Police Dominate

Human language let foragers express and enforce social norms. Their most important norm was to resist domination – leaders should only advise, and not give orders. Farmers tolerated violations, at least by socially distant upper classes. But as industry’s wealth weakened the fear that kept farmers in line, we turned to democracy to reaffirm our anti-domination norm.

Except we are hypocrites – we have always accepted domination, and pretended otherwise. This can be seen in how we relate to city police. Citizens pretend they control police, by electing mayors etc., and using laws to constrain their behavior. But citizens don’t notice or care that police are put mostly in charge of measuring their own performance, and of policing their own cheating. The predictable result is that police cheat and mis-measure their performance, and stand free to punish those who challenge them.

Pretty much no one runs for mayor or city council on a platform of having independent organizations measure or police the police. Which tells you that few expect voters to support such changes. Which tells you that most folks know they are being dominated by police who can cheat with impunity, and (as voters) prefer that situation to imagined alternatives.

If you doubt me, just review the latest NYPD news:

In 2010, The Village Voice produced a five-part series, the “NYPD Tapes.” … For more than two years, Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded every roll call at the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn and captured his superiors urging police officers to … manipulate the “stats” that the department is under pressure to produce: Officers were … encouraged to disregard actual victims of serious crimes who wanted to file reports. … In October 2009, Schoolcraft met with NYPD investigators for three hours and detailed more than a dozen cases of crime reports being manipulated in the district. Three weeks after that meeting—which was supposed to have been kept secret from Schoolcraft’s superiors—his precinct commander and a deputy chief ordered Schoolcraft to be dragged from his apartment and forced into the Jamaica Hospital psychiatric ward for six days. … Schoolcraft has been suspended without pay for 27 months, he faces department charges, he was placed under surveillance for a time, and the city even blocked his application for unemployment benefits. …

In the wake of our series, NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered an investigation into Schoolcraft’s claims. By June 2010, that investigation produced a report that the department has tried to keep secret for nearly two years. The Voice has obtained that 95-page report, and it shows that the NYPD confirmed Schoolcraft’s allegations. … Mayor Bloomberg and Kelly have gone to great lengths to insist the crime statistics are accurate. … The Voice was blocked in its efforts to obtain this report through the New York State Freedom of Information Law. … All of this suggests that Bloomberg and Kelly are simply trying to delay a full accounting until after the next mayoral election. …

A former NYPD captain says that what was happening in the 81st Precinct is no isolated case. (more)

Who expects someone to run for NYC mayor, and win, on a platform of an independent police internal affairs? An independently audit-able crime complaint system? Didn’t think so. NYC citizens don’t want objectively enforced laws constraining their police. And your city isn’t any different.

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  • david

    There seem nontrivial subcultures where the police are seen as “other” and where restraints on their power are supported.

    More generally the NYPD and LAPD (for famous examples) have faced ‘mainstream’ attempts to challenge or reform their powers in the past. You should look to politicians seeking to appeal to the groups most likely to regard police as outside their own social group – politicians in cities with policemen mostly of a different race or social class, for example.

    And you may have to look beyond American shores – the practice of outsourcing police reform to weak independent commissions or judicial oversight limits the extent to which democratic pressure can act. If you always expect SCOTUS to ultimately determine the necessity or acceptability of assorted police practices – Miranda warnings, etc. – you would primarily campaign to affect who gets appointed CJ rather than for yet another oversight department. Why have another when you already have one with effectively total power?

    You can see extremely careful approaches toward policing in ex-ethnic-conflict zones, e.g., Northern Ireland. When the risk of police becoming part of the other group is very real, people pay attention.

  • nazgulnarsil

    humans seem to want maximally brutal leaders up to the limit of plausibly signalling that they don’t want maximally brutal leaders.

    • Newerspeak

      Do we want brutal leaders?

      Or do we just get them because monitoring is expensive, attention is finite, would-be leaders are in competition, and brutality makes ill-adapted creatures follow modern norms cheaply?

