Monday, December 29, 2014

How Do We Arbitrate Social Contracts?

I haven't been writing much in my blog this Month.  Since I returned from Easter Island I have been very busy working on the report of my research as well as working on the graduate school application process.  Additionally, there just hasn't been news stories about which I felt I had anything of value to add.  Then I saw a very scary picture yesterday.

Hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs on mayor de Blasio
The picture that I found scary was one of hundreds of police turning their backs on their mayor.  This image scares me for many reasons.  I will list some of those reasons.

The most basic reason that the picture scares me is that it suggests that the NYPD equates criticism with the assassination of police.  De Blasio joined in criticism of the NYPD when people were protesting the death of a man who was choked to death for selling cigarettes.  Then a lone gunman killed two officers in apparent retaliation.  This image of the police turning their backs on the mayor suggests to me that the NYPD considers any criticism tantamount to endorsing the murder of police officers.

The next reason that this picture scares me is that the image suggests a rift between civilian leadership and police forces.  As those who read my blog are aware, I fear the growing militarization of out nation's police forces.  Civilian control of the US military is a fundamental issue protecting our country against military dictatorship.  Military officers are supposed to remain apolitical and respect civilian leadership because that helps defend our democratic system.  Civilian control of the military also helps to maintain the idea of the military existing to defend the people of the USA, rather than the people existing to support the military.  Military personnel swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution.

Over the past several decades US police forces have increasingly become domestic military forces that owe no allegiance to the US Constitution.  With this image it appears that the NYPD owes no allegiance to the civilian leadership of the city of New York.  The question of who the NYPD serves brings me to the biggest reason that this image scares me.

The image of the NYPD turning their backs on the elected executive of the polity they ostensibly serve causes me to fear that the social contract between the police and the citizenry is broken from both ends.  The protests across our country over the past few months have shown that there were many US citizens, especially people of color, who felt that the social contract between the police and themselves was broken.  Of course most of these protests focused on the police as the source of rupture of trust.  Police supporters essentially responded that the failure was on the part of populations that failed to conform to acceptable social norms (obey the law, don't resist arrest, and you won't have trouble with the police).

While most of my writing on the police in recent months has been critical, my personal biases tend to lie more in line with the police supporters.  I see the police as the good guys (with rare exceptions).  I've known and worked with many police officers.  And I suspect that social groups that are pounded with the message from birth that the police are liable to kill and/or victimize them are going to have a hard time trusting the police and behaving in a truly respectful manner.  If you are convinced that a group of people is out to kill you then fear only motivates you to stay in line until you feel that your time may have come.  People who think the police are out to get them can't truly respect the police on a fundamental level.  So I have tended to view instances of potentially excessive force as driven more by a failure of trust than of actual racism or ill will on the part of the police.

When two police officers were assassinated in New York City the possibility of a severely broken social contract seemed very possible.  It was a lone gunman, but coming against a backdrop of nationwide protests and cries of police racism, it seemed like an increasing number of people were seeing the police as the enemy.  Speaking purely subjectively and anecdotally, in my social circles it has seemed in recent years that almost all discussion of the police has been in terms of opposition.  Of course opposition to, and distrust of, law enforcement has a long history in this country.  During the early years of our nation's history there was no provision for formal police forces.

The process of revolting against British authority had so poisoned the culture in the US against law enforcement that professional law enforcement agencies were scarce across much of the country until very late.  The first municipal law enforcement agency in the US was formed in Boston in 1838, more than a half a century after the Revolutionary War ended, and it wasn't until the 1880's that police forces were ubiquitous even in major cities.  If you want more information on the history of police in the US (including things like the evolution of police in Southern states from the Slave Patrols) then I suggest reading more here.  Suffice to say, in the US, law enforcement was more likely to be conducted by vigilantes or private forces until almost the twentieth century.  But as the US grew, the need for order became increasingly pronounced, but the US has never truly found peace with its peace forces.

Over the past hundred years or so we have become, as a nation, more accepting of the need for law and order; but that acceptance has never truly been unambiguous.  One can contrast the US's history with law enforcement with our neighbors to the north, Canada.  Canada did not have a Wild West the way that the US did.  Canada had organized law enforcement in the form of Mounties.  The US had self appointed "lawmen" who got into shootouts with people they didn't like.  Hark A Vagrant has a very fun comic relating to these historical differences.
I'm sure that the punishments were more severe than sitting in a corner in real life, but the relationship to officers of the law was radically different in Canada and I believe still affects Canadian cultural on a very basic level to this day.
The differences between Canadian attitudes toward the police and US attitudes continues to be pronounced.  When I was living in Canada in 2005 the Mayerthorpe Tragedy occurred.  Four Mounties were killed in the line of duty.  It was a national tragedy.  In Ottawa, where I lived, thousands of miles from where the tragedy occurred, flags were lowered to half-mast.  It was the worst single day loss of life for the RCMP in modern Canadian history.  Even the name "Mayerthorpe Tragedy" speaks to the radically different attitude toward the Mounties.  Mounties are federal police, would the death of four FBI officers be a cause for national mourning?  Mounties are seen as heroes, US policemen are all too often viewed as violent predators.

