Q: What Is It When Cops Reject Civilian Control? A: What Do You Call A Police State?
December 23, 2014

I've known lots of cops in my day. I even used to drink with them when I was a reporter, and they were a very funny bunch of guys -- that is, when they weren't brutalizing people, acting as an enforcement arm of the local Republican party, battering their wives, or stalking their exes.

Other than that, though, great guys.

And so here's the ambiguity. These working class men and women, given extraordinary powers by the state, who actively loathe anyone who doesn't meet their standards of what they think a civilian should be, decided over the past several decades (egged on by conservatives of both parties) that they really shouldn't have to answer to anyone. They went from seeing their mandate as "To protect and serve" to "To control and punish." Period.

This is a dangerous situation. Whenever theoretical political discussions take place about the potential for civil war in this country, some optimistic progressive soul always says, "Cops are working class, they would never turn on their own people." And I always say, "Are you fucking crazy? Most of them would do it in a heartbeat." (Calling Frank Serpico...)

We're in a bad situation, and I wouldn't want to be living in NYC right now.

There were a couple of sayings about cops when I was growing up. The first was, "There's someone who wasn't smart enough to pass the firefighter's test." The other was, "There's a thin line between the cops and and the crooks." As I got to know cops, I learned how true the latter was. I mean, when you can lean out your front door and see cops selling drugs from a patrol car, report it to their chief and nothing happens, you pretty much understand that cops are lawless and arbitrary in their definiitions.

So this is not a surprise:

“It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time.”…”That can be for another day.”The mayor’s call came a few hours after the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, said that the killing of the officers on Saturday was a “direct spinoff of this issue” of the protests that have roiled the nation in recent weeks.

Ah, bullshit. Insulting, pandering bullshit. The shooter was a crazy habitual criminal with a gun, and you and I both know if he'd been fixated on a slogan he saw on Fox News, we wouldn't be having this argument. The cops are having a temper tantrum, and the alleged grownups are offering ice cream for dinner to shut them up.

If I were Bill deBlasio, I'd fire William Bratton and bring in someone who, before anything else, understood the concept of civilian control. You're going to blame rhetoric for the cop shootings, and by implication, me? Boom, you're outta here.

There aren't too many superintendents who actually believe in it, but one might be ambitious enough to reign in his impulses, in exchange for a national platform.

And Jesus, I'd stop running scared. "Fellows, I'm sorry you're all so thin-skinned that you feel ordinary civilians don't get a say about how you do your job, but they do. And the loss of your fellow officers doesn't justify you doing whatever you want. If you don't like it, find another job. This one has standards."

But it'll never happen, and the fact that it won't is part of the problem. We are dangerously close to a police state, and it took decades of political appeasement and exploitation to get us there. The politicians are now afraid of the cops.

Charlie Pierce on the CIA and the NYPD on "The CIA and the NYPD: Perilous Insubordination in Our Democracy":

For the past two weeks, on two different fronts, we have been confronted with the unpleasant fact that there are people working in the institutions of our self-government who believe themselves not only beyond the control and sanctions of the civil power, but also beyond the control and sanctions of their direct superiors. We also have been confronted with the fact that there are too many people in our political elite who are encouraging this behavior for their own purposes, most of which are cheap and dangerous. In Washington, John Brennan, the head of the CIA, came right up to the edge of insubordination against the president who hired him in the wake of the Senate report on American torture. Meanwhile, in New York, in the aftermath of weeks of protests against the strangulation of Eric Garner by members of the New York Police Department, two patrolmen, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were murdered in their squad car by a career criminal and apparent maniac named Ismaaiyl Brinsley. In response, and at the encouragement of television hucksters like Joe Scarborough, police union blowhards like Patrick Lynch, political zombies like George Pataki, and comical fascists like Rudolph Giuliani, the NYPD is acting in open rebellion against Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, and the civil power he represents over them. This is an incredibly perilous time for democracy at the most basic levels.

(And we should keep the banal red-blue, right-left kabuki of our politics largely out of the discussion, if we can. Yes, it is confounding to hear it argued that rightwing cop killers are always "lone wolves," but that Brinsley took his marching orders from Al Sharpton. And, yes, any time people try to tie clinic bombers and doctor-killers to the more "respectable" anti-choice movements, we get howls of outraged innocence. This latest episode is replete with hypocrisy, but that's the least dangerous thing about it.)

It is very simple. If the CIA is insubordinate to the president, whom the country elected, then it is insubordinate to all of us. If the NYPD runs a slow-motion coup against the freely elected mayor of New York, then it is running a slow-motion coup against all the people of New York. There is no exemption from this fundamental truth about the way this country and its system is supposed to work. The military -- and its civilian analogues in Langley and in the precinct houses -- always is subordinate to the civil power which, no matter how much it may chafe them, means that they always are subordinate to politicians. If we render our torturers superior to the political institutions of the government, and if we render the police superior to the civil power of elected officials, then we essentially have empowered independent standing armies to conduct our wars and enforce our laws, and self-government descends into bloody farce.

But, alas, in the past few weeks, we have shown ourselves to be relatively at peace with that very thing -- as long as the torture is done in the prisons overseas and the judicial killing is done in the streets of the ghetto, and as long as our fear of some omnipotent Other is what drives our politics. In turn, and in its mind, the country has now turned peaceful mass protest into some sort of violent revolution, and it has converted the murderous rage of a criminal lunatic into the ultimate expression of the cries for justice that have been heard in the last month in Ferguson, and Cleveland, and on Staten Island. It is a deeply noxious perversion of reality, and it has been working like a charm. Very soon, the names of Michael Brown and Tamil Rice and Eric Garner will be as unknown to our national dialogue again as are the names of those faceless, bartered souls who languished in shackles in Poland and in Thailand. The last thing to go to the waterboard is the tattered remnant of what we thought ourselves to be.

Can you help us out?

For 18 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.