Nowhere is the creeping level of everyday authoritarianism more visible than in the general public's relationship with cops, how they think and feel about them, and how they interact with them.
Elsewhere I've touched on popular culture portrayals of the police, and how they change with the trend in the crime rate. To sum up: rising crime rates prove that cops are not omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. People realize that they're human after all, so their portrayals run the gamut -- bumbling, overly skeptical, confidante, vigilante, loose cannon (but not a vigilante), by-the-book, corrupt, whistle-blower, goofball, working stiff, naif, charming sex symbol, good cop, bad cop... See Dirty Harry, Beverly Hills Cop, Serpico, CHiPs, Miami Vice, Lethal Weapon, etc.
Falling crime rates make people think that whatever law enforcement has been doing, it's working. It's such a dramatic decline in such a short time, it's like they have access to some magic wand that the rest of us don't. The simpler reality is that people just start avoiding public spaces a lot more, so they're not as vulnerable as they used to be. Plus the population gets more gray-haired and less hotheaded. But that makes for a pretty boring narrative, where it's more enjoyable if there has been a clash between two sides, and the good guys are winning.
Portrayals of cops become more heroic and sanctifying -- they have the skills to figure it all out, they face few obstacles in executing their plans, and their motives are nearly pure. They're not quite gods, but more like demi-gods, saints, or angels, who act as intermediaries between us mortals and the higher-level forces (secular or supernatural), fighting on the side of the good. We're not interested in watching cops at the movies anymore, but see Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, CSI, Cold Case, etc.
What other ways allow us insight into people's thoughts and feelings toward the police, aside from the cop-related pop culture that resonates with them?
First, there's slang terms for cops. That's part of the orally transmitted culture at the grassroots. When folks feel that cops are only human, they can acquire nicknames, including derogatory ones. Or not even derogatory, but still tending to put them in their place, and remind ourselves that they can be our adversaries as well as our helper-outters.
Mid-century slang terms for cops is almost non-existent. Not until the '60s do the terms start to accumulate in number and spread in prevalence, culminating in the '80s. The fuzz, pigs, Smokey, the five-O, the po-po, bacon. In the mid-'90s when teenagers tried to cultivate an image of always being hassled by The Man, we still couldn't come up with new slang words for his foot soldiers. "Po-po" was still somewhat fresh, having started in the late '80s, and a new take on "pigs" was someone in the group asking, "Hey guys, do you smell bacon?" when the cops were nearby. Pretty lame, though.
However, by now there are not only no new terms for cops, but the old ones have dropped out of common usage. The only person in a long while who I've heard mention "having to shake Smokey off my tail" is my dad, born 1954. I don't think a Gen X-er could refer to "the five-O" without feeling self-conscious. There are new terms like rent-a-cop and mall cop that put private, petty security guards in their place, but nothing about law enforcement.
Now onto some real-life pictures of cops on the beat. Here is an awesome set of photos of rollerskaters taken around Venice Beach during the late 1970s and early '80s. Several are pictures of the police, and they are always interacting and socializing with the civilians, usually in a pleasant mood, and sometimes lowering their guard to goof around with the civilians (ex). They never try to look intimidating, more like unflappable when they're around the types they want to keep an eye on (ex).
The cops themselves didn't have any delusions back then that they were superheroes or mighty authority figures. Trying to go on a power trip would have alienated the normal people and baited the psychos into striking first. You can tell they're a little nervous, though showing thick skin.
Only during a falling-crime period do they try to distance themselves from civilians and act in a more power-tripping way. Most people have become more socially avoidant, and see law enforcement officers more as demi-gods, saints, and forensic wizards, so they don't really feel like approaching or getting along with the cops face-to-face in the first place. And with the crime rate so much lower, and still falling, compared to the '80s, they're not under as great of a threat from thugs and crazies. They're not as likely to provoke them into retaliating if they seem to be going too far.
