One of the most surprising developments in the wake of February’s Florida school shooting is the willingness by many generally police-friendly commentators to denounce the lack of action by local police against the shooter.
Part of this is agenda-driven. The inaction on the part of law-enforcement organizations demonstrates that it is not enough to “call 911” and hope the police show up to protect the victims. As Michael Graham notes, the Florida situation is part of a “pattern of police cowardice” which was also apparent at the 2016 Orlando shooting and at the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. In both cases, police stood outside while gunmen worked freely inside the building in question.
Thus, if police are going to protect themselves while victims are at the mercy of gunmen, this illustrates that private gun ownership is perhaps the only reliable defense — whether in the hands of professional private security or even amateurs. Opponents of a police monopoly on gun ownership have seized upon this police failure as a helpful illustration of their position.
In the past, however, the right-wing’s knee-jerk tendency to always defend the police would likely have prevented much direct criticism of police agencies themselves. That reticence, however, appears to be falling away, and the cowardice of government law enforcement officials has now become become an open question.
Naturally, this does not bode well for the position of police agencies in the political hierarchy. Law enforcement agencies have long depended on their “hero” status as an important factor in ensuring that police organizations get whatever they want from local governments and state legislatures.
“We’re Experts, Do What We Say”
In response, many defenders of police have become testy and defensive, resorting to slipshod arguments that amount to little more than “you people who aren’t police should just shut up.”
A typical example of this can be found in USA Today where Tim Vogt, a former border patrol officer and current instructor at a “law enforcement academy,” denounces any criticism of the sheriff’s deputies involved.
Vogt’s argument? Police should not be subject to criticism “from the unqualified and spineless peanut gallery.”
In other words, Vogt holds that government agents are unassailable experts who ought not be forced to suffer commentary from the ignorant taxpayers who, it seems, aren’t good for much other than paying the bills for law-enforcement agencies.
Vogt’s article resorts to perpetuating myths about police agencies, as well. He claims that “we also take more risks than most of you choose to on a daily basis,” implying that most Americans can’t fathom the risks that police officers take. In reality, millions of Americans are employed daily in lines of work that are more dangerous than being a police officer — including truck drivers, landscape maintenance workers, farmers, roofers, and construction workers.
Vogt resorts to outright deception when he claims that police “risk their lives on behalf of others each day, all for a lower middle-class wage.” This is not true outside the tiniest, most rural police forces. A typical police organization pays police well above median wages, and benefits are even greater when the extremely generous police pensions are included in the calculation. Scot Peterson, the police officer that Vogt is specifically defending, was being paid double the local median income.
This sort of lashing out, however, is nothing new for defenders of law enforcement after rank police incompetence becomes apparent.
In his book defending the police response to the Columbine Massacre, former SWAT officer Grant Whitus declared: “I want to say to the critics: Okay, if you think it’s so damn easy, then you go patrol a beat…I bet you wouldn’t make one day with me before you pissed yourself.”
Alan Pendergast, in a review of Whitus’s book notes:
It’s a standard cop refrain: You haven’t been where I’ve been, so shut your piehole.
Significantly, Whitus invokes the movie A Few Good Men as an illustration of how police actions should be immune to criticism.
In the film, when questioned about his abuse of military power, the Jack Nicholson characters screams “You can’t handle the truth!” and goes on to explain how the general public is too yellow-bellied and ignorant to understand the real threats that are out there in the world. Thus, the military, his reasoning goes, should be left unquestioned in regards to how it goes about doing its business.
It is not surprising that Whitus wants this same rationale to apply to police work as well. The pain-in-the-neck general public doesn’t possess the secret wisdom government agents have, so the public’s opinions are all just the idle speculations of a “worthless peanut gallery.”
Should Police Be Immune from Political Opposition?
In foreign and military affairs, those who want citizens and taxpayers to keep quiet and do as their told invoke the phrase “politics stop at the water’s edge.”
