Law enforcement is the job of the police in most civilized countries. They are expected to investigate crimes, find the perpetrators, and present their case in a court of law, usually (in common law countries) before a jury of the perpetrator's peers. Well, not exactly the perp's peers, but a general selection of normal people.
While this is a noble quest, it all too often breaks down.
Authoritarian regimes often employ various levels of "secret police" in order to patrol and regulate their populations. Such schemes often involve extralegal violence or threats of violence, encouragement of people willing to turn in their acquaintances or enemies on flimsy grounds of wrongdoing, and less-than-transparent judicial processes. Even in governments that are not strictly authoritarian, police can function as a secret society, for example in the United States, where police frequently have an unwritten code of secrecy against reporting police misconduct, the so-called "blue wall of silence".
Even modern democracies struggle with the tendency of law enforcement to overstep their remit. In a democracy, law-enforcement personnel are supposed to be operationally independent, so that in particular they can investigate anyone — up to and including the political leadership of the country — whom they suspect of having committed a crime, in any legal manner they feel appropriate, without fear or favour. Although in many countries sitting politicians have some degree of immunity from prosecution, it may still be possible to arrest them after they leave office. Sometimes, this actually works and corrupt presidents do in fact end up in jail. Operational independence has its downsides, though, as it can mean that police are not accountable to anyone and free of repercussion.
Lack of operational independence can lead to law enforcement being used as a weapon to target people the government doesn't like. However, laws which — intentionally or unintentionally — have a biased impact on certain groups of people can also have a similar effect — as can institutional racism or corrupt leadership in a police force.
For much of history, societies largely handled law enforcement in a fairly loose manner. For example, in a town in the middle ages or in the early modern period one might find guards who would guard the town gates, residents (who could either be volunteers or be required to do this once a year or so) who patrolled the streets at night with torches to scare off thieves, armed guards hired by those with money to spend to safeguard their property, and bounty-hunters and soldiers brought in to deal with rioters (either by dispersing or by dismembering them). Though still fairly rudimentary of course, some societies of this time-period (or even much earlier) had more sophisticated set-ups with full-time specialists - so Athens had 300 slave-archers to patrol the streets at night, Rome had the vigiles (who also doubled as firefighters) in the city of Rome itself and employed soldiers in that function in the provinces, and ancient China organized matters thoroughly.
The first police department in the modern sense of the term originated in France in the 17th century, during the reign of King Louis XIV - a French parlement registered the Paris police department in 1667. In Britain Robert Peel refined and elaborated on this sort of fairly basic arrangement, most notably in 1829 with the founding of the London Metropolitan Police, featuring (for example):
- uniformed officers
- formalized training, procedure, administrative hierarchy, etc.
- civilian employees (police are not soldiers)
- a notion of civilian accountability
Most notable was the notion of preventative policing. In short: if a police patrol arrests potential/suspected thieves, this disincentivizes people from stealing things, since the risk of getting away with the deed decreases. Over the course of the 19th century crime rates went down and punishments gradually became less extreme (for example, in 1800 vandalism in Britain could get you transported to the Australian convict-colonies, and petty theft could get you hanged). The basic policing set-up would be adopted around the world over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Controversies over policing, particularly in the 21st century, have led to calls to "defund the police".
"Police are meant to 'protect and serve'!"
The phrase "to protect and serve" originated with a simple Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) motto first used in 1963; other police stations have subsequently adopted it with similar bells and whistles. The motto simply serves as a short-and-sweet ideal phrase, very similar to advertising slogans such as Wal-Mart's "Save money. Live better.", despite laborers working under Wal-Mart's terrible conditions practically achieving neither. However, even when one takes the motto at face value, the police do not have the obligation to protect and serve individuals, as ruled by the Supreme Court multitudes of times. Recent examples include a court ruling in favor of the nonresponding police officer in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, and issues in protecting a woman who has a court-mandated order to protect against a violent husband in 2005. While the police can potentially protect people against criminals who are breaking the law, that is only secondary to their job of upholding the law. Theoretically, if there was a law that technically hurts people rather than protecting them, the police will uphold that law - note the laws enacted under the War on Drugs, often enacted specifically to target minorities while hiding under the veil of drug regulation. Police protect and serve the system rather than the citizens.
"Police misconduct is just the result of bad apples!"
Considering how more exposed reported police brutality is and the disproportionate amount of people of color being affected by cases of racial profiling, this issue is more complicated than because the system forgets to filter out the assholes from the group. Black Lives Matter was founded because of how staggeringly little the "bad apples" get punished for their dreadful behavior. Blaming the officer at an individual level while ignoring the factors that cause an officer to act up is only addressing the symptoms of what happens when ills of society gets deeply ingrained in policing, not the cause.
Many major law enforcement groups don't contain databases of officers who have engaged in misconduct. This allows for officers fired for misconduct in one location to simply relocate to another. This is particularly problematic as it relates to rape and other forms of sexual misconduct. A thousand officers in Oklahoma lost their badges for sexual misconduct including "forcible sodomy" and possession of child pornography. This is almost certainly an undercount however due to both the aforementioned fact that many police organizations don't have databases for officer miscount as well as the blue wall of silence.[note 1]
A Texas sheriff with links to the far-right terrorist group Oath Keepers has been convicted of violating inmates' civil rights by keeping them locked up days after a court ordered them to be freed.
"If the suspect didn't resist arrest, excessive force wouldn't have been used!"
