Police

In the spring of 1965 I flunked out of Knox College. The timing of this was pretty spectacular, as there was a war on. 

I lost my student deferment and went to the top of the Draft Board’s list for two years’ service in the Army or Marines. Instead I volunteered for a four-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force. They sent me to Monterey, California, to learn Chinese. 

After learning Chinese, I spent a year on a Taiwan mountaintop, monitoring Chinese Communist radio communications; then spent about fifteen months flying out of Okinawa, grinding away at the Chinese Problem from recon aircraft over Southeast Asia. 

RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. Photo by Tim Felce, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I completed my service in September 1969 and came home to a land I barely recognized. Gone was the familiar America of Walt Whitman, singing its varied carols. In its place wallowed a society designed by, or for, Saul Alinsky and Howard Zinn.

The culture shock was starkened by my having gone immediately from military service to the University of Wisconsin campus at the height of its anti-war, revolutionary, zeal. The serious leftists in Madison, some of whom I got to know pretty well, were dedicated, if mostly amateur, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist agitators. 

Revolution

Turned loose by Uncle Sam, I sought now to redeem myself as a student. This time around, I promised myself, I would shun all-night poker parties and all-day Frisbee flinging. I would hit the books with righteous fervor. Admitted to the university on academic probation, I was determined to clear my name in one semester. 

Meanwhile, the campus of 35,000 students seethed with anger, revolt, socialist machinations, and broken windows.

On the twelfth floor of Van Hise Hall, East Asian and South Asian language students gathered to read, translate, argue, and kibbitz. From a perch nudging the stratosphere we gazed down on ant-like protesters surging at straight lines of National Guardsmen and police. Puffs of white smoke plumed the ground here and there—signs that our homeward treks at day’s end would be tinged with tear gas.

“The Pigs”

One day a young man whose name I no longer recall complained about the police—whom he called “the pigs,” in the argot of the day.

Pig. Photo by BadgerGravling, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“I wish you wouldn’t call them pigs,” I said.

He frowned. “Why not? That’s what they are.”

“No. Pigs are animals; police officers are people. They may not share your ideas, they may be ranged against you in a riot. But they are human beings. If you call them pigs you deny their humanity and make it convenient to disregard their human attributes. They may have a viewpoint  of their own, but you will never bother to consider it, because they’re only pigs.” 

For me, this was a long speech.

Policeman. Photo by rocor, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The young man gazed at me for a moment and said, “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. From now on I will not call police officers pigs.”

A transformative moment, in the midst of the Revolution?  Fat chance.

If this young man was changed by my earnest entreaty, then he was the only one. I soon figured out that I was not made for political battles, or any other kind of battles. I gave up trying to engage intellectually with my friends on the left and shunned politics from that day to this. 

The protesters of 1969-70 opposed the police not only in practice but in principle. Policemen enforced the law. Thus they were tools of the Establishment, defenders of the status quo. The enemy.

Kent State, Sterling Hall

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard members killed four students at Kent State University. Then on August 24, here in Madison, revolutionaries planted a huge bomb that demolished Sterling Hall, a large academic building, and killed a physics researcher.These grim events took steam out of the anti-war movement; but only in January 1973—when President Richard Nixon pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government collapsed, and Ho Chi Minh’s communists took over the whole country—did that movement end.

Pre-Vietnam normality began to seep back into the United States. But the gaping wound in our national fabric did not heal. Fifty years later, we remain mired in distrust of one another, of our government, and of authority in general.

Today’s Crises

“Authority” can mean two different things. Let’s call them “intrinsic authority” and “conferred authority.” 

Intrinsic authority speaks for itself. Jesus was said to have taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” When you have a knee replaced, you may rely on the surgeon’s medical diploma; but your go/no-go decision might be based on your gut’s  confidence in the surgeon, not on his formal qualifications. That’s intrinsic authority.

Conferred authority is legal, or legalistic. It is the authority of a city clerk to license a couple for marriage. It is the authority of a president to okay the launch of nuclear-tipped missiles. 

When intrinsic authority and conferred authority coincide, one of the results is a high-trust society. Unfortunately, such coincidence is becoming a rare thing. We give little obedience to conferred authority because we discern no intrinsic authority within it. We jeer our leaders; we defy those to whom they delegate power, including the police. 

Then and Now

The long-drawn-out war of our present day, being fought in Afghanistan since 2001, does not attract the intense interest that the one in Vietnam did fifty years ago. Fewer American troops are involved, none of them are draftees, and Southwest Asia seems even farther away now than Southeast Asia did then. 

Today’s great controversy is not war but race—racism, racial discrimination, white privilege, and the oppression of blacks. But in one way our time does resemble the past: Police and policing stand at the center of the conflict.

I have not heard the term “pigs” applied to police in recent years—not even in the past two or three weeks. They are still regarded as humans, which is good. Recent events, however, paint them as racists—which may be worse than pigs.

Because of this, people keen on public order rush to point out that “most police” are dedicated, overworked public servants and should not be tarred with the brush of racism.