It is a sentiment often expressed by advocates for more foreign intervention and ever more taxpayer funding for military institutions. The idea is the taxpaying public is too stupid or too ignorance to have anything other than worthless opinions when it comes to military and foreign affairs beyond the borders of the United States. Modern Americans have typically caved to this bullying tactic. Writing in the 1990s, however, at the end of the Cold War, Samuel Francis noted that such an attitude is incompatible with a free society:
The self-sufficiency, the civic independence, of the citizens of a republic, the idea that the citizens should support themselves economically, should be able to defend themselves,educate themselves, and discipline themselves, is closely connected to the idea of public virtue…A self governing people is simply too busy, as a rule, with the concerns of self-government to take much interest in other peoples’ business…A self-governing people generally abhors secrecy in government and rightly distrusts it. The only way, then, in which those intent upon…the expansion of their power over other peoples, can succeed is by diminishing the degree of self-government in their own society. They must persuade the self-governing people that there is too much self-government going around, that the people themselves simply are not smart enough or well-informed enough to deserve much say in such complicated matters as foreign policy…We hear it…every time an American President intones that “politics stop at the water’s edge.” Of course, politics do not stop at the water’s edge unless we as a people are willing to surrender a vast amount of control over what the government does in military, foreign, economic, and intelligence affairs.
Francis’s critique applies to police matters as well, of course. Politics do not stop at the front door of the police station or sheriff’s office unless we are “willing to surrender a vast amount” of citizen control over what the government does to us.
Many Americans are willing to surrender their civic responsibility to others, though. Francis contends that the modern American government relies heavily on citizen deference to the state’s “incumbent managerial elite.” This elite asserts it deserves a special exalted status above the taxpayers because the elites are, well, elites. And they know best.
This is the same claim now being made by current defenders of the police.
Deference to the “experts” in police and military organizations, however, has not always been a given in America.
Indeed, among citizens in the nineteenth century, it was considered unbecoming to step aside and allow government agents to set the terms of national defense and public safety.
In the nineteenth century, critics of excessive deference to state “expertise” on matters of keeping the peace spoke in terms of “manliness” in resisting usurpation of privately-supplied community order. This measure of things never quite went away, although now the bravado comes largely from defenders of government agents. Thus, we see that critics of police are denounced as “spineless” nobodies who will “piss themselves” if faced with the dangers police face. On the surface, the debate is about courage, but the subtext behind apologists like Whitus and Vogt is one of “we’re real men, and the rest of you aren’t.”
Indeed, how voting citizens — all of whom were men through most of the nineteenth century — viewed themselves in relation to government agents with guns varied in earlier eras. As noted by Bret Carroll in American Masculinities: a Historical Encyclopedia, deference toward military power “clash[ed] with the equally masculine virtues of independence and individualism.” The ideal citizen was a “citizen-soldier who was a frontiersman, a yeoman farmer, or a shopkeeper.”2
Standing armies were viewed with “suspicion,” and much of this grew out of ideas passed down from Revolution-era opposition to occupying British soldiers who were seen as being of “low moral character.”
It was only after the Civil War, Carroll notes, that the very large numbers of veterans in the general population began to create a “mystique” around military service, and to encourage a culture that “glorified military service” above activities in the private sector.
Because law enforcement agencies in their modern form were extremely rare in the US before the late nineteenth century, the functions of police were also largely viewed as a matter of private self-defense, and not a matter for “experts” who were to be unquestioned by the general public.
Today, the language of “manliness” or “virtue” has been replaced by the language of “expertise.” And, from the government’s point of view, expertise is even better as a standard of police and military power because it can be readily used to exclude all outsiders from exercising influence over internal government matters.
The attempt at having the experts take over, of course, has not been totally successful. There is still a well-established tradition in the United States of civilian oversight for military affairs, and non-police oversight for law-enforcement. County sheriffs are subject to voters and police forces are subject to civilian mayors and city councils.
Nevertheless, the claim that critics of police inaction are part of a unqualified “peanut gallery” has been successful for decades. It is an indication of a cowed and passive citizenry, but we may be finally witnessing some pushback from the non-experts who aren’t buying the pro-government myths any longer.