Classism and militarization have changed American police; it’s a system of discrimination and injustice

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Law enforcement agencies practice classism and well understand the rules. They also practice discrimination based on race, status, or past arrests. In fact, a person with a criminal record is subject to more than discrimination. Once one has a record, he or she becomes prey for cops.

No one talks about it, but law enforcement officers in small towns, and probably in big cities, too, are intimately acquainted with classism and practice it. Police are, as a group, intimidated by wealth and prominence.

I know because I was a police officer and a crime reporter and I personally observed this truth many times.

Police practice classism.

Cops had rather not stop that expensive car driven by the guy in the suit or the woman leaving an upscale spa in her Porsche. There are many reasons why, but mostly it boils down to classism, convenience, or experience. Classism, because cops know they are merely blue-collar working class and no matter how good they may be at their jobs, they have little power in the overall scheme of things. They usually answer (either directly or indirectly) to elected officials — politicians — who will throw them under the bus in a heartbeat if they get in the way.

Cops know people with obvious wealth are more likely to “be somebody” in their town. People with power can, and sometimes do, make big trouble for police officers. Most officers wonder before stopping that SUV with a sticker price higher than what the cop paid for their house, if it’s being driven by the mayor’s wife, the judge’s husband, or someone else whose ticket the chief won’t be proud of them for writing. If they say they don’t worry whether it’s worth it to make the stop, they either lie or don’t yet know how things work.

It has to be a very obvious violation for police to want to stop an almost new luxurious and expensive vehicle. If it’s a small violation, they probably won’t stop the car at all, or if they do pull it over, they more than likely won’t write a ticket.

I’m sure there are exceptions — mostly those other cops call hard asses, cowboys, or hotdogs who would ticket their own mother. Then there are those officers who want to prove they don’t care who they stop. None of these types will make it as a cop for long unless they calm down, learn the unofficial “rules” and change their ways.

Politics as usual

The second reason police don’t like to stop rich people is because it’s inconvenient — and sometimes even humiliating. If a cop writes a ticket to a rich person, there’s a good possibility they will either get the ticket “fixed” somehow or fight the charge in court. More than a few politicians have progressed nicely by doing “favors” like getting a ticket thrown out. Often with the help of a good lawyer rich and/or prominent people will get the charges dismissed.

To cops, it’s a slap in the face, as if they and their authority are discounted. Some people will gloat and let the cop know he’s powerless. It’s a tough experience for a young cop to see a justifiable charge dismissed because the person has more money or power than the officer. Often this is where the disillusionment begins.

Judges want to be re-elected, as do prosecutors, city attorneys, town council members, commissioners, etc. Rich and influential people in the community can create real obstacles to one’s political career. Therefore, the powers that be aren’t anxious for officers to ticket their donors and supporters.

Judges are lawyers before they’re judges. They play golf and go to dinner with lawyers. To some extent, they’re still pals. Judges frequently go easy on or dismiss charges against their friends from the country club.

Wealthy people also hire lawyers to fight traffic tickets. Some supposedly “upper class” jerks just want to show the cop he or she doesn’t have the stroke to win a case against them. I’ve seen people sign a ticket and when they’re given a copy, tear it to pieces.

In the class system (that we say we don’t have in the US) judges and lawyers are colleagues and contemporaries. Police officers are not their colleagues, contemporaries or their equals in political and government systems. Cops are peons when it comes to their rank in our classism-driven systems. If they become too much of a bother, they get fired.

So there are logical, though not always virtuous reasons why cops don’t like to deal with the upper class when it comes to the enforcement role. It’s annoying, at the least, to stop or detain rich and powerful folks. At the worst, a ticket written to a powerful person can be a risk to the cop’s job.

The officer often goes through some “what-ifs” in their mind before turning on the blue lights and stopping that new Cadillac or the sporty BMW. What if it’s the mayor? What if the driver is a judge who has had a few too many? What is the cop going to do? Arrest him? What if it’s that guy that owns the biggest car dealership, or the editor of the newspaper? What if it’s a lawyer? What if it’s that cattleman who gave a huge donation to the boss’s campaign for re-election?