Let's take a quick look at the differences between Venice Beach beat cops circa 1980 and circa 2010:
Cops back in the good old days sure were more social, weren't they? The central set of taboos and regulations governing human social behavior relates to dating and mating, so everyday pictures of cops fraternizing with beach babe civilians shows how porous the boundaries were between the two groups. The cutie on the right has a hand on each of the cops' bikes, what today would be a clear violation of the personal space of authority figures. It's even more striking in the pic on the left: one girl is touching the arm of one cop's shirt, with a worry-free look on her face, while the other girl is almost right against the second cop, also touching his arm or clothing.
Cops in the 21st century tend to group themselves apart from the civilians, and you never see people touching their property, clothing, or person. Their facial expressions are more suspicious and scowling, like some group of pro wrestlers hamming it up for the cameras.
Notice also how casually the cops are dressed in the good old days. They've got shorts, a ringer t-shirt, jogging shoes and socks, and ball caps. Their sunglasses are the semi-transparent type, and not always worn.
These days they're still wearing shorts and running shoes, and have a similar utility belt, but otherwise look more serious and formal. The shirt has buttons and looks more like a uniform, they aren't wearing casual socks, the hats look more specially made and not just a generic ball cap, while the bike helmets are the high-performance type. Cops used to wear a light-colored shirt and dark bottoms, like the rest of us. Even more formally dressed cops back then could be seen in a white or light blue shirt, with or without a dark necktie, and dark blue pants, just like a civilian's clothing if they worked in an office (ex). Now their colors are uniform, and uniformly dark. Yeah, we get it: ALL DARK = INTIMIDATING.
Then there's all the insignia markings on the new cops that you don't see on the old ones. In the '80s, they wore a badge on their belt and had inconspicuous "LAPD" letters on their hat and left chest part of the t-shirt. I guess they figured that normal people and criminals alike had enough brains to tell them apart from the civilians, what with the belt holding a gun, night-stick, and walkie-talkie, and their cop-stache. Their uniforms were thus purely utilitarian -- look only different enough for folks to easily tell you apart from civilians -- not symbolic (look even more different to remind them that you come from two separate worlds).
Nowadays cops have all kinds of shit going on with insignia. The badge is larger and has moved more noticeably to the chest pocket, and there's a set of letters over the other chest pocket. The formerly bare shirt-sleeves are now emblazoned with two large markings, while "POLICE" takes up a good quarter of their backs. And now the sunglasses are the 100% reflective type, worn almost always. Yeah, we get it: WE'RE COPS, DEAL WITH IT.
Rising crime rates not only send a wake-up call to civilians about the human nature of law enforcement, but instill a good deal of humility in the police themselves. We're all in the same boat, and we have to be each others' eyes and ears. Remember that the variable most responsible for clearance rates in a police department is interviewing witnesses, not CSI wizardry. Also remember that in a real-world social experiment in Kansas City during the early '70s, beefing up the visibility of police patrols didn't accomplish anything in terms of preventing crime or making civilians feel safer. The per capita level of policemen actually fell during the 1990s in Canada, which didn't stop their crime rate from steadily falling just as it did across the Western world.
It is the quality of the interactions between the police and civilians that makes a difference. They have to be given a fair amount of leeway to fuck up the dangerous ones out there, while being encouraged to mix with the rest of us as though we weren't coming from two separate worlds.
The past 20 years have seen just the opposite trend, toward hamstringing and hysteria about police brutality -- "Rodney King! Rodney King!" "Free Mumia!" "Don't taze me bro!" -- and toward a sharp segregation between cops and law-abiding civilians. That only goes further to confirm how little of the decline in crime has to do with changes in law enforcement itself or in popular attitudes toward law enforcement.
Rather, people just don't venture out into vulnerable situations in public spaces anymore, and lock up their kids indoors until age 25. Not to mention the drastic decline in how lopsidedly youthful -- i.e., hotheaded -- Western populations have become after the Baby Boomers aged out of their crime-prone years.
Once the crime rate starts rising again, perhaps within the next 10 years, we certainly will have more to worry about as far as danger goes, though not plunging us back to Medieval times or whatever hysterical people imagine. On the other hand, our social and cultural lives will return to a state that's more fully human and less insectoid. And the melting away of everyday authoritarianism, like we saw during the '60s through the '80s, will be one of the most fulfilling changes.