Why do American police forces undermine their own legitimacy?

The police in the United States have a problem: their use of violence, once totally forgiven and romanticized, has now generated massive unrest, adding sparks to a powder keg of high unemployment and pandemic. Why do America’s police forces simply react with more violence and repression instead of attempting to reform themselves or improve their image?

To be sure, the political clout of police unions and decades of bipartisan institutional support mean that their inertia will carry them on their present path. But this doesn’t answer the question of why the police in the U.S. are determined to undermine their own authority – the military, after all, refused to take part in putting down protests. Deaths by police are also much less common in other developed countries, both in absolute numbers and as a per capita measure. 

On a structural level, many police officials are salaried professionals, like much of the government bureaucracy and the officer corps of the military. The privileges afforded to them are presented as the privileges of a professional, corporate body officially standing above society and subordinated to its purposes. Such a relationship isn’t learned by instinct but by training and discipline in the labor process. 

Besides the obvious bureaucratic functions of the criminal justice system (all the paperwork that needs to be filled out), social control and state-legitimizing violence demands intellectual as well as clerical labor. A blind application of violence reduces the “special” status of the state, from a group of armed men in the service of law, to simply a group of armed men. 

The strategy of minimizing the violence of the domestic population while maximizing the potential violence of the state in general is the basis for this intellectual labor. All armed agencies of the state, whether military or police, must appraise their tactics against this measure. We first, then, must examine the tactics being employed by the police, and see whether they have been effective in minimizing the violence of the domestic population. 

These police tactics have been widely reported: mass arrests, surveillance, tear gas, “less-lethal” projectiles, batons and shields, etc. Police forces neglect the strategic use of these tactics at their own peril, however. Like every other aspect of the state, the authority and legitimacy of the police rests on their apparent neutrality: the extent to which they serve their higher purpose, whether it be the dictates of their civilian leaders or the abstraction of law and order. People will generally ignore or forgive police violence so long as they believe that violence isn’t somehow factional or personal in nature. Even rioters and protesters, as a whole, will eventually submit to police authority given these conditions.

The video-recorded death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer who knew him personally, and who had a long history of using unnecessary force, has been the catalyst for shaking this façade of neutrality to its very core. The outpouring of images detailing more unnecessary police shootings and brutalizing of peaceful protestors has implanted the seeds of doubt, that perhaps behind all this violence is not some obscured social contract or the law but only sadism and racism. 

Given these dynamics, it’s safe to say that while police may have won the battle for maintaining immediate social control, their failures as state intellectuals have caused lasting damage to the legitimacy of government. We see similar symptoms in those countries where personal dictatorship has degraded the state apparatus to the point of impotence and incompetence. In this case, however, the institutional decay was self-applied. The police, and therefore the state itself to a certain degree, have lost moral and intellectual authority, and therefore hegemony.

There have been attempts to drag in the military to fill this void of legitimacy. The national guard was deployed in several states, Black-Hawk helicopters  buzzed tens of feet overhead the streets of Washington DC, where Trump’s fearful protectors stockpiled munitions, and Trump has repeatedly solicited action from his generals. Yet the Military has not yielded, and an examination of why might help explain the extreme failings of the American police. 

According to polling, the percent of people who have a “great deal” of faith in the police has fallen from 54% in 2018, to 24% in 2020 even before the killing of George Floyd. Meanwhile, the military remains the most popular institution in the country, with 73 percent expressing a great deal of faith as late as 2019. 

The Military and the Department of Defense have had their share of negative headlines. This began with the disastrous handling of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the resigning of the Secretary of the Navy, then the appearance of top military officials with Trump in in DC for press events about the protests, and finally the public rebuke of Trump by the Secretary of Defense and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

The military brass has been struggling to figure out how to deal with the combination of Trump, the unprecedented national crisis, and dissent among the enlisted against what are seen as corrupt and unwinnable wars. They must maintain their apparent neutrality, even when the appearance of neutrality comes at the cost of the most extreme interventions in domestic politics since the Truman administration. One can hardly blame the brass, caught as they were between discrediting and disobeying the president, their commander-in- chief, in an election year, and sending in the troops to carry out the same brutal repression that has already discredited the police. 

Despite its own scandals over failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, rampant sexual assault, graft and unnecessary killing of civilians, the military has escaped the reckoning in part because its violence has been focused outward rather than inward. It is unlikely public opinion would be so kind if soldiers actually did begin to repress protesters on American streets, or were responsible for mundane law enforcement and the equally mundane cruelties than accompany it. 