If it’s a well-off, prominent person, cops know their chief or sheriff will not be thrilled. Catching the mayor driving drunk is about the worst thing that can happen to a municipal patrol officer, unless they stop the police chief in the same condition in his private vehicle. A sheriff will be less than jubilant if his deputies arrest one of the most influential people in town — Someone who also donates generously to his re-election campaigns. What if it’s the chief’s wife? Or a commissioner? It might be the prosecutor’s wife.

See why they hesitate? Police don’t stop near as many obviously well-to-do people as they do others. It’s just a fact. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of a class system that enforces laws differently depending upon who it is. The cops didn’t start the practice of mostly leaving the upper class alone — it was passed down to them by higher-ups. The criminal court system itself is infected throughout with class discrimination.

Cops do not like to stop people who they perceive to be in a higher class than they are. Many simply won’t do it unless the situation forces them to. Put another way, if a guy is speeding in his dented up 1998 Chevy and a rich dude is also speeding in his Jaguar, guess who is going to get stopped when the cop running radar clocks them?

That’s why law enforcement doesn’t get applied equally on the streets. Don’t blame the street cops. They are trained to leave the big shots alone by the upper class and the experiences they have when they don’t. It’s the system.

Discrimination is alive and too well

So that leaves the working class and the poor as most likely to have contact with cops and to be cited or arrested. Unfortunately, some people with a badge are very anxious to pick on people with no power. It makes the cop, who gets a full plate of “big me-little you” from higher ups, feel better about their jobs. They can enforce the laws on the little people however they want without interference from higher ups.

It’s not fair at all. It’s just the way it is. It is one of the things wrong with our society and one of the easiest ways to see the strength of classism in America. It’s why our jails and courts are full of poor people and minorities. They’re the only ones our society forces to obey the laws.

To make things so much worse for the poor and minorities, there are, unfortunately insecure people who only want to be cops so they can wear a badge, carry a gun, and have authority over others. The psychological exam doesn’t filter out all of them and they’re terrible officers who love to assuage their inferiority complexes by picking on and bullying others.

Some of these officers get their kicks picking on the most defenseless people. They’re the “hot dogs” chasing cars like barking dogs, stopping everything that moves, looking constantly for an expired license plate or for someone who changes lanes without signaling. They’re usually rookies, but there are some who never seem to outgrow it. Most of them ultimately get fired after giving their bosses too many headaches, but there are always some still out there. What everyone doesn’t know is that good cops hate these badge-heavy authoritarian wannabes as much as the public does.

There are still a lot of good people who are cops

Not all cops are like the insecure ones who were often unpopular or even bullied in school and have scores to settle. Most are good, sincere, and dedicated officers who try to equally enforce the law…As much as they’re allowed.

I’ve known a lot of good cops, who have nothing to prove— just a job to do that they do well. I’ve known some I always refer to as supercops. They’re amazingly brave and heroic and truly will put themselves between any citizen and danger. They’re the ones who will give their lives to save others from danger. To them, we all owe respect.

It’s a funny thing, but most of the best cops I’ve ever known are god-fearing men and women who operate under a biblical imperative found in Romans 13 and believe they are “called” to do their jobs.

I digress, but it is important not to throw all police officers in a pile and think they’re all the same. They’re no more the same than teachers, bus drivers, or people in any other profession. Most are average but some are exceptionally good, and yes, some are dangerously bad.

Leadership plays a huge role in the behavior of police. Bad leadership will create bad behavior by officers. Every time. If the leader is a badge-heavy bully, most of those under him will be, too.

I was once a naive young cop

How do I know? Because I lived it— the life of a police officer — and I think things are much worse now than 33 years ago when I was still naive enough to want to be a cop. I wanted to be a cop even when I was a kid, when people told me I couldn’t, “because you’re a girl.” That didn’t stop me, but it was tough for women then and something I’ll eventually write more on.

I started out thinking I could protect and help people. I thought it was a calling, too. People said I was a good cop. If I was it was mainly because I was heavily influenced by some very good officers. I ended up being my department’s first female patrol officer and later, in a tiny little resort town, I was Arkansas’ first woman police chief.

There are many who wake up like I eventually did and ask themselves what the hell they are doing there and leave law enforcement. There are better and easier ways to make a contribution to society. Late in my working life I took a job as a college campus officer, which allowed me easy duty and proximity to the academic environment I love.

Police experience made a liberal out of me before I even knew much about liberalism. It also made me a stronger feminist.

