When Fox Lake, Illinois, police officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz died from a shot to the head after claiming that he was in pursuit of three suspects, the national media speculated over the possibility that he could have fallen victim to Black Lives Matter assassins. Throughout the Chicagoland area, where I live, local newspapers and broadcasts piously accepted their duty to nominate Gliniewicz for beatification and canonization. Routine reports on the deceased officer’s heroism included emphasis on the nickname Fox Lake locals gave him, “G.I. Joe.” That G.I. Joe is a hero and action figure designed for the entertainment of children contains rich and ironic instruction of the personal pain and political poison that so often accompanies viewing police officers not as mere mortals – some good, some bad – but as infallible knights protecting city and suburban streets on the backs of galloping horses, forever ready to vanquish any and every threat.
Ripped out of the pages of a noir novel, it turns out that Gliniewicz committed suicide because the walls he built with his own criminality were crumbling at his feet. The open air exposed his record of embezzlement from the Fox Lake Police Department, and even a murder plot meant to conceal his illegal activity. Members of the officer’s family are now under suspicion for having participated in the crimes.
The transformation of Gliniewicz’s death from tragedy to scandal does not act as an indictment of every cop in the country, but it does fit into a larger pattern of police officers abusing their power and misusing their authority. Unlike the Gliniewicz case, most departments would rather enforce an omerta than clean house to rescue their own credibility, and ensure that they are living up to their oath of service and protection.
Nowhere is the code of silence clearer in its damage and implication than when policemen target their own families for torture and torment. It is stunning that in all the scrutiny over law enforcement criminality, not more attention falls on the fact that, according to the National Center for Women and Policing, 40 percent of police families experience domestic violence. The same organization reports that police spouses file domestic violence complaints at twice the rate of the general public, but that in most cases departments ignore the accusation, or “handle the case informally,” which is bureaucratic code for giving verbal warning to the offender. In a separate study, the New York Times concluded that “in many departments, an officer will automatically be fired for a positive marijuana test, but can stay on the job after abusing or battering a spouse.”
The steady stream of stories, many with visual evidence, of police officers acting viciously toward innocent people or perpetrators guilty of the smallest offenses suddenly makes much more sense when taking into account the devastating domestic violence statistics. Why would someone willing to attack or beat a loved one in the privacy of his own home hesitate to use violence against strangers on the street?
Necessary and obvious inquiries such as that one will never receive an answer as long as American culture is committed to keeping unrealistic awe and deference toward law enforcement. Public protest movements, armed with cellphone cameras, have made significant indentation in the armor of police invincibility, but many pundits, like Bill O’Reilly, and politicians, such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are beginning to claim that scrutiny of police conduct is harmful to police. If anything, the opposite is true. Among the worst victims of police corruption are good police officers – the men and women who apply for a tough job with the best intentions; the patrol officers and detectives who have a genuine desire to prevent crime, and protect the innocent.
It is the good police officer who suffers when the department allows the bad officer to wear a badge and carry a gun, paying no penance for police brutality or domestic violence, because he too falls under suspicion of a justifiably distrustful public without the means to distinguish between good and bad, corrupt and fair. If departments purged themselves of abusive officers, the public could feel confident that the police they meet are upstanding, judicious and honest. When departments refuse to enact justice, the average citizen has no reassurance that the cops patrolling the neighborhood are not like the ones on the nightly news, revealed as too quick to pull the trigger and too eager to harass.
The reputational erosion law enforcement is currently experiencing is analogous to the self-inflicted wounds of the Catholic Church. Only a tiny minority of American priests sexually assaulted children, but the hierarchical coverup cast a cloud of distrust over every parish. Without accountability for criminal and pedophile priests, Catholic parents had to live in fear that the “holy man” taking their child's confession was actually far from holy, but morally filthy.
To argue, as many conservative commentators and police spokespeople often do, that public protest movements are responsible for the growing skepticism of police tactics and ethics is the equivalent of condemning wet streets without acknowledging the rain. The movements, even if their rhetoric is periodically indecent and their theatrical tactics occasionally unwise, only exist because reasonable people are able to identify a pattern of police violating the laws they are obliged to honor, consistently with fatal consequences.
The typical police response of defensiveness, hostility toward the press, and demonization of protesters not only worsens the public relations problem troubling departments across the country. It reinforces the image of police as “above the law” agents of tyranny acting on their own accord without consideration of the Constitution, or care for citizens' health and welfare.
When police officers in New York turn their backs on the mayor during memorial services, or police union representatives generalize all activism as “lack of respect,” they do not project the "tough guy" status they hope will impress civilians without the bravery necessary to take down doors and arrest violent criminals. They appear as petulant children who have mastered the art of self-pity.
Nowhere was this made clearer than with the hysterical response to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s recent speech at a Black Lives Matter rally. Police, right-wing politicians, and much of the press depicted Tarantino as slandering all police officers as murderers, when in reality he said that “murdering cops should be in jail or, at least, facing charges.” Is there a counterargument to that statement?