      And is the attitude in this post, and especially in this comment, helping anyone to overcome their biases? It’s status raising and self-contradictory: “I’m overcoming my biases, but nobody else will.”

      • nazgulnarsil

        by want I meant revealed preference. As for overcoming bias, it isn’t a bias if brutal leaders efficiently help one achieve ones goals. I wasn’t making a normative statement.

    • Mint

      Completely implausible to me. I have no desire for leaders, period.

    • There are human reflex mechanism(s) that tolerate brutality. An extreme form of that is Stockholm Syndrome.

      The way to invoke Stockholm Syndrome is to alternate being brutal and being humane. The classic “good cop bad cop” routine.

      I suspect this derived from deep evolutionary time when human ancestors reproduced via alpha males and those alpha males would kill the offspring of the previous alpha males so the females would have higher fecundity with the new alpha male.

      If a female didn’t attach to the new alpha male, she would have reduced reproductive success. Some primates even spontaneously miscarry to avoid the “cost” of carrying an infant to term where that infant will be killed by the new alpha male.


      It is not surprising that there is cross-talk between brutality by police and Stockholm Syndrome. That is the whole point behind bullying, to induce Stockholm Syndrome to get victims to either ally with the perpetrator, kill themselves, or be killed by the bully.

      It isn’t that people want brutal leaders, brutal boyfriends, brutal husbands or brutal police. But being alive with a brutal leader is better than being dead with a brutal leader. That is why humans tolerate bullying, particularly if the bullying is happening to someone else.

      This is why people who consider themselves libertarians tolerate violation of other people’s liberties; restrictions on contraception, criminalization of drugs, pollution release into the environment, restrictions on freedom of speech.

      • Michael Wengler

        Its somewhat surprising to me that people are still surprised by Stockholm syndrome.

        First of all, we are primates, smart, vicious, highly social highly emotional animals. More like chimpanzees than bonobos. I bet Chimpanzees have stockholm syndrome up the yin yang. They don’t call it that because 1) they don’t range to Scandinavia and 2) they can’t talk.

        And talking! What a funny distortion! Hypocriticus Shmippocriticus! Brutality is just a label for force you wish people to be mad at. You don’t need to look to NYPD to see us all falling under the heel of force, at airport screening, on the road when we see a police car, even for some of us when considering what words we put in our posts.

        So yes, primates have evolved in a social structure where brutality is a useful tool and alliance is a useful tool and, surprise surprise, we have an affinity to ally with the effective, some of whom are brutal.

        But being hypocriticus, we like to talk about it as though it “should” be otherwise. (Holding up my hand) — talk to the genes.

  • A Country Farmer

    “NYC citizens don’t want objectively enforced laws constraining their police.”

    Where is that on a ballot?

    • Poelmo

      Exactly: the majority of Americans is in favor of gay marriage and legalization of marijuana, opposed to the war in Afghanistan and a future one in Iran, and the citizens united ruling. Yet, these things can’t be voted on because although voters still decide elections, a small, rich elite can definitely narrow the candidate field. Trust me, if American democracy worked anywhere near as well as advertised, then independent police inspections would be on the ballot.

      • Marijuana legalization went on the ballot as Prop 19 in California and lost. Proposition 8 overturned a court decision to amend the California constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. And California is a solidly “blue” state.

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  • burger flipper

    Pshaw. Problems with police misconduct can be handled by filing a simple complaint:


  • A post like this conveniently manages to ignore not only scholarship but well-known facts about the politics of policing, which are a staple of journalism and fiction and so there’s no real excuse for not knowing them. If this faux naivete managed to produce some stunning insight I suppose it might be worthwhile, but I don’t see it.

    To put it crudely, but a lot less crudely than the original post, there are two competing political forces, one of right-wing authoritarianism that supports strong police powers, and a left-liberal one that puts a stronger emphasis on individual rights and in particular the rights of the accused in the criminal justice system. In recent decades the balance has shifted strongly to the former, to the point where it is very hard for even a Democrat to run on a platform of protecting individual rights against the police. But this wasn’t always the case, which is why we have things like Miranda rights and civilian review boards in the first place.

