“Catching criminals.” This is the activity police truly like to identify with, however little of their time it occupies. Occasionally, police stumble on red-handed robbers or thugs fleeing an assault. But the bulk of “catching” people lies in traversing the city as necessary to find someone on the word of someone else. Police act as go-betweens for antagonists who may even be practically within arm’s reach — yelling outside their cars in a fender bender, or giving opposite accounts of a domestic dispute. Real “investigation” — the glorious business of tracing an unidentified malefactor after the fact of a crime, without just finding out who did it from the witnesses closest at hand — is an activity that does exist in police departments, but only among a tiny number of specialized personnel who don’t even have to wear uniforms.
When police identify crimes against the city, state, or law, rather than against an affronted person — the so-called victimless crimes of illicit possession, unlicensed work, or unlicensed sale — they perform the essential police function of distributing crime. The legislature declares certain objects and unlicensed commerce illegal; the police then go and distribute these violations. Street drugs are made illegal (prescription drugs are fine), hidden and unlicensed weapons are illegal (carried by people on unsafe streets, which is to say the poor), flawed cars are illegal (busted taillight, broken muffler, unpaid insurance). Thus police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals — the poor and marginal — and the prediction is prophetic: these people turn out to be criminals as soon as they are stopped and forced to turn out the contents of their pockets or glove boxes. Leave them alone, and most would never be “criminal” at all. The majority of violations technically listed in the tables of the law are of no interest to uniformed police. People who break laws in business are unlikely to be detected or sought out, and when their violations are disclosed — leading to the awkwardness of having to reach a settlement — they are dealt with by regulatory agencies, guilds, or accrediting bodies, and at the far extreme by civil-court proceedings and court-mandated money exchanges. Very rarely are police or criminal justice brought in.
From this brilliant piece by Mark Greif on police.
Pop culture is worth deep scrutiny because it is how so many people come to understand the role of certain jobs in society, like that of the police, and so the distortions of mediums like film and television become the mental errors of the populace. An analogous misperception exists with lawyers, who are almost always litigators in criminal proceedings in the movies and film, and then we enter the business world and spend most of our time working with lawyers on contracts, playing chicken on indemnification with lawyers representing some other entity in a transaction.
The basic ambition of a policeman is to ceaselessly project force, stolidity, seriousness, intimidation. But that’s impossible. Policing contains daily humiliations at each inevitable failure of the policeman’s front. The uniform itself, the badge in its widest sense, with the luster of all shields meant to dazzle, is meant to maintain this front regardless of the individual inside. But the uniform can never succeed. You would need Robocop. There is something in the cladness of police, their preoccupation with holding the uniform together, that makes us aware of all their armor’s shortcomings, or inspires one to imagine these human beings naked, their uniforms taken away. The traditional English name for the mana with which police are invested is surely awe. Erving Goffman, in his famous conceptualizations of front, face, and performance, recalled Kurt Riezler’s point that the inevitable obverse of awe is shame.
The coupling of awe and shame among police comes out in our awareness of police symmetry and asymmetry. A shield is worn on the peak of the hat, while a second one covers the heart. The gun descends from one side of the utility belt, and, traditionally, the nightstick hangs from the other. Sometimes a flashlight substitutes. Looking at individual police, they almost always seem lopsided. The belt pulls down on one side. The blouse comes undone. They are constantly hiking up their pants. The regulation shoes are the same as those of nurses, waiters, and mail carriers. Heaviness gathers at the waist, in a sedentary, slow, caloric job. There is something in police that droops.
"The inevitable observe of awe is shame." A wonderful line, one that can't help but bring our current President to mind, with his deep-seated need to reinforce his self-regard with public declarations laced with superlatives, staving off the despair that might come from confronting what is more than enough shame to last a lifetime. Shamelessness is exactly what it sounds like, an absence of shame, but it need not be nature. I've met many a person who can nurture their own seamless shell against the onset of their own shame; one can be shamed by the public but it truly wounds when one feels it themselves.
[I steer clear here of bodily shame, though many have directed such attacks at people like Trump and Bannon. I'm almost certainly guilty of this in the past, and I regret it. Body shaming is hitting below the belt no matter who it's directed against, and Trump and Bannon would be no less evil if they looked like George Clooney.]
Most surprising, perhaps, is that to spend time looking at police is to see that the law is not a true resource for them. A rationale, yes, but a thin one. Police lack law. I hadn’t noticed this until I really started watching them, thinking about what I saw, reading research done on them. The original television version of Law & Order split each episode into two parts. First, policing; second, courtroom proceedings. It took me years to notice that the title was backward. Police are order. This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to clean up dirt. The cliché from Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, her cross-cultural study of the constitution of dirt and taboo, holds up here: What we call dirt is only “matter out of place.”
It is always hard to remind or convince police that their stated loyalty is to the Constitution. It’s not their fault, really, so much as it is the fault of a municipal organization of authority that keeps legal and political thinking at a level “above their pay grade.” A bad consequence is that it’s quite difficult to make police feel responsible for civil rights violations or unjust laws, since rights and the law of the polity are not theirs to know or decide.