I don't believe that the difference in the way people in the US and Canada view their law enforcement is because Canadian police are all angels and US police are all devils.  I believe the difference is because the US never truly established a national trust with the forces of law and order, and the uneasy trust that grew over the first half of the twentieth century (especially after the end of Prohibition) has eroded dangerously since the Vietnam war.

Now in a time when police are more militarized than ever, and anti-cop sentiment is a seething current in our country, some people are seeking to wage war on the police.  Two days ago, at the memorial for the two officers killed in New York last week, hundreds of police officers turned their backs to the mayor.  With this gesture the police communicated that they also saw the public, and those who would criticize them, as the enemy.  The NYPD seemed to tell the world that the feeling was mutual.

We cannot repair the relationship with law enforcement if the police see the public they are supposed to serve as the enemy.  But the social contract goes both ways.  We cannot repair the relationship with law enforcement if the public views their protectors as the enemy.  It seems that the social contract between the public and the police has been horribly ruptured, at least in New York, and it is not clear how to repair that trust.

The severity of the fracture of trust is further underscored by another image, also apparently from the memorial two days ago.
But it appears that one officer did not turn his back
And this image might be even scarier.  In a sea of white faces turned away from the mayor, a black officer did not turn his back.  This image seems to simultaneously magnify the severity of the breach of trust represented by the NYPD turning their backs, and to further confirm the perception of the issues as one of race.  The narrative of racism feels like it is acting as a runaway train eradicating any hope of constructive discussion.

Yesterday a story came up on my Facebook feed of a black plainclothes NYPD officer being shot and killed by other NYPD plainclothes officers.  It is a real story, and true, and reported by the New York times, but it is not current.  The story is five years old, and as tragic now as it was a half decade ago.  But such is the power of social media's ability to engage in News Necromancy, that when people get upset about an issue, all the previous stories that confirm a bias can be revivified and made new.

Even the image of the black officer not turning his back has traveled via social media.  I have not been able to find the source of the image.  I don't even know if it is real or if it was taken at the memorial.  But this unattributed image is moving through social media, and while it is a troubling image, it underscores the difficulty facing us if we want to repair our society.

Emotions are running high.  Social media creates an environment where every tragedy gets rolled into every tragedy and it is impossible to parse what is going on.  While emotions run high it is nearly impossible to even try to discuss issues like use of force and institutional racism.  Everyone just yells past everyone else, unhinged individuals assassinate police, and the police set themselves in opposition to civil society.

It is a scary situation.

It is a situation that must be repaired.

But I don't know how to repair this situation.  When a social contract is broken, how can it be arbitrated?  If a contractor breaks a contract they can be sued.  Who can we sue when the public and the police are both in breach of contract with each other?

We need police.  And far more than the individuals in uniform, we need trust in the police.  There will never be enough police to keep everyone in line.  Our society works because we believe in it.  We trust that our system should work.  Laws are obeyed because people agree they should be obeyed.  Even our money only has value because we agree it has value (US currency is fiat money and is intrinsically worthless).  Our entire interconnected world functions because of trust.  That trust is built on order, and in an urban society the municipal police are a fundamental cornerstone of that order.

We cannot, as a society, simply accept the failure of trust in the police.  Nor can we simply blame the collapse of trust on the police.  Police officers daily risk their lives to maintain order, but in order for the police to be able to keep the peace they require the trust of the public.  We all of us, each and every one, bear a share of the burden of keeping our society functioning.

The most concrete suggestion I can offer toward repairing the ruptures in our society is to engage in actual conversation.  Do not demonize police.  Do not demonize minorities.  Do not demonize conservatives.  Do not demonize liberals.  We need to try to find points of agreement and build from there.  If we want a functioning society we have to agree on what constitutes functioning.  If we want police that protect us we need to agree that we want police to exist.

Maybe the first step could be agreeing that we want police to protect us.


  1. Google best guess as to the source:

  2. The 2009 article on the fatal shooting of the police officer in Harlem solidified my sentiment the police should be restricted to those items which the general populace is allowed to have. That man was shot because he had a tool which is not legally allowed for the residents of New York City, and the other police jumped to the conclussion he must be a criminal for having such a tool.