    This is not “hypocrisy”, it is a reflection of the fact that “NYC citizens” is not a unitary actor with unified opinions.

    So if you don’t like authoritarian policing, the right thing to do is lend your support to the political forces that oppose it, such as the ACLU.

  • Mark M

    “NYC citizens don’t want objectively enforced laws constraining their police.”

    Your conclusion isn’t supported by your evidence. Candidates aren’t constructed from the collection of majority opinions, so you can’t say elected officials represent the majority opinion of any given subject. Voters can only choose among the candidates who are running. Imperfect information and cognitive bias may easily keep us from voting for the candidate we would prefer to have in office.

    Moving from faulty logic to the subject matter of the article…

    Domination implies abusive power without recourse. I can’t argue that it hasn’t been accepted, because it certainly has, but it isn’t what we want. Domination has been tolerated throughout history, but when those in power become too abusive, the people rebel.

    I think what we really want is fairness and justice. We want to be fairly treated and criminals to be punished. We aren’t much concerned with how this happens, although we’ve found that it’s hard to create a set of rules that consistently produces these results. A strong police force allows criminals to be captured and punished, but how do we keep that same strong police force from abusing the honest citizen? Just because we haven’t implemented a solution doesn’t mean that the majority doesn’t want one.

  • Poelmo

    Voters can only choose among the candidates who are running. Imperfect information and cognitive bias may easily keep us from voting for the candidate we would prefer to have in office.

    Forget about “imperfections”: a handful of millionaires and billionaires can decide who gets to be a candidate and who doesn’t.

  • “Farmers tolerated violations, at least by socially distant upper classes. But as industry’s wealth weakened the fear that kept farmers in line, we turned to democracy to reaffirm our anti-domination norm.”

    Perhaps a simpler explanation is that, all else being equal, the degree of freedom different classes have is proportional to their political power; and their political power is proportional to the fraction of total GDP that they produce.

    In a hunter-gatherer society, there is no accumulation of wealth, the value of land is low relative to the number of people needed to keep possession of that land, and each person represents a high fraction of the tribe’s total value.

    In an agricultural society, the value of land skyrockets, the value of a warrior (roughly the value of amount of land that warrior can defend) increases to the point where specialization in war is worthwhile, and while the value of each peasant farmer is higher than the value of each hunter gatherer if measured in absolute terms, it may be lower as a fraction of GDP.

    Once trade, durable goods, and wealth accumulation are invented, the relative value of warriors to farmers increases, as pillaging the accumulated wealth of others appears to be the winning strategy.

    After industrialization, the relative value of workers (formerly farmers) presumably increases, and so does their political power and freedom.

    (After the replacement of workers with robots, workers’ value would decrease again, and they would become slaves again – not to the robots, but to those humans who retain political power.)

    • Or perhaps that’s just an elaboration on what you meant by “industry’s wealth weakened the fear that kept farmers in line”.

  • Evan

    Pretty much no one runs for mayor or city council on a platform of having independent organizations measure or police the police. Which tells you that few expect voters to support such changes. Which tells you that most folks know they are being dominated by police who can cheat with impunity, and (as voters) prefer that situation to imagined alternatives.

    This doesn’t quite fit with my subjective experience. When I discuss police brutality with people, most of them deny there is a problem at all. They simply don’t believe the police are dominating them.

    I think the simpler and better explanation is that politics isn’t about policy. People don’t support the police because they approve of the policy being dominated, they support them to affiliate with a high-status profession. Because police work involves physical danger and protecting people it has high status in our culture. Voters vote in a “pro-police” fashion to affiliate with high status police. When they are told of police behaving in a low-status fashion (dominating) they use self-deception to deny it in order to avoid having their own status lowered. What policies the police actually pursue, be they dominant or egalitarian, doesn’t enter the equation at all.

    Needless to say, of course, this like most signalling behaviors, is unconscious and automatic. On the conscious level people genuinely believe that police misbehavior isn’t a problem.

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