When I switched professions and became a newspaper reporter, I watched law enforcement closely as a crime reporter and learned more about the nature of the beast that is modern law enforcement in America.

It is a dangerous growing beast that must be stopped and re-established before it destroys more lives.

Not just the police, but the whole criminal justice system is out of control and should have been reformed years ago. American police are more dangerous than 90 percent of the people they pursue. They are out of control and with the Trump administration’s stamp of approval they are growing more authoritative and militarized.

So many things are wrong about law enforcement today — and so many things have been going wrong since the 80’s that law enforcement has little relationship to its original purpose. Cops don’t know who they are or what their role is anymore.

Gone are the peace officers, replaced by an army of occupation. “Serve and protect” painted on police cars is a not-very-funny joke. Cops don’t serve. Serving is the last thing on their minds. They have no desire to serve anybody. Some of them, the good ones we have left, are just trying to stay alive and stay employed until they can retire. But far too many younger ones are swaggering on their puffed up sense of power and authority and believing themselves more powerful than they were ever intended to be.

They do not realize their power comes from the community or state that hired them and that they are not only a part of that community, but subject to the standards of the community. Police are there because “we, the people” consented to being policed to ensure our safety. They serve as civilians, under control of civilians.

No too many years ago I was with a group of law enforcement officers when the subject of whether they were civilians came up. Every single one of the group of about six said they are not civilians. Yes, they are, I told them.

I could not convince them that cops are civilians. Most of them were veterans returning from Iraqi and Afghanistan wars. Police agencies were under great pressure to hire returning veterans since the Iraqi war began, so agencies are filled nowadays with men and women who were soldiers. Most of them think the roles of soldier and police officer are similar. Nothing is farther from the truth.

One can try to convince them that soldiers occupy a city that has been conquered in war, but cities and towns of the US are not to be “occupied” by authoritarian police or a triumphant army. I could not persuade them there is a difference. They truly believe their job to police is like an army controls an occupied enemy. Their perception of “us versus them” is accepted and unquestioned. They will argue all day that they are not civilians. They refer to townspeople as civilians but believe they are not.

If one observes our modern police closely it is obvious they are now. “occupying” our cities, not policing them. The more I notice it the more frightening it becomes. Military training was much more intense and deeper than any training they got at the police academy. They are still soldiers at heart and we are the occupied.

The unfortunate militarism of American police.

Another factor that has contributed to the slide of American police into an unacceptably authoritarian role is the militarization that began in the 1980’s. The military started selling surplus — everything from helicopters to tanks — to municipal, county and state police departments. They needed this stuff, they convinced their governing officials. There were gangs, then it was terrorists, according to police leaders, and they needed this equipment to keep everyone safe. They convinced their governing entity they needed tanks! At first, in the 1980s, they used the helicopters to hunt down marijuana fields. Other than costing the taxpayers big money for fuel and maintenance the helicopters weren’t too big of a problem. Tanks were a different matter. They needed tanks? I will never be convinced they do.

My mind is permanently stamped with images of tanks rolling through Boston neighborhoods after the Boston Marathon Bombing. It seemed surreal. Then they told all the people to get inside and stay there. No one seemed to object. Fear, I guess, made it palatable. But all that show of authority and equipment didn’t catch the bombers. Regular old police cars and non-military equipment would have been just as good. The young bomber was found laying in a boat in someone’s driveway. The homeowner reported it. I guess he violated the order and went outside, saw that someone was hiding in his boat, called the police, and the guy was arrested. I don’t think the tanks had anything to do with it. Neither did ordering everyone to stay in their houses.

In fact, the bombers might have been located sooner had the public been allowed to go about their lives as usual. After all, they have eyes and ears too.

It still horrifying to remember the image of tanks rolling down city streets while citizens are ordered inside. It was a complete take-over by a militarized occupying force. Bostonians should have been out in their yards telling the cops what they could do with their suspension of people’s rights. The tanks in neighborhoods were much scarier than the terrorists in my opinion.

One of my most chilling encounters was when I asked a local cop, who is also a combat veteran, if he would turn his tanks upon his own hometown. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “if I was ordered to.” I believe him. Chills ran down my spine.