It is one thing to use force to put down someone resisting arrest, it is another thing to go above and beyond, unnecessarily injuring or outright killing an individual who even displays the slightest bit of resistance or possibility of danger. One example of excessive force being unnecessarily deployed was towards a 16 year old girl at Marshall High School, where she was kicked, dragged through the ground, and tasered. The most jarring example of this was Charles Kinsey, a black therapist, caring for Arnaldo Rios Soto, disabled autistic man, who got shot because the officer thought the toy truck Soto was carrying was a gun; Kinsey was on the ground, with his hands raised, ready to be arrested, and he got shot anyway.
"Racism isn't a problem in the police!"
Simple fact of the matter is that, it is a problem. A disturbing amount of police officers, both officers in rank-and-file and leadership positions from a variety of jurisdictions, has either posted offensive racist Facebook memes,, are members of groups affiliated with racist organizations on Facebook such as the Neo-Nazi movement, White Lives Matter, or has connections to the Ku Klux Klan. This is not to say of the statistics regarding the proportion of black incarceration rates due to them possessing drugs. Implicit biases come into play here, where police officers react differently to a young, affluent, white female as opposed to an older, poor, black male. The entire point of the counter-protest movement against Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, for example, is merely to deflect issues minorities face in police interactions rather than address any problems.
"Police work is either extremely dangerous or getting more dangerous!"
While police work can involve placing officers in highly dangerous situations, relative to several other jobs, policing has actually gotten safer over the years since World War II, despite the so-called "war on cops" being trotted out by conservatives.[note 2] Despite the increases of violent crimes, the hazards of policing has dropped significantly from the 1970's, which may be due to body armor, enhanced medical care, better training, better policies, and better technology. In relation to other jobs, being a police officer ranked only 14th on the deadliest job chart in the USA, being beaten out by drivers in general such as taxi drivers or truckers, garbage collectors, farmers and ranchers, aircraft pilots, and much more.
Acronym for "all cops are bastards", it is a common slogan to read and hear in reaction to stories about police brutality and is internationally recognized. It has origins in the skinhead subculture in the 1970s, popularized by the 1982 song A.C.A.B. by the British punk band, The 4-Skins, though it has seen use with anti-racist skinheads as well as nonskinheads in general; the Anti-Defamation League has classified it as a "hate slogan", though it notes that "it should be carefully judged in the context in which it appears." Another variant of the term is "1312", where the numbers correspond to the number of the alphabet for each initial. A woman in Madrid, Spain was fined for carrying an A.C.A.B. bag that disobeyed Spain's Citizens Security Law, although the initials of the bag had a parody of the phrase, displaying "All Cats Are Beautiful".
The theory advanced to justify its use is that when corruption, unnecessary violence, and abuse of power is widespread, even police who are not themselves corrupt, violent, or abusive still, directly or indirectly, promote a "thin blue line" culture that protects the police who are. One notable example is the convicted murderer Wayne Couzens, who had earned the nicknamed 'the rapist' from his fellow officers before his conviction for the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard.
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- An omerta code instituted by police officers to protect each other from public accountability. The fact that this resembles the "no-snitching" code often employed by organized crime is probably not a coincide.
- The conservatives calling the "War on Cops" referring to William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, who attacked Obama on the wake of a Dallas shootings that left five officers dead, as well as a book called The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe being written by Heather Mac Donald, a secular conservative who has written for the Wall Street Journal op-ed and is from the Manhattan Institute.
- Badger, Emily; Bui, Quoctrung (2020-06-12). "Cities Grew Safer. Police Budgets Kept Growing." (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
- McMaken, Ryan (December, 20 2018) Police Have No Duty to Protect You, Federal Court Affirms Yet Again. Mises Institute. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- Greenhouse, Linda. (June 28, 2005) Justices Rule Police Do Not Have a Constitutional Duty to Protect Someone. The New York Times. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- LoBianco, Tom. (March 24, 2016) Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies. CNN'.
- Park, Haeyoun and Lee, Jasmine C. (May 3, 2017). Looking for Accountability in Police-Involved Deaths of Blacks. The New York Times. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- "Investigation reveals about 1,000 police officers lost jobs over sexual misconduct" - The Guardian. Published Nov. 1st, 2015.
- [https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/oath-keeper-sheriff-convicted-violating-inmate-rights-1234827432/ Texas Lawman Linked to Oath Keepers Convicted After Violating Inmate Rights] - Rolling Stone. Published Sept. 18th, 2023.
- Hendrickson, Matthew. (Apr 11, 2019). New video shows Chicago cops dragging, punching and tasing CPS student. Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- Rabin, Charles (July 20, 2016). "Cop shoots caretaker of autistic man playing in the street with toy truck". Miami Herald.
- Lockhart, P.R. (Jul 19, 2019) Police posted thousands of offensive memes on Facebook. Now some of them are being fired. Vox. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- Carless, Will and Corey, Michael (June 14, 2019) Inside hate groups on Facebook, police officers trade racist memes, conspiracy theories and Islamophobia Reveal. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- Bernette. (Feb 16, 2018). The Connection Between Police, the KKK, and Oppression. Medium. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- Radley Balko. (October 2, 2014). Once again: police work is NOT getting more dangerous. The Washington Post. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- Galoustian, Gisele (April 10, 2019). It’s Safer to be a Cop in the U.S. Today than 50 Years Ago. FAU. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- Stebbins, Samuel; Comen, Evan and Stockdale, Charles (Jan. 9, 2018) The 25 Most Dangerous Jobs in America. USA Today. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- A.C.A.B.: The 4-Skins Genius.
- ACAB. ADL. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
- Govan, Fiona (May 25, 2016) Police backtrack over fine for 'All Cats Are Beautiful' bag. The Local. Retrieved August 6, 2019.
- "Wayne Couzens nicknamed 'The Rapist' three years before he was hired by the Met", Evening Standard Retrieved January 14, 2022.