Defunding

But people keen on social justice assert that racism is systemic in our society. They profess that “defunding” the police would be a good step toward redressing the balance. The general public views this concept with horror, so the would-be defunders belatedly explain they do not mean complete defunding but only partial defunding. This satisfies nobody, because some folks really do want to abolish the police, while everybody else thinks the police need more funding, not less.

In all this palaver, what gets lost is any mature reckoning of the unique position that police occupy in our society. 

Mao Zedong in 1963. Public Domain.

The late Chairman Mao got at least one thing right: Political power does grow from the barrel of a gun. That is true always and everywhere. In a free society, we place that gun in the hands of a police officer and expect that officer to exercise conferred authority within limits prescribed by law.

George Orwell in 1943. Public Domain.

George Orwell said, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” Police are the people we hire to do violence on our behalf.

Protectors

What I am getting at is that, while police officers are humans, they are humans of a special kind.

Most of us fall into the category of the Protected. Police officers are the Protectors.

My wife’s cousin was a police officer in a Chicago suburb. He said that within a few weeks of putting on his badge, he had learned to lump people into two categories: good folks and bad guys. And he made this distinction within seconds of entering a situation. Such swift decisions must have included a large reliance on intuition. Was he ever mistaken in his assessments? The conversation did not extend that far. 

Those who have the “take-charge” kind of personality that leads them into law enforcement, and who need to survive in potentially hazardous situations, will most likely develop the same reliance on snap judgments that my wife’s cousin described. 

So when we, the People, lay plans to send out social workers in place of cops, let’s get real. When we modify police training and rules of engagement, let’s remember that police will need to translate their instructions into action in fluid situations. We should not be surprised when they find their powers creatively enhanced by statutes that we had thought would curb their power.

Remember that we license the police to use violence—brutal acts labeled as “authorized use of force”—on our behalf. If we do not wish to confer this authority, perhaps we should completely defund the police; abolish the departments. 

Then all of us, including those who “abjure” violence, would need to become the Protectors for ourselves and our families. Thirty-one states allow firearms to be carried openly. I suppose a general defunding of police departments would bring us back to the old Western ambience of Dodge City. Is that the outcome we seek?

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What we face, in practical terms, is a need to improve the way we confer authority upon our police officers.

But the greater issue is seldon spoken of. It is simply this: Unless those who wield conferred authority combine it with intrinsic authority, our problems will continue, will intensify, and will multiply.

Intrinsic authority = character. 

There is no substitute for character. Its short supply, in the police and in the whole population, is our real problem. 

When can we start working on that?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

7 thoughts on “Police

  1. I have had a couple of relatives who were police officers. Five of my high-school classmates that I know of–four of them my friends–have been in law enforcement. Almost all police officers deserve our respect because they do their best to earn that respect.
    I once applied for a police-officer position. It was for a “traffic officer,” but it was in a time when the department could still say they really wanted a “meter maid.” But they allowed me an interview for a regular police-officer position. In retrospect, I realize that the interview was the old “good cop-bad cop” trick. I responded in anger to some insulting language. The department obviously wanted someone who could keep his temper better than I could at that time (my late twenties).
    Probably most police departments do their best to weed out hotheads. Are mistakes made? We can’t expect perfection.

  2. My husband and I were just talking about the difference between choosing to be a fireman or a cop. We had a fire on a nearby city block and there were probably twenty or so FDNY vehicles of all types on our avenue. In the midst of this time of mistrust of the police we noticed that everyone on the street (and that was a lot of people — this is Manhattan after all) were all rooting for the firemen. That, I think after reading your piece, is because they have both types of legitimacy, intrinsic and conferred. They really do protect and serve. By contrast, our local NYPD officers are almost universally not wearing masks!!! That act of defiance of our NY State executive order is just the kind of thing that besmirches their reputations and makes people roll their eyes. I know that as a teacher I always knew I had to EARN respect not EXPECT it from my teenage charges. Thanks for the insight here!

  3. Some time ago, prior to his passing, I found out that a neighbor of mine was in charge of UW media relations during those turbulent times. And, the campus police chief lived across the street. Harvey told me they spent long hours at his kitchen table trying to figure out ways to protect students and keep a lid on the police response to protests. They were certain they could downplay the situation and cajole City of Madison cops into not overreacting. They were just as certain that if they couldn’t keep the Dane County Sheriff and deputies out of it there would be bloodshed. Fortunately, they were successful on both counts.

    • That’s interesting information, Allen. I recall there being two police chiefs involved–the City of Madison chief and the campus chief, whose name I believe was Ralph Hanson. Between the two, the city’s chief seemed more hard-line and Hanson was more of a calming presence. And I don’t recall the sheriff’s deputies being involved at all. So that all tallies with your neighbor’s account.

      • Hansen is correct (pretty certain it’s Ralph). My neighbor was Harvey Breuscher. Instructive to realize there were three different flavors of police, not at all like-minded. A side drama unknown to all but a few at the time. This just adds to my insider knowledge. Shortly after Sterling Hall I moved into a defunct frat house on Lake Street that Karl Armstrong lived in right up until the blast.

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