This is one area where culture has shed some light on this paradox of police work. In film, the protagonist is often a rank and file policeman who tries to enforce the law but is deterred, sometimes by the a puppet of a police commissioner whose strings are being pulled by those with real power, like corrupt politicians, and sometimes by fellow cops who exploit their position to stand outside the law.
Still, it's an easy conflation. I haven't played the Sims since I was a child, but I'm sure if I played that game today, one of the tasks to be checked off in building any city would be the installation of a police headquarters as a proxy for instilling law and order. As Greif notes, that handles the "order" half, but law is something else entirely. I'm not sure if the game would be as appealing if establishing the rule of law were a prerequisite to building a community, but it would be an order of magnitude more instructive.
Liberal and social contract theories of democracy — those that begin from Hobbes and Locke and that form the official philosophical background to the American Republic that was constituted in 1787 — do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. This is perhaps because, on a strong version of contract theory, police ought not to exist. How could democratic agreement fail to be self-enforcing in its daily practice if the agreement is real, sustained by each individual’s consent? Social-contract theory does include the discouragement and rectification of error after definite breaches of the contract, as punishment will address the convicted wrongdoer who either gave in to the temptation of self-interest or was perverted to it by some personal flaw. But the right agency for requital is penal law. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact. There is no location alongside or outside the citizens and their contract for a supplementary force or additional locus of authority and violence, for mediation or interruption. There is no place for any intervening agency with political standing, only as a kind of collector or picker-upper of persons — hence, an agency very much like that of a trash picker or one who carries dirt from the streets, as Smith proposed.
Again, film and television cues us to the separation of police from detective work and law through its choreography of crime scenes. The detective, not in police uniform, arrives and steps under the police tape to be greeted by one of many who are in police garb, handling the administrative work of keeping the crime scene clean. The detective is the one who kneels over the victim's body and asks the question, and the detective is the one that spots something amiss which will lead to the next development in the case, or the plot, as they are synonymous.
SUPPOSE WE SAY THIS: Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law, or eloquence. Their medium is not law. They do not always use memorable or wholly coherent words. Usually they confront situations of conflict they did not cause, but which they are required to enter as third parties. There, they become deliberately distracting, grandstanding observers, turning the attention of other parties away from each other and toward themselves.
When you look at them this way, focusing on the middle range between space-holding inaction and violent attack, you can see how negotiating is actually what the police do unendingly, habitually — but unfamiliarly, because in some way they refuse to recognize or care about the original goals of the relevant parties. They bring a separate set of criteria to bear, and not always an appealing one. Is this chargeable? Should this person be removed or transported temporarily? How soon can I leave, and how do I scare these citizens a bit so they won’t come into conflict again and police won’t need to come back? Police negotiate without a unitary reference or goal — other than to end the necessity for their being present, unless they’re in a location they want to forbid the use of to others. And they are always asking themselves a separate question, of whether to lift a person out of the horizontal conflict and into the vertical mechanism of criminal justice — a process they will not ultimately be responsible for, and which they won’t have to enter into themselves.
The pleasure of a David Simon work is that he is a systems storyteller in a world where most pop culture is focused on lone hero, the descendants of Odysseus in the Western canon. What made The Wire so astounding, and what makes The Deuce the best show on television right now, is Simon's recognition of the power of structural forces. The way he teaches is through a nested Russian doll plot architecture which still, at its core, begins with an individual, but the story always ends with that individual trapped several layers deep. He's hooking us with the marionette, but then removing all the stage dressing and scaffolding so we see the puppeteer.
Systems storytelling isn't always pleasurable. As Penn and Teller have noted about explaining how magic tricks work, doing so usually removes all the magic.
Matt: “So why don’t you explain all your tricks?”
Teller: “Because the short explanation—the explanation that you’d have to do during a theatrical or TV performance—is dull and no fun. The greatest secret to making a deceptive piece of magic is you do it by the ugliest possible means. It’s complex, it’s unromantic, it’s unclever. Because there are no big secrets. There is no safe full of magic secrets somewhere. Jim Steinmeyer said he thinks most of the public believes there’s a big safe that contains all the magic secrets. The biggest job for a magician, he says, is to conceal the fact that that safe is empty. Because every magic secret is just a minor modification of something that you fully understand in everyday life. Take suspending something with a thread, for example. Everybody’s not been able to see a piece a thread when they were trying to put it through a needle. What makes it difficult to find is lighting and background. If a magician’s using a thread on stage, say, to levitate a ball, he must use lighting and background to conceal the thread. There’s no obscure secret in that. You learned that playing in your grandmother’s sewing box. Every magic ‘secret’ is hiding in plain sight in the everyday world. It’s not news, and eminently drab.”
But it doesn't have to be dull. As Penn and Teller themselves have shown, sometimes revealing the mechanics of magic is still magical. Dorothy was disappointed to find the Wizard of Oz was just a man behind a curtain, pulling knobs and levers, but we probably don't revere systemic understanding nearly enough.