Legitimacy in Policing

The bloated, self-referential, corporate orgasm that is the Super Bowl has come and gone again. It brought with it all the usual nonsense– contrived “storylines” like the exuberant, emotional, athletic stylings of Cam Newton vs. the stoic, studied, precision of Peyton Manning (a narrative that didn’t even bother hiding its naked, insipid racism– wonderfully mocked by Trevor Noah), a bizarre “State of the NFL” with Roger Goodell treated with the sort of seriousness of a Presidential address, and the paradoxical “concern for our players” rhetoric running back-to-back with stories of a young player melting down only to be abandoned by his agent, team, and the rest of the league (met with approval by most fans who consider this man a petulant, disrespectful, child). And that was just before the game. The postscript included a conversation about how Peyton Manning cemented his legacy (nonsense– he was already considered one of the top five QBs of all time and this win didn’t move the needle), unabashed praise of the energy and power of Von Miller (who was suspended not only for taking performance enhancing drugs known to create high energy levels and aggression, but for also trying to cheat the system three seasons ago), and a phony controversy over Cam Newton’s lack of class and sportsmanship after the game (complete with human piece of trash, Bill Romanowski calling him “boy”) as compared to the grace and dignity of a true champion like Peyton Manning (who, coincidentally, scorned shaking hands with Saints players when his Colts lost the Super Bowl back in 2010). The Super Bowl is second only to Presidential election coverage when it comes to shallow, self-righteous, nonsensical narratives.

Peyton Manning’s dignified flight from the field after Super Bowl XLIV. If Cam Newton could learn to play with such class and grit he might actually last in this league!

Sadly, the strangest dialog to emerge from the evening wasn’t from the insipid sports media with their hackneyed hot-takes or their whorish shilling for the National Football League. Instead, that dubious honor belongs to the scores of conservative social media outlets run by and for law enforcement advocacy groups. They were OUTRAGED that Beyoncé would use the Super Bowl halftime show to make a political statement! How dare she sully such a sacred event!

Conservatives hate athletes and artists voicing their opinions. Scratch that. They hate them opening their mouths to advocate against war (Muhammad Ali), for civil rights (Tommie Smith and John Carlos), or any other number of liberal causes. Tim Tebow uses the Super Bowl to promote conservative Christian beliefs? How brave!! Beyoncé uses the stage to protest the uneven policing and use of violence against the black community and suddenly the tune changes. How could Beyoncé promote hate against cops like that? All lives matter!

Nothing could be more inane than the “All lives matter” comments. This is a lazy strawman. In case you don’t know how a strawman fallacy works, it purposefully distorts the argument of the other side and sets up a weak/illogical/unsupportable version in it’s place. The weak strawman is then easily knocked down by the simple, common sense argument of the opposition. Here is how it works in the BLM/ALM debate. Black Lives Matter rests on the premise that black incarceration rates, rates of violence used against black suspects, and the severity of outcomes with black civilians in our law enforcement arena indicate that black lives (and bodies) do not matter to our institutions (or wider white society). Instead of arguing against the notion that our society does not respect the lives and bodies of black people, it swaps in the idea that asking to respect black lives is a call to ignore the lives and deaths of others. Shouldn’t all lives matter is not a question– it is a call to end discussion of whether or not blacks are being treated justly.

That various law enforcement advocacy groups would promote this narrative is unsurprising. LEO groups have been circling the wagons around racial discrimination for over 100 years. They have been just as vigilant at combating the notion that they use too much force in general (Conor Friedersdorf has done a great job covering this story for years over at The Atlantic). You see, what we need to understand is the police are here to protect us. We want them on that wall. We need them on that wall.

Indeed, “America’s Mayor,” Rudy Giuliani made the rounds today to say just that:


“This is football, not Hollywood, and I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive,” he said during an appearance on the Fox News channel. “And what we should be doing in the African American community, and all communities, is build up respect for police officers. And focus on the fact that when something does go wrong, okay. We’ll work on that. But the vast majority of police officers risk their lives to keep us safe.”

You see, this isn’t Hollywood. It is not the place for namby-pamby liberalism. This is the holy day of football (God totally thinks it is ok that we worship this, his most holy of sports). It is a time for wholesome entertainment. Like men hitting each other as hard as they can, selling dick pills and beer, and celebrating the millions of dollars spent to create ads to sell us those much needed products. What an affront to our senses to be forced to watch a black woman sing proudly about her heritage and to call into question her community’s treatment at the hands of the police! After all, what we should be doing is telling black people to respect the police. They keep us safe! And those times they don’t, which happen way more commonly to blacks than to other groups, we’ll get around to fixing that. We promise.

This is the logic of an authoritarian. The people do not answer to the police– it works the other way around. They exist at our consent and are funded with our tax dollars. They are the manifestation of our government. According to Max Weber, the state is defined by holding the exclusive right to use, threaten, or authorize physical force against the people living in a territory. Where this monopoly on the use of force is not consented to there can be no state– only anarchy and tyranny. What exists in our black communities, from the inception of this state to today, is tyranny. The threat and active use of force is not viewed as legitimate by the people, yet it is enforced and perpetuated by illegitimate means– the very image of tyranny that folks like Cliven Bundy imagine is happening to them. It is incumbent on the state to earn this legitimacy. It is never the responsibility of the governed to simply consent. You would think our self-styled patriots and freedom lovers like Rudy Giuliani, Michelle Malkin, and their ilk would get this.

Roundtable discussion with the CPD and community focused on community policing. Courtesy of the CPD twitter feed. 

The city of Cincinnati figured this out. In 2001, after decades of strife and conflict between the black community and the police a riot broke out. These riots were the impetus for change in the how the police thought about their relationship with the community. Recognizing that they had a legitimacy problem after decades of unanswered claims that the police were using excessive force and discriminatory policing practices against blacks the Cincinnati Police Department adopted a host of changes suggested by the community and various supporters. The police department promised to hold a press conference within 12 hours of any officer-involved shooting and to provide information as well as camera footage from the event. They agreed to track officers who received an inordinate number of complaints or who violated policies, and take disciplinary action where warranted. It established a citizens group with investigative and subpoena powers over the police. It adopted new use-of-force policies. It even established a mental health response team to deal with incidents in which a suspect may have mental-health problems (something every community could use). All of these small changes helped to create a climate trust. They provided transparency in policy and behavior. And they answered the concerns of their citizens. But according to both police and members of the black Cincinnati community, these were only minor fixes. The real change in how they policed and how the community perceived it was the adoption of community problem-oriented policing. This strategy seeks fewer outright arrests, instead focusing on finding solutions to the problems that cause people to commit crimes in the first place.

The lesson of Cincinnati is clear– in order for the police to be respected and enforce our laws effectively, they need to have legitimacy. This legitimacy is not given, it is earned. It requires a diverse group of people coming together, including police officers and local citizens, and honestly trying to understand one another. It should not be about arrest rates or other crime stats. It should be focused on creating less crime and more justice. Where the police have legitimacy there are fewer arrests, fewer people in jail, less crime, and more dialogue between police and the community that pays them to do their job. Cincinnati is our proof. Crime dropped. Discrimination accusations dropped. Arrests dropped. Prison sentences dropped. The city’s urban core has been revitalized. And when a UC police officer murdered a black man in cold blood they followed their procedures. The video was released. The officer was arrested. And there was no rioting. This is what legitimacy in policing looks like. And until police have it in black communities, it will be pretty hard to convince anyone that you really think all lives matter.

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