Can the police be reformed?

June 28, 2016

Scandalous revelations about police violence and corruption have been rocking the Bay Area. In Oakland, the city has had three police chiefs resign in a week and a half after reports emerged about officers having sex with a teenaged prostitute, while others exchanged racist text messages. In May, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr stepped down after an ongoing campaign to hold him accountable for the crimes of the officers he oversaw.

In mid-June, the International Socialist Organization in San Francisco organized a forum on police violence and the struggle against it. David Whitehouse, who edits the Works in Theory blog, spoke about what it take to reform the police. The other speaker in the panel discussion, Erica West, detailed the abuses of the San Francisco Police Department.

SINCE THE police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there's been nearly two years of organizing and protests against police abuse. By now, you do have to ask yourself, "Can the police really be reformed?"

Lately, there have been some high-profile resignations--police chiefs in Chicago, San Francisco and now Oakland. The movement has also led more and more people to cast a critical eye on the police, and that's important, even if most of these folks haven't yet taken action themselves.

But you have to wonder whether we've had a real impact on the cops' behavior. Police unions and departments have doubled down and said openly that no major changes need to be made. The police seem to be killing and abusing people at pretty much the same pace as when we started. And it doesn't seem like we've made a dent in police racism.

I do think we can get some changes if we keep pushing, especially if we develop a broader and deeper social movement. The police can be reformed--in some ways, in some degree, for some period of time, as long as we're pushing in the right ways.

Police confront protesters in the Mission

So they can be reformed, yes, but they can't be fixed. In other words, the police cannot be made to do what they're advertised to do--protect and serve, fight crime, promote equal justice under the law or keep everybody safer.

That's because there are things wrong with the cops that are built into the nature of the institution.

For one thing, cops are specialists in violence, using force routinely, and that makes it inevitable that they'll be killing some people who pose no real threat--not to mention feeling justified about it.

For another thing, profiling, including racial profiling, is in the nature of the work, from the day the police were invented. Thirdly, they answer to the rich and powerful, and they spend their time policing everybody else.

Lastly, police forces are breeding grounds for corruption, and corruption comes right back no matter how many times you clean it up.

I'm going to illustrate these points by looking at some history. That background might help us learn how the cops can and can't be reformed.

MODERN POLICE forces have existed for less than 200 years. They were invented by trial and error by urban elites during the period of the Industrial Revolution. These elites made their wealth all around the Atlantic, especially once the slave production of cotton got hooked up with textile factories in England and New England.

There were millions to be made, but the expansion of capitalism called into existence a new kind of urban working population that posed new challenges to elite control. This wasn't just the "rabble" of the urban poor any more, although it included the urban poor.

The crucial thing was the growth of working classes that either worked as independent artisans or as wage laborers. These forces, with some cash in their pockets and a bit of autonomy in going about their lives, were not as easy to subordinate as the slaves, the house servants and the craft apprentices of the earlier generations.

Most important, these workers began to develop a collective life of their own, including a new level of assertiveness in defying authority.

This new mass challenge broke out in cities all around the Atlantic, including the American South. Many people know that the forerunners of Southern police were the slave patrols that operated nightly in the countryside.

That's what the police grew out of, but they had to be refashioned into a new kind of force because the urban slave was a new kind of slave. City life allowed slaves to congregate and to meet a great variety of people--including free people of color. Many of them learned to read.

Crucially, work in the towns was also organized in a way that gave slaves much more freedom than they had on a plantation.

Slavery was a brutal, racist institution, but at its root, it was a way of managing a workforce. It was especially well suited for certain kinds of intensive farm work, and white supremacy was a method that the masters developed in order to pull off this total subordination of the workforce.

PRODUCTION RELATIONS in the towns had to develop in a different way. Work came in greater variety, and it fluctuated with the market. The bosses discovered that the class relations that worked so well in the countryside were not flexible enough in the city.

Somebody who ran a furniture shop, or managed a crew of shipbuilders, wanted to be able to lay workers off when the market went down. But if they owned their workers, they would have to feed them even when business was bad.

In this way, the labor needs of the city bosses gave them incentive to hire other people's slaves as wage workers.

At first, the slaves' owners would find jobs for their "surplus" slaves and take all the wages. But soon they found it more convenient to let the slaves find their own jobs and collect a flat fee from any slaves who worked outside the household.

This meant that slaves achieved a new level of freedom, and they had spending money. City slaves started to marry whoever they wanted and move out of the master's house. Charleston even had a Black suburb.

In this way, thousands of people around the South who were legally slaves effectively formed a new class of wage workers.