The military has also been lucky: civilian politicians who pushed so hard for the war on terror received a rebuke by voters against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the election first of Obama, then Trump. But this was not a rebuke against military leadership. This has not been the case in most examples of protracted counterinsurgency wars across world history, particularly in the US occupation of Vietnam, the French battle for Algeria, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

Counterinsurgency wars tend to create military doctrines well suited for social control of large populations, and as an extension, lead the military to be more adventurous in its campaigns into domestic politics. Both the French and the Soviets experienced attempted coups during the wind-down of these wars aiming to oust governments the military perceived as abandoning the country’s national interest. 

The experience of the United States is unique here. The relationship between counter-insurgency tactics and domestic politics was not indirect – mediated by military leaders – but rather direct. Less-lethal weapons intended for use first in Vietnam, then in the Middle East, were deployed against civilian demonstrators, both violent and peaceful. Much of SWAT equipment was the result of R&D done by ARPA in Vietnam, but often with the express purpose of being delivered at home where disrupting the narrative against the war was a high propriety. More recently, sonic weapons known as LRADs have become a new tool in anti-riot tactics, originally developed in response to attacks on US Navy ships off the coast of Yemen. Drone surveillance techniques built for war in Iraq have now been directed at protestors.

If counterinsurgency tactics and technologies are already being used against protestors, what’s stopping the military from treating the recent unrest as a true counterinsurgency problem? 

The reality is that tactics are stupid. 

Once developed and institutionalized, there is little thought put into the appropriateness of using certain tactics and technologies unless the institution in question has a rigorous intellectualism built in. To a hammer, everything is a nail. To American law enforcement, filled with veterans of counterinsurgency wars, well stocked in the weapons of these wars, and permitted to act with the same impunity of an occupying military force, every problem is a counterinsurgency problem. Even in this era where organized insurgencies have long been antiquated in the US, and the unrest is being generated by these very same police tactics. 

The military brass, educated in top schools with a long history of scholarship, makes for far better intellectuals than the police, who actively reject applicants for being too intelligent. The strategy, rather than the tactics, of counterinsurgency is all about securing state legitimacy, about finding ways to make populations subservient to authority rather than bowing to pure coercive power.  And compared to foreign counterinsurgency wars, where the US is seen as an invading force, and where allowing a client state to develop its own machinations of legitimacy may be dangerous to US interests, the strategy of domestic state legitimacy is relatively straightforward. Whereas the American counterinsurgency wars have created durable local regimes only in Colombia and Rojava, domestically it has been the tool of maintaining state-legitimacy par excellence. 

The military is painfully aware, from its ongoing experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan,  of the ways that unnecessary violence can breed resentment and undermine authority. Just imagine the damage that would be done if uniformed soldiers open fired at protesters with live rounds.  

Actually, we do not have to imagine, we can look to the Kent State shootings during the protests against the Vietnam War as a perfect example. In this case, 4 students were killed by National Guardsmen who opened fire into a crowd. The killings triggered massive protests and student-led strikes across the country. Unlike the riots following the death of Martin Luther King, the demonstrations and riots which struck DC in the aftermath of Kent State were just as multi-racial as the ones we recently experienced. Richard Nixon was even forced to retreat to Camp David with military protection, not unlike President Trump’s visit to the White House bunker. Nixon’s speechwriter compared the situation to civil war. 

Nixon attempted to subvert the protest movement with illegal surveillance, arrests, conspiracy trials and detention in camps, but even J Edgar Hoover, of all people, felt this was going too far. The war in Vietnam was brought to a close because of this turning of opinion. Had Nixon chosen to respond only with more force, the state legitimacy of the US government would have been brought into serious jeopardy. 

But perhaps the way out for the US government today is even thornier than it was for Nixon, who “merely” had to find a way to withdraw troops from South Asia. The public is now much more interested in allocating funding away from law enforcement towards social programs and ending qualified immunity for police in civil courts, but more importantly, the crisis cannot be resolved until the issues of police brutality, the pandemic and the economic catastrophe are no longer exploding. 

In the Army Manual for counterinsurgency, there is a list of indicators which predict the stability and legitimacy of a regime: the ability to provide security for the populace; selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace; a high level of popular participation in or support for political processes; a culturally acceptable level of corruption; a culturally acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development; a high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions.  It is now questionable if the US meets any of these metrics. 

But the police have little concern for such metrics. Nor do they seem to understand that they are part of the problem. From their perspective, law and order can only be achieved through brute force, applying violence to criminals – through this, fending off anarchy. When confronted about their use of the tactics and tools mentioned here, police insist the only alternative is more lethal force. President Trump, too, has little concern for state legitimacy, and sees his use of federal law enforcement to crack down on protesters as an easy way to score cheap points with this base. 

With the failure of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, the political crisis of capitalism has been transformed from an electoral crisis to one of governance. Socialists will have to remind the country precisely where the slide into illegitimacy terminates, and that the only way to arrest that slide is through meeting the demands of working people.