When the Police Are the Government

Earlier this week, I wrote that American policing lies largely outside of democratic control. In practice, despite the formal authority of mayors, city councilors and other elected officials, police departments can and do operate without meaningful accountability or public oversight.

But the problem of democracy and American policing goes beyond questions of accountability. The police shape the experience of American democracy as much (or as little) as they are shaped by it. Police departments, as much as any other institution, mediate and define citizenship for millions of Americans.

Or, as the political scientists Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver argued in 2017 against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, “Police are our government.” The paper in question is primarily addressed to scholars of American politics, urging them to widen their aperture and turn greater attention to the “activities of governing institutions and officials that exercise social control and encompass various modes of coercion, containment, repression, surveillance, regulation, predation, discipline, and violence,” what they call the “second face of the state.” To that end, Soss and Weaver make valuable observations about the role policing plays in modern democratic life.

The middle-class residents of a moderately affluent suburb will likely experience government in ways that affirm their sense of agency and political belonging, whether at a polling place, their child’s school or a local government office. For poor and low-income Americans, and especially those in segregated, marginalized communities, the experience of government is so radically different as to challenge our use of the word “government” to refer to both.

Residents of these communities are not treated, Soss and Weaver write, as “citizens facing social barriers or as victims needing protection from slum landlord predation, violence, and misaligned service provision” but instead as potential “criminal targets in need of surveillance.” And while there would be fewer and fewer resources for social investment through the 1990s and into the 2000s, there would always be funds for law enforcement, so much so that state and local governments began handing previously unrelated tasks to police departments.

“By the early years of the twenty-first century,” they note, “police had become a normal presence in sites ranging from mental health agencies to hospital emergency rooms to schools to welfare offices.” What’s more, as policing became the central institution in the social regulation of disadvantaged communities, police departments began to engage in the kinds of actions that call to mind the “urban renewal” of the 1950s and ’60s. “Under the guise of reclaiming spaces from social disorder and promoting urban development, police advanced the gentrification of urban neighborhoods and serviced race- and class-based residential segregation.”

The upshot of all of this is to make the police “one of the most visible and proximate instantiations of state power in many citizens’ lives,” Soss and Weaver write. In fact, as Weaver and the political scientist Amy E. Lerman observe in “Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control” (a book I referred to in my previous column), there are a host of reasons to think that “criminal justice contact rivals other more traditional politically socializing experiences and venues for civic education.”

And unlike other, less punitive (or even positive) interactions with the government, like those that often occur in schools, this contact cleaves citizens away from he traditional political community. These “custodial citizens” are then “constituted not as participatory members of the democratic polity, but as disciplined subjects of the carceral state.” The result is that “rather than communicating that they are worthy and valued citizens, their experiences with criminal justice teach them that they have little voice and mark them outside consideration.”

As I have been saying, the American police are largely insulated from democratic control — that much is obvious, even if it isn’t always expressed in those terms. Much less obvious is the degree to which policing itself shapes, constricts and degrades the citizenship of millions of law-abiding Americans, making a mockery of the idea that they live in a democracy or enjoy anything like political equality.

We can catch a glimpse of this democratic distortion right now, in Atlanta, where local law enforcement and its political allies are fighting a pitched battle against activists who hope to stop the city from constructing a $90 million training ground for the Atlanta police and fire departments, derisively known as “cop city,” complete with replica streets and businesses where the police will train in tactics meant to counter and disrupt protesters, among other things.

If and when “cop city” becomes a reality, it will be in the face of overwhelming opposition from residents bordering the proposed installation, many of whom live in communities that are already subject to the untrammeled authority of the police. “I am encouraging the council to promptly approve this facility,” Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia wrote in support of the development. “The security of our families and communities hang in the balance, and we must continue to do all we can to support our public safety partners.” That those families and communities seem to disagree is, at this point, immaterial.

In their power and authority and reach and influence in so many neighborhoods across the country, the police are the government. And in this realm, as is true in so many others, American democracy isn’t very democratic.

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