Continuing our breakdown of recent breakdowns, today we're going to talk primarily about the police: specifically, the LA County Sheriff's search of political opponents' homes; an incident that occurred at a Texas County Commissioner's meeting; and a handful of arrests over the summer across Florida. These incidents, when throupled, represent a disconcerting but almost tidal convergence of the political world and law enforcement.
Google 40% of Cops
The police have always sucked, but things have gotten worse with the rightward lurch that a substantial portion of the US populace and politic has taken. As we see more and more strongman demagoguery from our politicians, we're also seeing more and more disconcerting behavior out of law enforcement. Police violence has remained relatively steady–hovering around 1,000 killings a year–since data collection from this piece out of the Post. It's not a particularly long span of time, nor are police good record-keepers for their own crimes. What has changed, though, is the more brazen and authoritarian behavior of the police politically.
Of particular note are two incidents: one in Houston, in which law enforcement personnel showed up at a county budget meeting, in uniform, and lined the courtroom and hallway in order to intimidate speakers. On the docket for the day was supposed to be a motion for a tax rate increase, which was countered by the two GOP commissioners asking for no increase but 200 more cops. As banal as this incident may seem: cops standing around booing during a budget hearing, it's extremely disconcerting. Read it this way: during a local government meeting, armed members of the public arrived in uniform in order to intimidate politicians into getting their way. Because that's what happened. In effect, a paramilitary organization arrived in the courtroom to ensure they would get more money for their paramilitary organization. Now, law enforcement is corrupt as the day is long, actively stealing from citizens, assaulting them, and murdering them with impunity, but they largely behave in accordance with the government. If the cops begin to see themselves as beyond or outside that system–which surely thousands on thousands of cops already do–then they must only act on that notion to effectively be above it, even if only temporarily. So many of our institutions are held together simply by wishes and norms, and we've seen how quickly norms fall.
The second incident is less an incident and more the most recent evidence of the police as criminal enterprise: gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Briefly, the LA Sheriff's Department–an enormous department, 2nd largest municipal law enforcement agency in the nation–is broken up into stations across the region, and these stations are largely controlled by secretive gangs. These gangs control the officers, encourage police shootings, and hound whistleblowers (among worse things). All this is beyond bad enough, but what's most disconcerting to me is that along with all this, Sheriff Alex Villanueva had assembled a secretive "political corruption unit" which has been utilized pretty much how you'd expect. This unit executed search warrants related to two vocal opponents of the Sheriff, a county supervisor and a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. To say that this is the behavior of institutions under autocratic regimes is to narrowly elide the truth: the police in these situations (and of course most other times) are an autocratic body themselves. And remember: the media is spectacularly bad at checking the police–they almost always put out a regurgitated cop narrative. The above is just what we've heard they've done.
Between a Cop and a Dictator
To bridge the gap between this week and next, here's a recent piece from the Tampa Bay Times. You may recall that Florida voters approved a measure that would restore voting eligibility to those convicted of a felony. However, those found guilty of sex offenses and murder were excluded from this eligibility. Despite that, when registering to vote, no such language or guidance from staff has prohibited them from completing their registration–and, in fact, some were encouraged to vote and told they could whether by staff or mailed registration cards. As a consequence, a small number of people, predictably mostly Black and democrat, were targeted by DeSantis for voter fraud and arrested. Between the lack of clarity at the registration office and the mailed registration cards, it would appear that these arrests are about as legitimate as Desantis' free ride to Martha's Vineyard. Despite this, DeSantis has gloated over these arrests to the press, exhibiting them as proof that his "election investigation unit" (no relation to Villanueva's "political corruption unit") is paying dividends for voters.
This new ("new") intersection of law enforcement and politics is sure to sound familiar to scholars of history and authoritarian governments. Police will inevitably take a side in political battles, and have always infringed on the rights of communities of Color in ways that have affected elections. In 2000, Florida police posted near polling locations, intimidating would-be voters, and set up a checkpoint on a road that led from a mostly-Black neighborhood to the nearest polling place. It is no leap at all for the police to align themselves more firmly with a political party–especially one that will feed into police authority–in future elections. As politics and law enforcement become further entwined, we can expect to see further disenfranchisement, in what is sure to be but one branch of a whole redwood of election interference meant to dismantle democracy as we know it in the United States.
Mentally divesting oneself from the political process can free up a lot of mental energy, especially this time of year, but it's something that's much harder to do with the police. You can be as disinclined to think of their existence as you want, but they'll still kick in your door. Which is why, say it with me, we need robust communities, mutual aid, and community defense. A group of people who can provide for themselves and defend themselves is less likely to see the police come around–not just because you won't call them, but because they will be disinclined themselves.
In the coming weeks, I'll do a bigger dive on the police, and talk about a broader movement in them across the country. The problem with policing, though, is as predictable as its solution: power corrupts, and we should be rid of it. The police are an inherently corrupt institution, built on racism, that will cleave to whoever and whatever makes it more powerful. That will, inevitably, be authoritarian in form–whether from the right, or center-left. Eventually, they will dismiss any pageantry toward public service and exist only as local branches of the military with consistently lower grades out of high school. It's our job, then, to envision a world without police or a carceral system, and to find something better.