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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why do the police use force?

Most people, it seems, have condemned the use of pepper spray on the UC-Davis student protesters. On the more general question of when and where tools of this kind (for example, Tasers) should be used, there is some disagreement (two excellent summaries of the debate are in The New York Times and at Inside Higher Ed).

I had a fairly vigorous discussion with my students yesterday about this, and the tenor and contour of it reminded me of debates over water-boarding (still approved by many; see the recent endorsements of torture by supposed Christian-values candidate Michele Bachmann).

There are two important distinctions to draw in cases involving police force and the military use of torture:

1. Whether using force in a given circumstance is necessary or merely convenient. Using force is a favorite tool of the lazy and incompetent. It is harder to get people to 'do' things, like confess to a crime, reveal information, or move out of a public space, by talking to them. Being a good police officer requires a lot of restraint and patience, and it also requires good 'people' skills. Having pepper spray or a Taser (or water-boarding) at one's disposal is a temptation to skip the hard work of convincing people to cooperate. In the UC case, the police officer did not appear to consider any alternative (including a less painful use of force) before employing the spray.

2. Whether force is used because it is effective or because it is emotionally satisfying. There is little to no evidence that torture actually produces actionable information. Still, anyone who has watched Jack Bauer on 24 or Detective Sipowicz on NYPD Blue knows that torture can be very emotionally satisfying-- as long as the person being tortured is clearly seen by the audience as 'the bad guy.' Pepper spray and Tasers do produce compliance! I suspect, however, that police officers often use them to dole out punishment as pleasure or revenge. 

Limits on the government's use of violence is a core American political value and one of the things that supposedly makes us 'exceptional.' Asking the police and military to use force only when necessary and effective is itself necessary, and, in the long run, more effective.


  1. I've enjoyed reading your pieces over the last few weeks. I spent some time thinking about replying to 'An Autopsy of the Occupy Movement', but felt that my reply should at least be somewhat coherent, and, well, that ain't always easy for me. After days trying to rotate the shapes of Lao Tzu, Haymarket Square, South African Termite societies, into a theory about the symptoms of a physical-space dialogue deficiency in modern life, - well, I decided to let my response pass. You had already written other interesting things that were interfering with my thoughts. And besides, who responds to an autopsy anyway?

    I do want to let you know, though, that I am enjoying reading and thinking about what you are writing, and I see that you are provoking responses from others, which is always fun. Regarding the UC-Davis incident, I wonder what the different reactions of police to groups (protesterS) and individuals (single protester) are or would be? Being in the frenzy of the mob can diminish our ability to think clearly; having the mob against you likely has the same effect, especially when it comes to having compassion for any of the people who are shouting at you.

    I don't really see the police involved in the UC-Davis spectacle as 'lazy' or even so much as 'incompetent'. They were told to move protesters; they moved protesters. A better description, I feel, is impotent. The man with the gun, the stick, and the spray finds himself powerless to carry out a simple order (not his order, but one from someone above him): Move those protesters! A pretty simple job. If he can't do it, he must not be worth his salt. His spraying of the crowd, like a skunk, seems - especially when you watch the YouTube video of it - a violent attack against those who threaten his role as a messenger of authority. The threat is real. What exactly does he do - this middleman - when nobody listens to his orders? Caught in the corner of get and give, with that descending cloud of crowd, "The whole word is watching", chanting, encircling him, fucking college kids, YOU HAVE BEEN ORDERED TO MOVE; little Policé Le Pew, almost by nature, begins to spray.

    Thanks, and maybe someday I'll jigsaw Haymarket, Lao Tzu, and my beautiful termites together, and send you a response.

  2. Hi Josh,

    I was just thinking about you the other day; someone posted a picture of you (on top of a skyscraper) and you looked serene.

    In short, I agree with you regarding the thinking of the police. An officer feeling like he/she is in control and his/her authority is being respected is an important part of the working personality of a police officer.

    I also agree that pressure from above contributes to this. That is a structural issue. For example, the problem of torture in the U.S. military is in part a problem of 'superiors' pressuring interrogators for intelligence results while being vague on the acceptable means for doing so.

    So, if the UC police were vague on the proper procedures for clearing people, then they are in part at fault. If their guidelines were clear, however, then the officer in question is guilty of failing to act consistent with his professional training, which would include things like crowd control and resisting the temptation to use force.

    The UC protest was pretty tame, comparatively. In other countries, where training of police/military is poor, the pay is poor, there is a culture of corruption in the police/military, and the protests are on a revolutionary scale, then violent responses are more understandable (though still not justifiable).

    I look forward to your thoughts on the decline of public space, Taoism, termites, and Haymarket.