Over the past few years, I have met some–very personable and intelligent–young men who seemed possessed by the same passion: they wished to join the police, to “serve their community”, to “give something back”. They knew the police forces they wished to become members of were dysfunctional and corrupt, but that was precisely why their service was called for; they would work “with” their fellow policemen to reform it “from the inside.” These young men were not lacking in sincerity, not one bit.
I knew these young men with varying degrees of familiarity. To those that I felt comfortable enough with to be blunt and plain-spoken, I offered the following response: give up the ghost; run, not walk, away from police work; hang on to your humanity. To the others, I merely said “Good luck,” shook hands, and kept walking.
The eager would-be internal reformer is not cognizant, I think, of just how endemic police dysfunction is, how widespread the anomie among its forces’ members. A fresh-faced aspirant who joins the police will be first routed through the police academy, where he will be exposed to its particular brand of indoctrination into the language and methodologies of policing, now made ever more confrontational and violent. But the academy is mild fare compared to what awaits him at the precinct.
In the precinct, our budding hero will meet the embittered veteran, bitter and caustic, survivor of brushes with angry residents of urban neighborhoods, pesky city administrators, hypocritical, officious, autocratic Internal Affairs’ investigators, ignorant, nosy media persons; his is a world populated by opponents of all stripes; the criminal is only distinguished from this cast by his overt and explicit commitment to resisting the police. The rest are nuisances. And so, tragically, is the community the veteran has been policing.
The veteran will provide our naif with his first serious education in the realities of police life; he will come to see, over a period of time, like the rest of his “brothers” do, that the police are alone in their task, that the world “outside” is not made up of folks like them who need protection but instead is just one indiscriminate mass, perhaps only distinguished by their relative obedience in complying with police directives to shut up, speak when spoken to, open doors, close windows, recite the alphabet backwards, empty their pockets, lie on the ground, or get out of the car. He will come to view himself as a beleaguered hero, desperately in need of empathetic understanding; he will resent, and be angered by, those who do not talk to him in accordance with this self-image; he might repress this sensation for a short while, but it will soon manifest itself, perhaps in his over-enthusiastic handcuffing or subduing a “suspect”, perhaps in his brusque speech, perhaps in his willingness to understand his work as soldier patrolling hostile territory, as entailing inevitable casualties and collateral damage.
Our apprentice will be all too soon disabused of his innocence; he will soon be auditioning for the role of grizzled precinct veteran.
2 thoughts on “The Police Precinct as Augean Stable”
While Heracles’s struggles were a humiliation of sorts, he was in the end successful through the redirecting of external forces. As educators do we try to develop critical skills and ways of thinking in potential recruits or do we endeavor to redirect them into entirely different careers? There is a bit of hubris in the latter that I have some concerns about. While reform from within is difficult and often more Sisyphean than Augean, many of the strongest external reformers achieved their position by virtue of having worked for some time within the system. As a practical matter, there are also so few careers as criminal justice reformers. My approach has been to approach criminology in the classroom as a profoundly critical endeavor designed to educate a liberal public and to encourage potential recruits to explore the broadest possible range of criminal justice careers with a full awareness of the pluses and minuses of such a career; keeping in mind that so many jobs are demeaning.
Dare I bring up Erving Goffman again? It seems that one becomes a police officer through an individual, brutalizing process, and once you’ve permanently been assigned that role, there’s no disputing it.