Because of all this, the opportunity for insurrection in the cities was greatly increased, and the country system of slave patrols simply couldn't deliver an adequate degree of repression. Instead of being drafted from the general white population, the City Guards were hired into steady police jobs.

In place of the decentralized command of slave patrols, city officials began to exercise central authority over the new police. Patrols became more constant, eventually operating around the clock.

In other words, the City Guards began to operate in a way that's recognizable to us today as cops.

The focus wasn't really on crime, which is what an individual might do. The focus was on the collective threat that the whole working population posed to the boss class.

In the South, two of the features of modern police didn't have to be invented from scratch: racism and violence. On those points, the City Guards just adapted what slave patrols had been doing all along. The City Guards were enforcing curfews and other laws that applied only to Black people.

The crucial urban adaptation was to police crowds of Black people in the markets, and crowds of Black churchgoers on Sunday. Those were the gatherings that might become unruly, but they were also places for Black people to plot some resistance to the master class.

Besides racism, the other thing that came straight from the slave patrols was a vast asymmetry in the right to use violence. Black folks were forbidden to strike any white person, even in self-defense. A slave could only raise a hand against a white person to defend their master.

On the other side, both slave patrollers and City Guards were authorized to kill any Black person who put up physical resistance to them.

NOW A few words about the Northern police. They also were a response to crowds, not to crime. During the first half of the 19th century, police departments didn't even have detectives. They just had officers patrolling, an activity that rarely turns up a real crime.

The invention of constant patrolling of the 19th century meant that police were focused most of the time on small things that individuals were doing, many of which weren't even legal offenses--but they were an opportunity to make a public display of authority. A modern expression of this would be "stop and frisk."

As in the South, the real reason for putting large numbers of cops on the street was to respond to a collective challenge--not slave insurrections, obviously, but riots and strikes, which were notably on the rise from the new working class.

The invention of Northern cops allows us to highlight a few features of police activity that were new in the 19th century that are still important today.

One is the power of police to make arrests on their own discretion, and the other is the concept of preventive policing. These, in turn, are connected to violence and racism.

Before there were police, the constables in the North generally didn't have the power to make arrests on their own say-so. Most of the time, a citizen would swear out a complaint before a judge. Then the judge could issue an arrest warrant, and the constable would go pick up the accused.

This meant that every free person had the right to resist arrest--with violence--if the constable could not produce a warrant or show probable cause. Unlike Black folks in the South, the citizens of the North had the right to fight back.

And if the constable broke into somebody's house without showing a warrant, the constable was trespassing, and the citizen had the right to shoot him. Not the kind of thing I'd recommend today, because you'd do some hard time--or face a federal death penalty--assuming you survived the encounter.

Outside the South, it took 150 years to chip away these rights of self-defense--to the point now that resisting arrest is fully criminalized.

Police power to make arrests based on their own judgment has changed the very nature of what an arrest is. It's not necessarily the first step toward a legal procedure; it's a tactic that is available to police to deal with any number of different situations.

Want to throw disorder into a picket line or a demonstration? Arrest a bunch of people. You don't have to charge them with anything, but you might have intimidated the people that you didn't arrest. And on an individual level, the police can arrest somebody for a defiant attitude.

In actual practice, the police use force of some kind in one out of six arrests--and that's the rate of violence that arresting officers themselves admit to. Sometimes violence is the whole point, because it sends a message about who's in control.

In 2010, the San Francisco police made 18,000 arrests, which suggests that they used force about 3,000 times that year--and that's not counting violence that's done without an arrest or after an arrest.

Cops are thus trained to use violence, and do so routinely. When somebody gets killed, we know that's just the tip of the iceberg.

POLICE DISCRETION in making arrests is related to another key point: Patrols are supposed to be engaged in preventive policing. Before there were cops, the constables didn't go out patrolling. But modern cops are wandering around, or driving around, looking for trouble.

They're not chasing bad guys who have done something: they're on the lookout for folks who might do something. The idea is that visible patrols will discourage people from committing crimes and reassure ordinary citizens about their safety.

Of course, the people who study these things have shown that police patrols have no impact on crime, and they don't make most people feel safe. Nowadays, cops generally get connected to crimes through 911 calls--which actually force them to break off their patrols.

Because patrols are looking for potential criminals, they can't know in advance who those people are going to be. They're on the lookout for criminal "types." In this way, modern policing shifted the focus from crime to "criminality." From the beginning, police have used their discretion to arrest people who were simply "suspicious."

The thing is, if you're going to build a theory of criminal types, you're going to talk about what neighborhoods they live in, and, in our country, of course, the key indicator of criminality is naturally skin color.

