Michael Slager – the murderous cop who shot a man in the back – is, by all accounts so far, a typical policeman. “Hey,” someone may respond, “Not all cops are murderers!” And so they are not. Yet, you’re just as likely to meet someone like Slager on duty as you are any given officer.
Whenever a crime is committed – and this is also true when officers are thrown under the bus or the crime is too blatant to conceal – the popular narrative immediately begins to emphasize aberrations from the norm. For the average person, a criminal record is sought. For police officers, blemishes in their records.
Slager was a waiter, he was a Coast Guard. Police reports indicated that he received praise for the way that he searched suspects and handled arrests. He was someone who, according to those reports, “kept calm” and used praiseworthy “officer safety tactics.” He completed ethics, bias base profiling and Taser usage for his last mandatory annual training. (Before the video emerged of him planting the Taser, he claimed he shot because Walter Scott grabbed his Taser.) Murder cop might seem like he’d be the last cop to commit a murder.
We need to remember that all police officers have, by nature of their employment, been through a rigorous testing scheme. Police officers are required to submit to criminal background checks, financial history reports, psychological profiling, and in some cases a polygraph. This tell us more about what we can expect from police officers as a group than aberrations or commendations on their records. “He was cited for speeding” or “good cop” doesn’t tell us much. “He managed to pass the tests to become a cop” tells us more.
The routine nature of police violence also tells us this: it isn’t being screened out by the hiring process. Whatever personality profiles the tests disqualify, it is inclusive of the type of person capable of committing acts of police violence. It may even select for that kind of behavior.
Financial histories, criminal pasts and polygraphs for hidden secrets don’t seem to tell us much either. This is because a person who has never committed a crime, a person who rigorously avoids flouting any social or legal prohibition, is perfectly capable of committing acts of violence in the name of authority. It’s quite conceivable – it’s what actually happens in fact – that people who don’t like breaking laws are perfectly capable of doing violent things to other human beings when it is sanctioned by the law.
We can’t use a battery of tests or screening measures to select for the non-abusive cop. Every police officer is someone who has confirmed, also by nature of their employment, that they are willing to become proficient in and preemptively use violence against others. Those who enter this role are confirming an internal negative tendency that would make them especially bad for the role. As Marx (Groucho) put it, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” The type of people that law enforcement would have may be the last people who should be in that role.
This all ties in to an ongoing point: we can’t reform policing, we can only abolish it. The law enforcement system as it exists, from its very roots to its leaves, selects for and breeds antisocial behavior. Positions of power attract those who are least suited to them. The only way to negate this is to implement alternatives to hierarchy, especially when we’re talking about an existing hierarchy of permissible violence.