I’m an anthropologist by training, and a retired federal IT Specialist by career.
I’ve never wanted to be a cop, and I wouldn’t have been a good one. But, by profession and professional interest, I’ve worked with law enforcement for much of my life.
I was also a coroner’s deputy when I was younger. I’ve seen a whole lot of deaths, and many homicides. And I’m damned certain that I do want cops in my community.
I care about cops, want them to be safe and healthy, and I want them to succeed, as individuals and as a profession.
But I’m also very critical of many aspects of American law enforcement and our criminal justice system.
In a word, I don’t like cop culture.
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Think global, act local.
On July 16, 2021, I resigned from my volunteer position on the Citizens Advisory Panel for the Deschutes County Sheriff.
Being a member of Sheriff Nelson’s CAP was a way of trying to help my community, trying to help my sheriff, and trying to help the people who do extraordinarily difficult jobs.
However, law enforcement incidents over the years have left me increasingly disillusioned with the profession. After five years on the Panel, I came to feel that my participation was of minimal value for either DCSO or the citizens of my county.
I also felt increasingly that I wanted to speak more plainly about the problems in cop culture; but that my speech might reflect poorly on Sheriff Nelson or his advisory panel.
Given these misgivings, I felt it best to resign my position.
I still support Shane Nelson as my sheriff. DCSO has a decades-long, inglorious history of misconduct in its ranks; and Sheriff Nelson has established a strong record of zero tolerance for it. The fact that his deputies’ union stands against him at every election cycle is all the proof you need to vote for him again.
Although Sheriff Nelson and I have many strong disagreements, I’ve come to know him well enough to tell you that he is a man of compassion, integrity, ethics and professionalism.
I wish him, and all of his deputies and staff, well. I wish them all safety, health, and success in their careers and in their mission: protecting and serving all the people of Deschutes County.
I’ve got a few problems with cop culture.
Not individual cops, but cop culture. The “Thin Blue Line.” The Fraternal Order. Constitutional Sheriffs. Police unions. The Code of Silence. Willful blindness. De facto indifference. Complicity. Secrecy. Political activism by cop unions and cop associations. The status quo.
Euro-America has a 400-year history. Parts of that history are celebrated and taught in school. But it also has another, dark, side. And that side isn’t taught much in school.
Little wonder, because that dark side is our nation’s history of genocide, slavery, racism, oppression, and inequality. All of which are factually indisputable, even though widely denied.
Throughout our nation’s history, cops and sheriffs have been right in the thick of that dark side.
The history of American law enforcement is replete with police brutality: enforcing and participating in slavery, kidnappings, physical and sexual abuse, torture, blackmail, and the murder of suspects, prisoners, and regular citizens. And every one of those crimes (with the arguable exception of slavery) is still periodically perpetrated by cops, to this day.
Yes, I know. It isn’t all, or even most, cops.
The standard refrain is, “it’s only a few bad apples.” And that does appear to be true, based on the limited data that the federal government collects on the issue. The crimes I referred to above really are committed by a small percentage of cops…. As far as we, the people, can tell. From the limited data that politicians and law enforcement let us see.
But the available statistics aren’t complete, and they don’t convince — they only tend to support. That’s where transparency comes in, and transparency is exactly what cops and their supporters have always fought against so successfully.
That’s why the statistics are so incomplete and uninformative.
More importantly for every American citizen: Statistics aren’t the whole story.
You can’t quantify the suffering, the loss of loved ones and family members.
Nor can you quantify the costs to democracy that result from — and are ever-reinforced by — police brutality and police stupidity.
You can add up the financial costs of lawsuits against municipalities and governments — lawsuits brought for wrongful deaths and unlawful denial of constitutional rights. You can add in the costs of legal settlements. You can use actuarial data to calculate lost future earnings.
But you can’t calculate the true costs that follow from widespread lack of trust in cops, law enforcement, our criminal justice system, our politicians, and our very democracy itself. Those true costs are invaluable.
Countless living Americans have relatives who have lived, been brutalized, suffered, and died, at the hands of abusive cops and sheriffs in our nation’s short history — many even in this lifetime.
All Black Americans and Native Americans, along with too many Hispanics, Asians, other people of color and people of disadvantage, still suffer from the events of our dark history.
Police brutality and institutional racism are far, far from over. They are still happening. Americans are still suffering and dying from cop brutality, and cops are still getting away with it because our criminal justice system is built to protect them from prosecution.
This is the 21st century. Politicians and American law enforcement officials have been promising to put an end to brutality and racism within their ranks for 400 years. And they have consistently failed to deliver. The racism, terror tactics, kidnappings, rapes, beatings, torture, and murders continue even today.
And that’s because of cop culture.
Cop culture enables and protects misconduct.
Yes, most individual cops are good folks. But cop culture is inherently, deeply, flawed.
In cop culture and throughout the criminal justice system, we find widely shared beliefs, and processes, rules, regulations, policies, and laws, that shield cops from disciplinary actions, prosecution, and conviction for criminal activity.
We find prosecutors, medical examiners, paid-for-hire “expert” witnesses, judges, and politicians who all cooperate to reinforce the invincibility of cops.
We find patterns of discrimination, racism, and police brutality. We find tremendously effective systems for suppressing cops who want to speak out against corruption, misconduct, bigotry and misogyny in their own ranks and agencies.
We find widespread belief that there’s no harm in cops lending their public support to politicians and political viewpoints. We find a 400-year history of cops buying political influence, buying political candidates and elected politicians.
These social structures, systems, and norms are deeply ingrained, institutionalized problems in cop culture.
They don’t affect all cops, nor all law enforcement agencies, equally. A minority — just perhaps more than a minority — of cops and agencies alike are fairly well-immunized against these problems.
But overall, cop culture has always included these dark secrets and problems, and overall, White America has been too willing to allow this culture to thrive.
In future postings here at Tumalo Lookout, we’ll explore some of the complexities of law enforcement and cop culture. You’ll see that I’m both a supporter and a critic of law enforcement.
I’ll talk about specifics. I’ll show you some statistics and we’ll see some of the complexities involved in trying to bring about real change. Because it’s culture we’re talking about, and there’s nothing simple about trying to change culture, from the inside or out.
And we’ll talk about institutional racism as well. I’ll show you examples of laws and policies that were intentionally passed to discriminate against people of color – both in law enforcement and White America generally. I’ll also show you examples of laws and policies that unintentionally result in discrimination.
Four hundred years of American law enforcement history are proof enough that the guild of law enforcement is unable and unwilling to rid itself of its problems. Cops benefit too much from the status quo.
But, then, the problems with cop culture aren’t created by cops alone.
Ultimately, we own our government, and we are responsible for it. Problems in cop culture reflect the same problems in American society. Looking at cop culture is like looking in a mirror, America: that’s us we see in there. The good, and the bad, and the ugly.
And we’ll talk about all of this, a lot, here at The Tumalo Lookout.
Well, actually, I do have problems with some individual cops, too. Take, for example, this excuse for one of “Our Finest,” below:
The thing about Derek Chauvin isn’t just that he’s a monster. Monsters are real, and we find them in all walks of life. They’re bound to show up in law enforcement periodically.
Even the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office has had a few in its history. (We’ll talk about that in the future.)
The real issue for me, as both a citizen and an anthropologist, is that Derek Chauvin was enabled by his colleagues. And not just those three colleagues who stood by as he murdered George Floyd.
Derek Chauvin was enabled by his entire department, and by local district attorneys, and by the criminal justice system. For 18 years.
That gets to the heart of what’s wrong with cop culture.
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