Police State of Exception

February 16th, 2018  |  Published in Politics

Last night I once again had the pleasure of attending the James Connolly forum in Troy, NY, this time to hear Alex Vitale talk about his recent book, The End of Policing. I’ll have more to say about the political implications of this. But first, this was a sort of tangential thing that Alex’s talk brought to mind.

His work is an extended argument that, in a world of manifest policing-related atrocities, we should not regard policing as something to be reformed or perfected. Rather, we should acknowledge that “the problem is policing itself”–and, more than that, the problem is with a social system that treats the symptoms of deprivation and inequality as things to be policed, rather than addressed by other means.

One of the things Vitale is very good at is critiquing common-sense ideas about reforming the police. He roots this in his diagnosis of a kind of ideological substrate, unspoken but implicit in liberal ideas about the police. This is the idea that cops are the emanations of a stable and legitimate liberal order, based on consent, equality, and reasoned debate. Police, in this view, are the dispassionate conflict-resolvers who keep our passions in check and make liberal society possible. And to the extent that policing leads to violence and repression, this is a pathological dysfunction, a betrayal of policing’s true meaning.

To this, Vitale (like many others) counters that policing is not and never has been this liberal ideal, but rather functions to control and regulate property relations and inequality. He cleverly illustrates this by noting that the London Metropolitan Police, so often held up as the original model for modern, “professional” policing, were modeled on the forces used to maintain the British colonial occupation of Ireland.

Much more can be said about all of this. But one question that arose from the audience, after Vitale spoke, went specifically to the ideological aspect of policing. If we believe the above diagnosis, both of policing’s current practice and its ideological underpinnings, how are we to counter a state of affairs in which so many people believe that the purpose of the cops is something so utterly different from what they have really always been for?

In the course of answering this, Vitale somewhat unexpectedly brought up the role of popular culture, and its function as, to paraphrase him, a relentless machine for producing and reproducing the legitimacy of policing in the public mind. In this connection he brought up two of his childhood favorites in the cop-television genre, Adam-12 and The Mod Squad. The first was a dry and “realistic” drama about sober and professional cops. The second was a fantasy of a kind of policing much cooler and more diverse than anything in its late-1960s environment. But as Vitale points out, they both ultimately express the same idea about policing: that it is benevolent, socially beneficial, and necessary.

Now, I’m a bit younger than Alex Vitale, so my mind immediately went not to The Mod Squad, but to Law & Order, and its innumerable variations and imitators. I confess to being a bit of a sucker for these shows, bingeing on them despite (or because of) their formulaic repetition, and even while knowing that they convey a distorted ideological picture of police and prosecutors.

But one thing I’ve become fascinated by is a particular, absurdly common trope in these shows, one that I think they played a unique role in perfecting. This is what I’ve come to think of as “ACAB-EU”: All Cops Are Bastards, Except Us.

The trope works by consistently portraying its central characters as liberal fantasies of the good cop–whether it’s the pseudo-scientists of CSI, the workaday victim-protectors of SVU, or the magical profiler-geniuses of Criminal Minds. At the same time, it makes a seeming concession to concerns about police misconduct, by constantly putting its protagonists in conflict with “bad cops” and their enablers, whether it be a rapist Corrections Officer or a corrupt small town department whose cover-up leads all the way to the Governor.

And in the end, of course, the good guys win. The bad cops become a perfect example of the ways ideological systems can coopt criticism. Once it becomes impossible to maintain the uniform “officer friendly” image in the face of obviously awful police behavior, the bad cops must appear on the stage. But only so that we can be reassured that the main characters, the ones we are emotionally invested in, are still the good guys who only want what’s best for us.

So just as shows like the West Wing do for politics, the ACAB-EU trope in cop shows indulges the liberal fantasy that policing is ultimately a noble and admirable public service, and that its evil effects are malfunctions rather than, as critics like Vitale suggest, the system properly working just as intended. By making this move, this storytelling device impedes the viewer from acknowledging that, as much as we love Jerry Orbach and Ice-T, Lennie Briscoe and Fin Tutuola are bastards too–and in the system they work under, couldn’t be any other way.