This is an unacceptable attitude for a civilian police officer who should be part of the community and identify with the townspeople. However, it has become the reality of our police officers’ attitude and understanding of their role that they occupy their jurisdictions and stand ready to snatch away the citizens’ rights at any time.

We must change this. We must teach the meaning and reason for the Posse Comitatus Act.

This is why civilian police shouldn’t have been given military war toys and why police departments should not be overstaffed with combat veterans. Those working now must be retrained or taken off police departments — city, county and state. Militarism does not belong in the cities of America.

These guys have never heard of Posse Comitatus and could care less. If one tries to enlighten them angry disbelief is the reaction, which proves they must be retrained.

As if the situation isn’t bad enough, the police academies have become more like boot camp than police training. There should be more emphasis on learning the law — especially constitutional law, and less on marching drills and the stupid practice of saluting instructors and standing against the wall when an instructor comes down a hall.

It’s no wonder they don’t know they’re civilians. They’re being treated like soldiers and asked to march and work in squadrons and platoons led by former soldiers. Every elected official should make it a priority to see if their police training academies are being run like military boot camps. The two are not remotely the same in protocol, responsibility, or purpose.

With all the conditions affecting modern policing — classism, militarization, and authoritarianism — it’s no wonder unarmed people are getting killed and black people are afraid for their sons to be on the streets.

I don’t even want to go here into the racism and sexism rampant in law enforcement. They’re both in full-blown status and probably worse than either was 40 years ago. Those are serious, critical problems which deserve their own stories.

Add to all the systematic problems of law enforcement and disintegrating citizen control the fact that too many cops just crave authority. Period. They need to feel important. They want the rest of us to fear and therefore respect them. They are a product of their leadership or lack thereof, their unfortunate military-style training, and overpowering cynicism on their part and the public’s, too.

How many people really believe anymore that the police are here to help us? Oh, if someone is shooting at us, they’ll shoot back to protect us and themselves, partly out of duty, but also because damn, they like to shoot at something.

Policing: It’s just a job

Many cops grow to distrust people in general and that is to some extent understandable. They do have a dangerous job and are at risk. But so are construction workers, miners, lion tamers, etc. We sometimes get carried away by the fact police officers are doing a dangerous job. That’s always bothered me, even when I was a cop. That reverence some people have for law enforcement officers is misplaced. Police officer’s lives are not any more valuable or important than anyone’s life. The black kid with a toy gun needs to live every bit as much as a police officer. They need to learn they cannot kill people just to destroy any risk to themselves. They sign on for it. It is a job, like any other. The typical police officer loves the adrenaline rush danger brings. I’ve often heard jokes that cops would pay to do the job if they didn’t get paid for it. In many cases, that’s probably true, and the officer’s identity is inextricably tied to the job.

Police officer’s are paid to take risk. They generally make more money than their blue collar peers. We must teach them they cannot avoid all risk by killing people. If they continue as they are, anyone who is frightening will be killed. Some courage, willingness to take risks, and judgement is required.

As a society it’s time we acknowledge many people have dangerous jobs. I’ll go so far as to say a police officer in their car, and even outside the car with body armor, a gun, a taser, and a radio mic on their shoulder, is safer than an unarmed woman returning alone to her car in a darkened parking garage after work.

Many people have dangerous jobs. We live in a dangerous world. More construction workers are killed doing their jobs than police officers. For that matter, more students are killed at school. Teachers are not safe at work. Convenience store clerks are in danger.

We need to get rid of the idea that a cop doing his or her job is in any more danger than so many in other professions. Nursing is dangerous — who wants to be a nurse during flu season or during the Coronavirus scare? Pizza delivery drivers have dangerous jobs.

Police officers are not to be revered. They should be respected. But remember they are people with a job with a set of duties, like anyone else. Yes, it can be dangerous. So is operating a crane or being an iron worker on a high rise.

Sometimes the police do protect, and do it well. They do take risks to protect the public and often perform heroic tasks. They aren’t bad people, for the most part. They are, however, mis-trained and sorely in need of the attitude adjustment they brag about giving others.

The thing law enforcement in the US does the most of is protecting itself and the status quo. That means leaving the ruling class alone and not offending the powers that be. It means knowing that your power is strictly on the streets. In any government or social structure, cops come out on the bottom rung.