So criminal profiling and racial profiling are not secondary features of policing--profiling has always been built in to what the police do on patrol.

I'll say a few words about corruption before I look at what all this means for reform.

When you put an armed force in the streets to police the behavior of ordinary people, and give this force the discretion to use coercion, including coercive violence, it's inevitable that they're going to use it--or use threats of violence--for their personal benefit.

This dynamic was already evident in a letter I found in a Charleston newspaper from the 1840s. The writer complained that the Municipal Guard wasn't administering the whippings that every Black person was supposed to get if they were out after dark.

These Black folks had a little cash, and the writer noted that they were able to bribe the guard to let them walk around unmolested. If we look at the real power relations involved, we wouldn't use the word "bribe," however; we'd say that the guard was extorting money from people who had no real means to fight back.

Given the nature of police forces, corruption tends to get routinized and collectivized, so that lots of cops get a piece of the action, and even more are complicit in keeping it quiet.

This is the exact dynamic at play in Oakland that brought down the police chief this week. Multiple officers in several departments had sex with a young prostitute--even when she was underage--in return for information that would help her avoid getting arrested.

That's not a bribe from a sex worker. It's an extortion ring of the sort that grows up so easily within police departments because of their opportunities to prey upon the vulnerable. Sean Whent may have lost his job over this, and I hope some more cops do, but we're never going to really root out this kind of corruption while the cops continue to be cops.

IN MY last few minutes I'll ask what all this tells us about how we should approach reform.

It's obvious that reform is only going to come through struggle. The activity of the police itself is a form of struggle on the part of the 1 Percent against the rest of us. When we're not fighting back, they're going to win all the time.

Another thing that's obvious is that the fight for police reform has to be part of a broader struggle that aims at equality--racial equality, gender equality and equality for the disabled, who are disproportionately victimized for noncompliance with the cops.

But we also need to fight for social equality in general, because the police act like police because that's the way to maintain order within a deeply unequal society.

As for specific demands to make, there's no formula for choosing reforms that would be effective, because it really depends on context--especially the context of struggle. For example, if we go for civilian review boards, they are unlikely to have the power to fire the offending cops--or even the power to subpoena witnesses.

Even if we got a fairly robust structure for an elected civilian review board, the people elected are likely to come from the same demographic as the activists in today's Neighborhood Watch committees. Those are pro-cop formations dominated by business owners and homeowners--as opposed to workers, tenants and the unemployed.

In other words, those who are most likely to end up on the receiving end of police abuse are least likely to be represented on a civilian review board. A review board could only succeed in putting a check on racist or violent police abuse in the context of a sustained movement from below.

So you can't just invent an institutional reform and sit back and watch the structure work, because the institution will adapt to fit in with the same unequal social context that gave rise the police in the first place.

Should the SF cops be issued Tasers? Well, Johannes Mehserle's possession of a Taser didn't prevent him from killing Oscar Grant with his gun.

Recently, a Georgia man was tasered to death in the backseat of a car.

Nevertheless, in the context of an ongoing movement, the issuing of Tasers might increase the chances that people will survive their encounters with the police. If cops used Tasers where they use guns today, that would count as a small step toward demilitarization, which is a bigger goal we should try to achieve.

But it would only work that way if we keep up the pressure to stop police abuse. Cops might also start to use Tasers in addition to guns, and we'd be worse off than where we started.

So in the right time and circumstance, there's plenty of reforms that could make some difference--including, especially, an end to the "war on drugs."

ANOTHER MAJOR factor in choosing a demand is whether it can bring out large numbers of people because we need large number if we are going to win any of our demands and because it's what we need to build that broader movement for social equality that can nail down the bigger victories.

With all of this in mind, I think it's important that we keep trying chip away at the impunity that officers enjoy in committing abuses, including both violent abuse and corruption.

Hold the cops accountable. Fire them. Prosecute them. These demands have the advantage of attracting people who aren't radicalized yet. The abuses we're talking about are illegal, after all--and they can mobilize people who might think right now that things would be fine if the police just followed the law.

But if I'm right in what I've argued, then these abuses are just the tip of the iceberg that emerges out of normal police work. We know from experience that people activated around particular abuses can become radicalized as they look more deeply at the repressive role that police are designed to play.

I'll finish by returning to the point I started with--which is that folks have put in all this effort, and we haven't changed much about the way the police actually behave. But I think we can push them back a bit. And it would be important to show that struggle can push them back. If we want to see bigger changes, our side has to get stronger--and feel our strength now and then.

We're less than two years into this movement, and there's still life in it. Just this year, we've brought down police chiefs in three major cities. Our attitude has got to be that we're just getting started.

Further Reading

From the archives