominance, I submit, lies behind the excessive show of force.
The notion that pruning a police force “inevitably raises the specter of more crime” does not hold, given the evidence of a more complex relationship.[2] For one thing, the actual size of a police force can be distinguished from the amount of police presence in the streets and in the air on a daily basis. I submit that the notion that a constant, ubiquitous police presence discourages crime is also problematic. In fact, blanketing a constant show of force can send the message of total societal distrust, which in turn can lead to crime as the social contract unravels. “The answer to fixing trust inside the community is to not put more distrust into it,” said Tre Murphy, a community organizer in Baltimore, Maryland. The sheer presence of police with guns implies distrust, and even a primitiveness in terms of aggression. “The answer to violence is not to put more violence into the community,” Murphy explains, “and that’s what they’re doing by increasing the police force.”[3] The additional violence here is mostly the passive aggressiveness of an excessive show of force, but also the incidents of police brutality. The latent passive and active aggression in an excessive police presence may be explained by the power vested in a police employee being too much for human nature to control.
It bears mentioning that quality of life also suffers for law-abiding citizens as a city becomes a de facto police state. When I lived in Tucson, Arizona, I was stunned to see low-flying police helicopters on a daily basis, even during weekdays, and this was on top of a myriad of police cars constantly on the major roads. Seeing a low-flying helicopter flying nearby in tight circles with a spotlight dotting here and there is downright creepy, and thus unnerving, especially on nearly a nightly basis. The city’s mayor’s office was oblivious. At the local university, both city and campus police, plus police aides, regularly circled within the campus, giving students and faculty the sense that they were being continuously monitored. The distrust in the air on that campus was so palpable I avoided it. It was not uncommon to see a campus policeman wearing a bullet-proof vest perpetually circling on a bike around the library and campus green, while police vehicles slowly pass by as if also necessary during the day.  
Such over-the-top policing especially during weekdays raises the problem of the culprits being wholly unaware that their conduct is excessive—more specifically excessively passive aggressive. It is precisely such being oblivious that prevents police forces from accepting the very notion of less rather than more. Downsizing is not in a police force’s DNA, according to Meghan Hollis, a criminologist. “Police departments, as long as they have the funds, they’re going to keep their force size the way it is or grow it, regardless of the crime rate. They can always adjust their statistics to make it look like they need the officers they have.”[4] Likewise, police forces can rationalize even what is an excessive daily police presence on the street and in the air such that the excessive amount can become normalized as the default. Hence even citizens feeling constantly monitored out in public spaces and even on their property can come to accept the fait accompli. The passive aggression inherent in the excessive show of force is, I submit, in the DNA of a police force. Perhaps mayors and university managers are afraid to reel in their respective police forces.  
Perhaps it bears mentioning that the quality of life in a city suffers from a constant police presence. This point is perhaps as obvious as the obliviousness of police forces regarding their own excessive show of force is hidden from the public as well as the police themselves. I submit that America is on the road to a police state, rendering “land of the free” into a farce. To deem oneself to have great liberty and yet live in—and implicitly tolerate!—a police state is to live in a state of denial: oblivious. This may have become the American unconsciousness.

[1] Jose Del Real, “Crime Is Falling, But Police Levels Remain Robust,” The New York Times, January 8, 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.