Sadly, unless one has a newish and expensive car, an address in the “upscale” part of town and no record of ever being incarcerated, one becomes prey. The cop behind your older car will check your car’s license plate and find out the name and address of the registered owner, and in most states, they will then attempt to check whether any warrants appear to be on file for the registered owner of the vehicle.

If you have a record of incarceration for anything, you’re apt to be targeted.

Once a police officer has stopped you and obtained your drivers license or some form of identification, they will run a nationwide check on your name and receive a response as to whether there is a warrant out for you. In many states they may also be given another piece of information that is of questionable legality.

If you have ever been in prison for anything at anytime, no matter how long ago, the officer who checks your name will be told, “has numbers.” Those two words, in my state, or something similar in most states, are code to let the cop know you have been locked up at some time in your life. Even if your offense was nonviolent, the cop is prejudiced against you from the moment he learns you’ve been in prison. It doesn’t matter why. All the cop knows is that at some time in your life you went to prison. And that’s all they need to know. You will be treated worse and suspected of wrongdoing more than a person who “has no numbers.”

Chances are the officer will then find a reason to stop you because to them, “has numbers” means you have a criminal history and served time in prison or under some kind of supervision. They call that “a good stop,” meaning there’s a good chance they can find a reason to cite (write a ticket that orders you to pay a fine within a certain time limit or appear in court on a given court date) you.

One’s former incarceration should have nothing to do with how one is perceived. God help you if you’re on parole. They’re going to mess up your life if at all possible. If you’ve been incarcerated or if you’re out on parole, you are, in their minds, a risk. You are more likely to be ticketed for a minor traffic violation than a person who has no record.

Most importantly, you’re more likely to be shot.

Signing a ticket given to you by a police officer means you promise to pay the ticket or appear in court to defend yourself. If you pay the fine specified, you are admitting you are guilty of whatever the cop accused you of. Some tickets or citations carry a mandatory court appearance. In those instances you cannot just pay a fine. You must appear in court. If you do not appear in court on the date the citation specified, a warrant is issued for your arrest.

Sometimes people don’t pay the fine for a speeding ticket or other minor offense (misdemeanor) and also do not appear. Often because they don’t have the money. When that happens a warrant is often issued with an additional charge for failure to appear. You will be arrested and taken to jail in this situation.

Once you are taken to jail, you have “a record” and police will forever look at you more closely, in fact they may target you. I have personally known cops to watch for an individual who has been arrested to come out of his work, home, or anywhere the cops know they are, and stop them on some minor technicality, or, in a few cases, make up something like a taillight wasn’t working, etc. If the person has had a warrant issued to them, even if the matter was long ago settled, cops will not hesitate to try to get you on something again.

If you have ever been charged and found guilty of a criminal offense involving drugs, even if it was just simple possession of a small amount of marijuana, some cops may stop you whenever they see you just to check and see if they can get you on another drug charge.

It is in some cases much worse in smaller cities where cops generally know who has been arrested. They will expect that person to get in trouble again and indeed will often make it happen. In some cases, they will, in fact, harass a person, who can’t expect to get any help unless they can pay an expensive attorney and try to prove harassment. If they do, so what? Still nothing much will happen. The system will still protect its own. Cops may be low on the power totem pole, but they’re part of our messed up justice system and they’ll be protected against any allegation from a person who does not have status, money or power.

Reform the justice system.

Here in the USA we have a system of criminal justice that is rife with injustice. It targets only the working class, minorities and the poor. It’s too dangerous to allow to continue and it must become the top priority for the nation’s lawmakers.

The Democrats are much more likely to tackle the problem. Republicans don’t seem to understand there is a problem. With Donald Trump as president, the unjust system will continue and become much worse. He’s the first president to declare himself the chief law enforcement officer in the country, which of course, he is not. Trump doesn’t even understand what laws are and apparently hasn’t read the Constitution.

We need to elect Democrats to the House and Senate and demand work begin immediately to overhaul the system. That also means Trump must go. He didn’t start the decline of this country’s criminal justice, but he’s more than happy to perpetuate it and weaken the rights of the people. He’s also apt to use it to create an authoritarian government. In its current state of disrepair and discrimination, it would not be difficult to steer it in that direction.

The danger is imminent.

Former print journalist, former mayor, retired law enforcement officer. Writing about politics and government along with random personal essays.

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