America's most enduring myth

Policing is inherently conservative and authoritarian as an institution

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 16, 2023 6:28AM (EST)

Demonstrators participate in a protest against the police killing of Tyre Nichols on January 27, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Demonstrators participate in a protest against the police killing of Tyre Nichols on January 27, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Tyre Nichols was killed by the Memphis police in early January. He was unarmed and innocent. They smashed him like a human pinata. His "crime"? Being Black in America and encountering this country's police.

His family will always remember him. His friends and neighbors will always remember him. The Black community in Memphis will always remember him. Black America will remember him.

The police who brutally beat him will likely remember him as well.

But it has only been several weeks and (white) America has already forgotten Tyre Nichols.

How was Tyre Nichols (and all of the many other innocent Black and brown people who have been murdered by the country's police and law enforcement) erased so quickly from the (white) public imagination?

Black people's pain and suffering and death are background noise in America, a type of constant that at a certain point is no longer noticed. Moreover, Black people's pain, suffering and trauma are a type of social glue that holds together this society.

Black people's pain, suffering and trauma mark the boundaries of white and Black citizenship. It delineates who can be targeted for violence by the police with general impunity and who is largely protected from the grip of the state. In that way being Black in America means experiencing a type of existential dread, fear, and terror that white people, by definition, will never experience.

How was Tyre Nichols (and all of the many other innocent Black and brown people who have been murdered by the country's police and law enforcement) erased so quickly from the (white) public imagination?

There is an entire political, economic, and cultural machinery in America that is dedicated to laundering, almost quite literally, the reputations of the country's police and law enforcement. The result— "copaganda" —is to make America's police and other law enforcement immune as an institution from suffering any substantial and enduring negative consequences when they abuse the public, especially if the people who are being targeted are Black, brown, poor, mentally ill, immigrants, or members of other marginalized groups.

"Culture" consists of all the things that a people in a given society do without thinking or much reflection because it is deemed to be "normal". In that framework, copaganda is a cultural force that is so omnipresent that most people in America can recite its elements without much effort.

The vast majority of police are good and hardworking and want to "protect and serve" the public.

It is only a few bad apples who abuse the public; most cops are good people.

Most police use violence as a last resort. If you just do what the police tell you then you will not be hurt or killed.

Being a police officer is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. 

In an April 2022 interview, criminology professor Alex Vitale, who is the author of The End of Policing, described the elements of copaganda as follows:

It takes different forms. The most extreme examples are the shows that have historically been essentially co-produced by police departments. This goes back to shows like "Dragnet" in the 1950s and "Adam 12" in the 1960s and '70s. More recent examples are shows like "Cops" and "Live PD" that work directly with local police departments who also have veto authority over the content. These shows have been essential to producing certain kinds of narratives about the heroic nature of policing and the unquestionable need for policing in all its many forms.

The other distortion is a function of how the entertainment industry works more broadly. There the problem is more an issue of the need to produce weekly shows that are filled with action, adventure and mystery. That formula only works if there are lots of horrible, evil people out there for police to find every week. This distorts reality and creates a narrative where, "Oh my God, the world is so dangerous, and the police are out there catching all the bad guys and also bending and breaking the rules to do it." If they have to rough some people up, if they have to intimidate people in interrogations, if they violate people's Fourth Amendment rights, well, that's just a cost of producing safety.

There is of course the news industry and the whole problem of "If it bleeds, it leads." Local news has been particularly terrible in terms of crime coverage and exaggerating what is really happening in the community. National crime stories came to dominate local news, because they want some horrific crime to cover and there just weren't any in their local coverage. Finally, the local news media treats the police as completely unassailable and as the font of all truth. By the time the real facts have come out, the media have moved on to the next set of horrors to cover and the public rarely gets the full story. 

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During his recent State of the Union speech, President Biden channeled copaganda's myths and tenets:

We all want the same thing.

Neighborhoods free of violence.

Law enforcement who earn the community's trust.

Our children to come home safely.

Equal protection under the law; that's the covenant we have with each other in America.

And we know police officers put their lives on the line every day, and we ask them to do too much.

To be counselors, social workers, psychologists; responding to drug overdoses, mental health crises, and more.

We ask too much of them.

I know most cops are good, decent people. They risk their lives every time they put on that shield.

But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often.

We have to do better.

Give law enforcement the training they need, hold them to higher standards, and help them succeed in keeping everyone safe.

We also need more first responders and other professionals to address growing mental health and substance abuse challenges.

More resources to reduce violent crime and gun crime; more community intervention programs; more investments in housing, education, and job training.

All this can help prevent violence in the first place.

And when police officers or departments violate the public's trust, we must hold them accountable.

