That’s Latin for “Who will watch the guardians themselves?” or maybe “who will watch the watchers?” An essential institution of any modern, civilized state are guardians or police who are charged with enforcing the laws of that state. Yet, how do you ensure that the guardians or law enforcers themselves will follow the laws and not abuse their position. I don’t doubt that a great many policemen want to serve their community, but the nature of the job of law enforcement naturally tends to attract the sort of people who like to push others around and think that a badge will allow them to get away with it. This tendency is aggravated when a police culture develops that sees the police not as public servants but as a separate and superior caste while the civilians they are charged to protect are seen as potential criminals.
Many years ago, when I was attending Indiana University at Bloomington, I found, while browsing a local book store, a book of humorous anecdotes written by a, I hope, retired police officer. These humorous anecdotes displayed an incredible contempt for civilians, or “tax-payers” as he humorously referred to them. In one such story, he related how he pulled over a woman who was speeding. The woman was somewhat irate and asked him why he wasn’t out catching criminals. He looked right at her and said, “That’s what I am doing now.” Hahahahahaha. No, he wasn’t. Speeding is an infraction, not a criminal offense. The woman might have been rude, but she was not a criminal, despite what the author of the book thought. With that kind of an attitude, I hope he is retired.
With all that in mind, consider this article about the kind of T-shirts favored by cops, written by Radley Balko on the Huffington Post. If the attitudes displayed are typical of police departments, then it is a rather disturbing trend.
Earlier this week, an anonymous public defender sent Gothamist this photo of an NYPD warrant squad officer wearing a t-shirt with a pretty disturbing quote from Ernest Hemingway:
There have been a number of other incidents over the years in which cops have donned t-shirts that reflect a mentality somewhat less lofty than “protect and serve.” Most recently, a Northern California union for school police officers came under fire for printing up and selling these shirts as a fundraiser:
See what I mean? It doesn’t help that there has been a trend towards more militarized police department, in large part due to the war on drugs. Here’s some more.
It’s no coincidence that the same departments and units caught wearing shirts displaying this sort of attitude tend to also get caught up in controversial beatings, shootings, and other allegations of misconduct and excessive force. The “us vs. them” mindset has become so common in U.S. police culture that we almost take it for granted. In my new book, I argue that this is the result of a generation of incessant rhetoric from politicians who treat cops as if they were soldiers, and policies that train and equip them as if they were fighting a war. The imagery and language depicted on the shirts in these stories are little different than the way pop culture, the military, and government propaganda have depicted the citizens of the countries we’ve fought in wars over the years.
Within the more militarized units of police departments, the imagery can be even stronger. Former San Jose, California police chief Joseph McNamara told National Journal in 2000 that he was alarmed when he attended a SWAT team conference the previous year and saw “officers . . . wearing these very disturbing shirts. On the front, there were pictures of SWAT officers dressed in dark uniforms, wearing helmets, and holding submachine guns. Below was written: ‘We don’t do drive-by shootings.’ On the back, there was a picture of a demolished house. Below was written: ‘We stop.’” In his 1999 ethnography on police culture, criminologist Peter Kraska writes that one SWAT team member he spent time with “wore a T-shirt that carried a picture of a burning city with gunship helicopters flying overhead and the caption Operation Ghetto Storm.”
Balko also quotes comments from a police forum.
– “In God we trust, all others get searched,”
— “A picture of an electric chair with the caption: JUSTICE: Regular or Crispy”
— “B.D.R.T Baby Daddy Removal Team on the back and the initials on front with handcuffs. You should see peoples faces when I wear it….HAHAHAHA”
— “Human trash collector. ( above a pair of handcuffs )”
— “Take No Guff, Cut No Slack, Hook’em, Book’em and Don’t Look Back!”
— “‘Boys on the Hood’ Pic had two gangbangers jacked up on the hood of a patrol car with two officers.”
— “SWAT T-shirt: ‘Happiness is getting the green light!'”
— “I have one that sates “SWAT SNIPER” on the front and on back it has a picure of a “terrorist” with a shell ripping through his skull and the “pink mist” spraying from the back of his head. Below the picture it reads, “Guerillas in the mist”.
— “Save the police time, beat yourself up”
— “An ounce of prevention is fine and dandy…….. But we prefer 168 grains of cure.”
— “Be good or you might get a visit from the bullet fairy.”
— “Sniper – When you only have 1 shot at an opportunity……We’ll make it count”
— “Law Enforcement……Helping perps slip down stairs since 1766”
— “Math for Cops………2 to the chest + 1 to the head = problem solved”
— “I had a couple of ’em a loooong time ago….1 showed a cop leaning on his rather long nightstick, saying “Police Brutality….the fun part of policework.”……obviously not very PC….another was a picture of a LEO with smoke coming from the muzzle of his pistol, with a badguy falling backwards (lookin’ like swiss cheese) with the caption…..The best action is OVERREACTION….also not very PC….”
— “Cops make good roommates…they’re used to taking out the trash.”
— “There was also one I saw where there was a big burly looking Sarge behind his desk and the cation read ‘It doesn’t say kindness and sympathy on the badge.'”
— “happiness is a confirmed kill”
— “Park Ranger T-shirt: One of funniest I ever saw: Picture of Smokey the Bear with Riot Gear and he’s just poked a protester in the chest with a riot baton. The Caption Reads: “Smokey Don’t Play That”. Funny!”
— “My Daddy can Taser your Daddy”
— “School Patrol – You fail em, we jail em”
— “Got one that says, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be misquoted and used against you.”
I don’t want to come across as anti-police. Obviously they do perform a vital job in any community. Law enforcement is a dangerous and stress-filled career and the police do not usually interact with the best and brightest among us. I can see how any cop could develop a rather jaundiced attitude toward his fellow human beings. As Mr. Balko concludes,
It’s worth noting that policing is a high-stress job, and one that often puts officers in contact with some pretty awful things, and in some dangerous situations. Like other high-stress professions, and professions that encounter difficult subject matter — defense attorneys, medical examiners, emergency room doctors and nurses — cops often develop a morbid sense of humor. It’s a coping mechanism. But it’s one thing to crack jokes inside the department, or at the bar after work. It’s quite another to openly advertise and promote a culture of abuse. As with most police abuse issues, the real failure here is on the part of the elected officials. They’re the ones who can’t resist the urge to incessantly declare “war” on things, who are responsible for setting the policies that have given rise to this culture, and who have done little to nothing to rein it in.
I do wish that politicians would stop declaring war on things. In war, there can be no compromises. You either defeat the enemy or they defeat you. In domestic issues, like drug abuse, you have to balance costs and benefits in a way you do not in war. Making every issue a war encourages extreme, irrational policies, and justifies abuse.
But as to the police attitudes and potential abuse, it all comes back to the question, quis custodiet ipsos custodes.