No Good Cops
The comedian Todd Glass does a podcast I like for its improvisational spirit and quirky humor. “The Todd Glass Show” is popular with stoners, comics, anti-establishmentarians and everyone else who digs Todd’s antic energy and nimble mind. Todd is Todd. He’s real. He’s honest and open and entertainingly transparent, and what you mostly hear is a kind and compassionate soul who really does believe We, the collective We, can and will do better. Todd’s an optimist.
He’s also, paradoxically, a big fan of police “ride-alongs.” He’s done many over more than 30 years, and throughout the 140+ episodes of his show Todd’s talked about them occasionally, usually to convey the sense of excitement of being in a real live police car with lights and sirens and real live policeman with a uniform and badge and a gun.
Many of us have a thing for men in uniform, but after reading about another case of policemen murdering a civilian – this time a homeless man two Fullerton cops beat to death – I wondered if Todd still felt OK being a kind of unwitting cheerleader for the police. When I recently told Todd via email that his apparent infatuation with cops seemed, well, downright weird for someone who otherwise presents himself as somewhat conscious and progressive, he had an interesting response. He said, via telephone, so I’m paraphrasing and condensing here, “I know that the vast majority, maybe ninety percent of cops, are awful bullies who do terrible things. But even if you think there’s only one-percent of cops who you would call good, that mean there are thousands of them out there and these people need to be encouraged. They need to be recognized and encouraged.”
He asked me if I thought there were any number of cops who I would say were doing a good job, who were sensitive to the inherent injustices they were made to perpetrate and did their very best to be respectful and kind to everyone they interacted with, even criminals. I thought, surely there must be some cops that fit that description. So I said yes, I agreed. The tiny percentage of “good cops” did indeed need to be recognized and encouraged.
Todd reminded me that unlike religion, which is purely optional, we need the police, bad as most of them are. So we might as well encourage good guys to help transform the force. At the time, that sounded right to me as well, so I agreed.
Then it occurred to me that I had accepted as truth something that’s not really true. My thinking had become very uptight, you might say. This is the way I currently see it: Actually, no. No, there are no “good cops,” even the exceptionally generous ones who don’t hassle an unlicensed immigrant with a broken taillight, even the super nice ones who let Todd Glass ride in their car. They might be decent people out of uniform, they might even be beautiful people out of uniform, but once they don the badge and strap on their gun belt the only way they can be a “good cop” is to be a bad cop.
Police officers are paid to enforce the laws of society. Good cops are expected to enforce these laws fairly, to execute the wishes of the society that employs them. Thus, if the law says blacks and whites must drink from separate (but equal) water fountains, it’s the “good cop,” the one who is dutifully doing his job, who sees a black lady sipping from the white’s tap and arrests her for trespassing. If the law says gay men mustn’t hold hands in public, only a “bad cop” would refuse to cite a happy couple on their stroll. If the law says a woman shouldn’t expose her hair, or that possessing a dried flower in your pocket is a federal crime, or feeding the homeless in public is a misdemeanor – then a well-trained, highly objective police officer must repeat the refrain “I don’t make the laws, I just enforce them” and then blindly enforce them.
Todd Glass realizes that police officers are on the wrong side of every progressive movement in history. They’re the grim-faced hooligans wielding the batons and water cannons. They’re the ones who do the dirty work for the powers that be. After talking with him, he seems to also realize that cops are paid by and represent property owners like me and him. They “protect and serve” the rich and powerful; they’re in many ways the private security army for the privileged and a source of fear and disgust among poor people. So, the alleged small percentage of transformative “good cops,” which is actually code for cops who don’t behave like 99% of their colleagues, are joining the force why?
Because they have a hero complex? Because they’re going to be the one guy who remakes a rotten institution with their superior niceness?
Todd Glass, like me, is an out and proud pot smoker. (His show is known as “high candy.”) He and I reside in Los Angeles, where people don’t live in fear of going to jail and having their life wrecked because they have a joint in their pocket when they encounter a constable on patrol doing exactly what he’s being paid to do. In less enlightened precincts, this is not the case – and only a bad cop, one who is derelict in his duty, would fail to enforce the (utterly corrupt) law his society has fashioned. The fact is, people join the police force for all sorts of reasons, some of them less noxious than others. But it seems impossible that someone could say with a straight face that she joined the force because “we need police officers in a civil society and I feel I can best serve my society by being a police officer of exceptional kindness and compassion.” When the laws you sign up to enforce are unjust and every day do harm to entire communities, unless you intend to dismantle the system from the inside, like a happy mole, you are a tool for injustice.
The good cops of Kiev are killing their brothers and sisters today. Tomorrow the good cops of Orange County might be using deadly force to subdue another mentally ill vagrant. The day after a good cop just doing his job will stop and frisk a black guy with dreadlocks and an Occupy t-shirt. But maybe next week one of the “intermittently bad” cops of Hollywood, one of the super nice ones just like you and me, will offer his buddy Todd Glass a ride in his car – the one that has a siren and doesn’t have to obey traffic laws. We’re hoping he’ll politely decline.
Just like overseas military, a college education, and an automobile, most people believe police officers are totally necessary. It seems obvious: Of course we need cops! But what would happen if no one volunteered to enforce unjust laws? What would happen if no one volunteered to kill another human being? And what would happen if popular podcasters encouraged a revolution instead of a ride-along? Maybe what we “need” is an altogether re-imagined version of this perverse abomination of “law enforcer,” not a slightly different, slightly sanitized version.
We are evolving. We are getting better. Part of that process involves speaking the truth, repeatedly and defiantly, even when it doesn’t sound good. The truth is, if you know that the vast majority of the people in your business are thugs, bullies, and worse, yet you still want to join the force – or spend multiple evenings hanging out in their element as a special guest and then gushing about it on-air — I’m not sure you should be “recognized and encouraged.” Maybe your motives should be challenged and examined.