This was a surreal moment that embodied the absurdities of justice and the color line in America. Tyre Nichols' mother and stepfather were the personal guests of President Biden at the State of the Union address. Their son was killed by the very system whose tenets the president recited before the nation and the world as they sat there in the audience. 

Black people's pain, suffering and trauma mark the boundaries of white and Black citizenship.

In the last few decades, demands for "reform" have become the immediate talking point summoned up by the country's political leaders and news media after a police officer kills (another) unarmed Black or brown person. The evidence shows, however, that the types of "reforms" given lip service by the country's mainstream political leaders and other opinion leaders are ineffective at actually stopping police thuggery and brutality.

The Age of Obama forced new language into the American popular discourse. "Implicit bias" has become a catchall term for "racism" with its promise that racism and white supremacy and other related beliefs and values are mostly subconscious. The implication: if white people were just made aware of these biases, then "racism" would disappear from public and private life. Structural and institutional white supremacy and racism are the main impediments to Black and brown people's equal life chances, happiness, and literal life and death existence in America. A focus on "implicit bias" is an easier solution – and a way for "diversity" and other consultants to make lots of money – than focusing on the far larger structures and institutions that do the real work of white supremacy and racism in American society and around the world.

The public's – and the news media's and pundit class's -- understanding of "implicit bias" and its implications are of course very superficial and mostly incorrect. Predictably, "implicit bias" training is now seen by many well-intentioned people as a way of stopping police thuggery and violence against Black and brown people.

Once again, the research shows that such training is ineffective. To that point, University of Washington St. Louis researchers on their following new findings:

"Our findings suggest that diversity training as it is currently practiced is unlikely to change police behavior," said study lead author Calvin Lai, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Officers who took the training were more knowledgeable about bias and more motivated to address bias at work," Lai said. "However, these effects were fleeting and appear to have little influence on actual policing behaviors just one month after the training session."

Published Feb. 3 in the journal Psychological Science, the study evaluates the experiences of 3,764 police officers from departments across the nation who participated in one-day bias training sessions provided by the nonprofit Anti-Defamation League….

While the training produced an immediate and long-lasting understanding of bias, it delivered only a temporary bump in concerns about bias and in the motivation to use strategies to limit bias in law enforcement interactions.

"Educating about implicit bias was effective for durably raising awareness about the existence of subtle or implicit biases, but little else," Lai said. "Our study indicates that the current generation of diversity training programs are effective at changing minds but less consistent at changing behavior."

One of the bedrock claims of copaganda is that being a police officer is the most dangerous job in America. New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as compiled by the Agruss Law Firm, shows this, again, to be a lie. In reality, the most dangerous jobs in America are as follows:

1. Logging workers 

- 82.2 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $46,330

2. Fishing and hunting workers

- 75.2 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $31,382

3. Roofers

- 59 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $47,110

4. Aircraft pilots and flight engineers

- 48.1 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $134,630

 5. Structural iron and steel workers – 36.1 deaths per 100,000 workers

- 36.1 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $58,550

 6. Driver/sales workers and truck drivers

- 28.8 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $36,660

7. Refuse and recyclable materials collectors

- 27.9 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $38,500

 8. Underground mining machine operators

- 26.7 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $48,651

9. Helpers, construction trades

- 22.9 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $37,357

10. Electrical power-line installers and repairers

- 22 deaths per 100,000 workers

- Median salary - $78,310

America's police suffer approximately 13 deaths per 100,000 workers. The median salary for a police officer in 2020 was approximately $67,000. 

Here is another set of facts that are inconvenient for the copaganda narrative: Most police never shoot their guns.

Being a police officer in America is, for the most part, remarkably mundane and largely involves traffic duty, patrols, mediating disputes, issuing tickets, assisting with health emergencies, and responding to property crimes.

The best way to understand the power of copaganda and its related myths is to ask a basic question: Whose interests are being served? Fulfilling their assigned role, police serve the State and dominant society by enforcing certain rules and norms – "the social order." As such, police are inherently conservative and authoritarian as an institution, (research also shows that people with more conservative and authoritarian personalities are attracted to police work). In all, police and other law enforcement are one of the primary means through which structural violence by the state (or the threat of it) is enacted on a personal level against the public.

Because of America's history of the color line and how it intersects all areas of life and society, the above dynamic translates into police targeting Black and brown people, a group that is also more likely to be poor and working class, for violence and abuse. So it is no coincidence that modern policing in America can trace its origins to the antebellum South and slave catching patrols.

America's police will not stop targeting Black and brown communities for thuggery and violence because that is how the system is designed. (White) America likes it that way. The basic proof: (White) America would never allow the police to treat white people the same way that they routinely treat Black and brown people.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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