America, for many reasons, has a crime rate far off the scale of other wealthy and developed nations. Even if it is trending downward in recent decades, its violent crime rate is particularly gruesome and worrisome. Any country needs agents of the law committed to the maintenance of order, the protection of rights, and the prevention and punishment of crime. Breakdown of trust between civilian and cop will contribute to the collapse of civil society. The stability that protects liberty, enhances opportunity, and ensures prosperity requires peaceable relations between deputized officials with the power to prosecute and license to kill, and average citizens. That there is even a debate surrounding the innocuous commentary of a filmmaker taking a position against murder demonstrates how far America has drifted from a culture of freedom prizing the skepticism of authority that emanates from a system of republican governance.
The most destructive forms of crime are highly concentrated where poverty persists from generation to generation. In Chicago, for example, nearly 80 percent of shootings are gang related. It seems that awe and deference toward police, and the pressure on concerned citizens to eat their tongues in the face of police abuse, is symptomatic of the social distance between poverty stricken, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and safe, relatively wealthy towns. Gulfs of separation widen as income inequality grows, economic mobility freezes, and communal destruction and dysfunction renders people isolated, afraid and hostile.
Americans who live middle-class lifestyles spend almost no time interacting with police, or even thinking about them. That is the healthy ideal for life in a free society. The less time spent with agents of the law, the better. Whenever politicians promise to add thousands of police to the streets, they aren’t referring to quiet suburbs. In fact, the residents of those suburbs would probably react with outrage and confusion if suddenly there was a cop on every corner and a squad on every street. Police, under the current arrangement and in the current mentality, are protectors of “us” against “them.”
The problem is that as America becomes more stratified, uncivil and unequal, “them” includes not just killers, rapists and thieves, but anyone whose difference is sufficient to make them seem suspicious. Because America miserably fails to solve social problems through the mechanism of public administration – education, legislation – and because the breakdown of community in American life means that citizens who suffer with deprivation or struggle through disability are, more or less, on their own to deal with it; cast out into a culture of coldness and cruelty, it has now become more reliant on force and violence to manage every difficulty and challenge.
As the American character becomes more violent, the men who sign up to protect the American character have more violent tendencies. The sadism of police behavior is far too widespread to call it anecdotal. As journalists, activists and victims assemble more and more anecdotes, they build what is otherwise known as “data.” The data demonstrates that police are becoming increasingly arbitrary in their use of force, mean-spirited, and small minded.
Police are gatekeepers, however, and obsessing over police misconduct, even if it is a necessary and just enterprise, deflects attention from what exists behind the gate. Behind the gate exists a toxic miasma of institutional decline, maldistribution of resources, and cultural failure.
One of the great ironies of contemporary American life is that a nation obsessed with celebrating itself as the “land of the free” and priding itself as a collection of “rugged individuals” has deified its two most authoritarian institutions – the military and law enforcement. Schools cannot teach children how to read, the healthcare system cannot care for the sick and disabled, and the economy steadily dismantles the middle class, but the two institutions that use force and violence to achieve tangible results still appear functional. The bullets fly and the bombs drop – all is right in the world.
Lost in domestic dysfunction, police are now tasked with solving problems for which they have no training, preparation or capacity. In Columbia, South Carolina, a police officer is brought into a classroom after a 16-year-old student’s family fails (she was a “ward of the state”), the foster system fails, and her school fails. The officer – transparently deranged – resorts to vicious force to solve a relatively common problem of classroom management when the student refuses to leave her seat.
The process that ends with an armed servant of the state targeting a teenager for violence is emblematic of a country falling apart at the seams, a people turning on each other, and a culture hollowing out anything that once provided security. The founding fathers believed that a strong middle class was necessary, because equality and education were essential for the preservation of liberty. Alexis de Tocqueville, when visiting America, praised Americans for their willingness to make “voluntary associations” to solve problems, alleviate suffering, and provide a check and balance against the powers of the state. The voluntary associations, according to Robert Putnam in his classic "Bowling Alone," and continual record keeping from the American Sociological Association, no longer exist, and only a trust fund baby asleep on his fourth yacht is unaware that the middle class is in disappearance mode.
Social ties are either weak or turned to confetti, and America suffers high rates of depression, familial separation and communal disorder, because of it. The “out of sight, out of mind” thinking that prevails when Americans enter the voting booth, and the politicians they elect approve budgets and make laws, demonstrates that they are increasingly comfortable with allowing and empowering police to handle the problems of “at risk” youth who drop out of high school, and the antisocial tendencies of the mentally ill who no longer have state facilities able to accept them, but can always go to prison.
One of the tragedies inherent in the degradation of America into a country worshipful of authority is that all the recent scandals and stories of police brutality, and departmental protection of the most brutal officers, is that law enforcement is just another institution in decline. It is no longer adequately accountable or helpful to its citizens. It is only subservient to an ethos of madness in practice and policy from a government of mendacity.
In a truly free society, with a culture of liberty, police are subject to constant scrutiny and skepticism, because citizens view them as necessary, but largely unwanted practitioners of state authority. There are heroic police officers, and wicked ones, but the practices and procedures of law enforcement are only as legitimate as the government that sponsors them.
Rather than serving or even representing the people, the government is now a violent apparatus turned against the people. Police cannot solve that problem, because it is not part of their job description, but they can intensify and illustrate it. If the Americans who no longer know their neighbors, no longer care about the children living a few miles down the highway, and no longer believe balance is necessary in lives of rabid consumption and isolation want to find a suspect to arrest for the crime of killing a culture of connection, and assaulting a country of freedom, they should gather the clues of their voting records, personal priorities, and behavioral habits – all of which will lead them to the mirror.