April 15, 2013

The social mood toward cops -- informal vs. deferential

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.

13 comments:

  1. Jakes and feds are terms popular among young Blacks, but then they're never gonna have a formal attitude to the police.

    I don't think shows like The Wire or The Shield really bespeak an attitude towards seeing the police as superhuman. Or movies like Hot Fuzz, Super Troopers, Reno 911 (even if they're dumb movies).

    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

    You kind of tend to say that public spaces are less social these days, so the simplest explanation is that the police simply react to the mood in the environment.

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  2. I have only my own experience with cops. I was deferential towards them. The reason was not that I believed they were ultra-competent. Rather, I had had bad experiences with police, and believed them to be overly strict and unfair. So I had better be deferential, or I might end up in trouble over a trivial pretext.

    When I was a kid, my friends and I were pulled over to a curb on "mischief night"(night before Halloween, when kids would egg houses or cover them with toilet paper) - and made to wait there - by cops, just because we were roaming around outside(we weren't carrying eggs or toilet paper). On each mischief night, it became well-known that cops drove around the neighborhood in unmarked police cars. Did they do this in rising-crime times?

    At the college I went to, the town cops would regularly break up parties. I wasn't involved in the social scene there, but I heard about it from a girl I knew. What would happen is that some of the townies would think the kids were being too loud, call the cops, the cops would then go in and ask for I.D. If they found one underage person(and of course there were always underage kids there), everybody would have to go home. This happened every weekend. Now I don't know if it was just that the college town was filled with a bunch of angry hicks, or if it happened in a lot of other colleges too. Did it happen during the New Wave? I don't know.

    The campus cops regularly handed out speeding tickets, which I got one of. It wasn't a big college, with only one or two main roads you had to drive on before leaving campus, so the cops obviously set up speed traps. Speeding was like 30-40 miles per hour.

    Not to mention all the other speeding tickets I got on stupid pretexts, even having my license suspended at one point. The cop had radared the car in front of me, which was going 96 miles per hour in a working zone, then wrote down the same speed on both our tickets. My car was a piece of shit and couldn't even go that fast, yet the judge specifically said going over 90 was why he made the decision for a suspension.

    Do they give out more speeding tickets then they did in 1960-1990? Maybe this is connected to, as you explained before, some of the elites' scheme to try to take people's licenses away.

    So I think this is part of the genesis of the deferential behavior. I know its true that police were more brutal during the New Wave, but they didn't go around disciplining people for chickenshit reasons. I have a hard time imagining cops in the '80s responding to complaints of loud noise or patrolling empty parking lots.

    -Curtis

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  3. One element here might be that the people who become a police might be different in the era of high extraversion, high disorder and violence in public places versus today.

    If the main differences, leaving age structure aside, between the higher crime and falling crime period are due to a fall in less socially opportunistic crime, then cops in falling crime periods would spend more time investigating burglaries and the like, and crimes that don't have that sociable element. The police force wouldn't be looking to hire socially skilled people and socially skilled people wouldn't look to become a police.

    That might select for different personality types.

    Plus, cops might be more motivated by money rather than protecting the people - like, being a cop gets seen as being a good job for tough guys who are not so smart or socially skilled, more than a calling that people are driven to do because someone needs to protect those sick animals (insert 80s cop movie dialogue about why copdude "joined the force").

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  4. "I don't think shows like The Wire or The Shield really bespeak an attitude towards seeing the police as superhuman. Or movies like Hot Fuzz, Super Troopers, Reno 911 (even if they're dumb movies)."

    Yeah but no one watches those. The police/crime shows in the top 30 Nielsen ratings are the Law & Order, CSI type. Whereas the top 30 used to include CHiPs, Miami Vice, Magnum P.I., Hill Street Blues, etc. And Dirty Harry, Police Academy, Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, etc., were all in the annual top 10 at the box office.

    "public spaces are less social these days, so the simplest explanation is that the police simply react to the mood in the environment."

    I think it goes both ways, with them causing it to be less social, not only responding to it. The clutter of insignia, the sunglasses, the facial expressions and physical group segregation -- it's not just people who'd prefer things to be more social but are just hanging back in an asocial environment. They're deliberately more off-putting, and they don't seem very trusting or approachable for the average person.

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  5. "Do they give out more speeding tickets then they did in 1960-1990? Maybe this is connected to, as you explained before, some of the elites' scheme to try to take people's licenses away"

    Great question, I never thought of that.

    "If they found one underage person(and of course there were always underage kids there), everybody would have to go home... Did it happen during the New Wave? I don't know."

    There wasn't even a national 21 drinking age until 1984. Most '80s teen movies that include a party scene show carefree underage drinking, and no cops breaking it up, or even patrolling around looking for a pretext to do so. They had more pressing matters.

    It was always the parents you had to worry about -- would they come home early and spoil the party (a la Weird Science), would they track you down if you snuck out (a la Uncle Buck), would they believe your flimsy story about what you were going to be up to that night and let you go out?

    I went to a liberal elite school, so the students had little penchant for raising hell or going wild to begin with. I don't remember cops busting up parties. The RA's in our freshman dorm said basically if you aren't caught smoking weed / doing hard drugs, the campus police won't get on your case about a little alcohol.

    "On each mischief night, it became well-known that cops drove around the neighborhood in unmarked police cars. Did they do this in rising-crime times?"

    I don't remember that, but I wasn't in the age group that would've been targeted if they had. I think the whole egging the house / toilet-papering the tree thing was an internal matter for the neighborhood. Like, kids will be kids, just gotta clean the eggs off the siding and start tearing down the TP. Not call in the cops.

    "I know its true that police were more brutal during the New Wave, but they didn't go around disciplining people for chickenshit reasons."

    Yeah that's another effect of falling crime rates -- the police are still there and need something to do in order to get paid. With less important matters to attend to, they're stuck with making a mountain out of a molehill.

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  6. "cops in falling crime periods would spend more time investigating burglaries and the like, and crimes that don't have that sociable element."

    I don't know, they have to interview witnesses, persons of interest, pawn shops where the stolen stuff might be fenced, etc. They still need to be able to tell whether someone's lying or not, etc.

    "Plus, cops might be more motivated by money rather than protecting the people ... insert 80s cop movie dialogue about why copdude "joined the force" "

    They do seem more like mercenaries these days, don't they? I don't know if that's a different personality being selected for, or whether it's more difficult for prospective cops to feel motivated by saving and protecting when there are fewer and fewer threats in our neighborhoods.

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  7. I should add that all this could be applied to the case of people in the armed forces vs. civilians. But that would be a whole 'nother post.

    Military do seem more stand-off-ish, haughty, and eager to mark themselves apart than in the '80s. I don't remember going to an airport back then and seeing all kinds of guys dressed in army fatigues like you do now.

    They were regular guys who just happened to have more of a desire to kick enemy ass than the rest of us. Not latch onto the military for a steady paycheck and free laser eye surgery.

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  8. Truth Hurts4/15/13, 1:17 PM

    Long ago when I was young I used to believe that the police were the "good guys" as I've gotten older and seen the corruption, mis-use of power, and everything else I am MUCH harder. I was on a Jury not that long ago, and as I told the other jurors. "I know the defendent is lying. I also know that the police are lying, probably planted the evidence, and have everything on their side to get away with it. What I haven't seen is a disinterested witness to tell me the truth. So as of right now, I am Not Guilty across the board till I see something that says otherwise."

    The defendant - who was probably guilty - walked. Why? Because I do not trust the police - I see them as worse then the criminals since they are used to getting away with it. They are by far worse than the disease. From my perspective, cops are a waste of money and a major criminal organization able to do what it wants, kill with impunity, and get away with it.

    Yes, age and perspective tends to open your eyes.

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  9. I think I've heard of that patrol car experiment, used to argue in favor of more foot patrols. Tabarrok has a paper with a natural experiment indicating police effectiveness for that.

    I thought Hot Fuzz was very funny, though I don't imagine it was a big hit in the U.S. I thought Super Troopers was very successful though, and Reno 911 seems like it was on for a pretty long time.

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  10. The cops looked so much better back then. Now it seems like they just want to be more intimidating. I've also read articles about how steroid usage amongst cops is a growing issue.

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  11. "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."

    Although I have less then ten years on a major metropolitan police department, it seems pretty apparent that we socially self-segregate for two major reasons:

    1) The feeling of being under siege professionally. Everything we do can be recorded, choppped up, put out of context and edited and end up on the 6 p.m. news. Civilian oversight bureaucrats who have never conducted a criminal investigation, or had to engage in a use of force second guess are second guessing ever thing we do when a complaint comes in. Logically we distance ourselves to protect our paycheck. When you feel like you're a target, you stick with your 'own'.

    2) People are increasingly disconnected from each other (i.e. Bowling Alone) and civil society is dissolving. It's hard to find other people, outside of vets, who can emphasize with our experiences. Gallows humor and dark talk abound when you know a cop, which make it hard sometimes to have a normal conversation/relationship.

    "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."

    Unfortunately its hard to look casual wearing kevlar and carrying a gun, magazines, baton, handcuffs, radio, OC, etc.

    "Now their colors are uniform, and uniformly dark. Yeah, we get it: ALL DARK = INTIMIDATING."

    True. Departments have gone towards darker colors for intimidation. I like dark colors because ALL DARK = Less Laundry, dry cleaning, and uniform upkeep. When I was in patrol, I hated our powder blue shirts. They got dirty easily and they were made of terribly uncomfortable material considering the climate I work in.

    ". 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."

    You also have to factor in the 'risk management'/legal side of things. Wearing prominent markings eliminates the claim of not knowing the guy in a uniform you assaulted was a cop. Additionally, prominent markings also separate us from private security, which has heavily proliferated in the past few decades.

    "Remember that the variable most responsible for clearance rates in a police department is interviewing witnesses, not CSI wizardry."

    Unfortunately the public doesn't know that. People in the investigatory side like me have to contend against the "CSI Effect". Additionally, poor past practices with photo IDs and ID procedures is killing us in court when felony cases with eyewitnesses and no forensic or video evidence are available. Misdemeanor bench trials are a bit better for us when we don't have forensic evidence.

    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.

    We're never going to go back to that with the pervasive presence of video, flip phones, civilian complaint authorities, etc.. There are plenty of times where I could have solved neighborhood crime problems with an ass kicking, but instead had to wait around and lock someone up on petty crimes (marijuana possession, open containers, urinating, tresspass, etc.) to make my point. The times I kicked someone's ass in front of their associates made the point far faster and got better results.

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  12. "
    "Remember that the variable most responsible for clearance rates in a police department is interviewing witnesses, not CSI wizardry.""

    This is worth its own article - about how people have so many false perceptions about how technology will improve their lives.

    -Curtis

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