Above the Law
Producer Nina Earnest explores how the professionalization of the Los Angeles Police Department ended up putting the department above the law they were supposed to enforce.
BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking about the history of police-community relations in America. So Ed, Peter, let’s get back to Ferguson, the story we talked about at the top of the show, and talk about what’s going on there today. As I understand it, police now are wearing cameras. And the idea in Ferguson, and a lot of other places that are beginning to adopt this, is that the public will be protected from the excesses of police by this video record. But the police will be better off because they’ll be really innoculated against spurious charges from the public.
Well, all of this got me thinking about the use of technology in policing in general. I mean, in many ways, you could write the history of policing through technological breakthroughs.
And at least in the 20th century, all those breakthroughs claimed to make the police a lot more accountable. I’ll just throw one at you, the two-way radio. Little, innocuous thing that we take for granted today. But really, well into the middle of the 20th century, police officers were very much on their own. And that meant that they really cut their own deals with the communities that they lived in. That led to a lot of corruption. But the two-way radio allowed central command to know where police officers were, to use the police as a city-wide force rather than having to depend on the independent judgment of 200 or 300 individual police officers, making them more accountable to the larger objectives of the police force.
ED: So Brian, when was that?
BRIAN: Well, like all technology, you can market by the first time it was used, in the 1930s, in Boston, or by when it became really prevalent, which in many ways was not until the 1960s and 1970s, even in larger cities. Speaking of time, Ed, why don’t we put Peter on the spot and find out how technology was used in policing back in the early days of the republic? Did they have technology in ye olde days, Peter?
PETER: Well, Brian, let me tell you. This accountability business cuts two ways. In some ways, what you’re describing, making the police more responsive to central authority, well, that makes the police more like the military, it seems to me. That makes the police on the beat part of an organized force, thinking of the police collectively and able to deploy that force. And when the police emerge in America, it’s in opposition to a tradition of community self-governance. It’s in opposition to day watch and night watch of people who are patrolling the neighborhoods who are members of the neighborhood and aren’t responsible for anybody except in the kind of ad hoc way in which any republican citizen’s responsible for the public good.
And when you talk about people in uniforms, you talk about people who are following the command of a central authority. You’re talking about a standing army or, as they called it in the antebellum decades in the 40s and the 50s, a civic army. That is now not part of the neighborhood, not part of the city.
ED: So Peter, what you’re saying is that the technology is the police itself.
PETER: Yeah, you’re right, Ed.
ED: Right, it’s a uniform. It’s a bureaucracy. It’s an identity distinct from the people that it’s actually policing.
PETER: Yeah, it’s like a machine. The individual policemen are not autonomous, self-acting individuals.
ED: Yeah, they’re interchangeable parts.
PETER: You’ve got it.
BRIAN: So Peter, let’s put Ed on the spot and talk about those machines. And I mean real machines, not human technology, even though Ed makes a great point there. Ed, what kind of technology changed the relationship between police and those policed in the 19th century?
ED: Once you get the civic army that Peter talked about in place, it’s a natural inclination for them to adopt all kinds of technology. And so the 19th century just sees the adoption of one new kind of machine after another. Guns in the 1850s begin to spread, but also photography, which as you could imagine is a lot better than some sketch or a verbal description of somebody. And then during the Civil War, handcuffs, 1862. And then 1877, telegraph.
BRIAN: Hold on, hold on, how did they use the telegraph in policing?
ED: Well, before you have a telegraph, telephone, or a radio, if you’re a criminal, just skipping town is a pretty effective strategy. There’s nobody that’s going to be able to catch you somewhere else. And so you would see in newspapers a report, police received a telegraph today that suspicious characters are coming down the river from Memphis to Natchez or whatever. Stay on the lookout. And around the turn of the century, they come up with an especially important technology that’s especially suited to this work, and that’s the fingerprint.
And once you start having fingerprints, you’re being able to scrutinize, surveil things that you can’t even see. It strikes me that this is a real watershed in the way that police operate.
BRIAN: Ed, I think you’ve put your finger on it.
BRIAN: We started with cameras and how they might hold the police accountable. And you’ve now ended with fingerprints and how the police are surveilling us down to our literal fingerprints, and that will turn into DNA. And so with this two-way relationship, technology being used to hold the police accountable on the one hand but to surveil us on the other, where do you guys come down on the current situation with cameras?
PETER: Seems to me that we’ve come back to the early period in which we have total surveillance all the time. There are no secrets. Everything’s transparent. The real tension today, it seems to me, is in our notion of rights, privacy rights, not to be seen. And if we have total transparency on both sides, well, maybe that’ll stop road cops from misbehaving. But what happens to us? What happens to the kinds of rights and personal liberties that we cherish when we are always exposed?
BRIAN: Peter, you raise such a fundamental point. But I would say in instances where individuals carry the power to make life or death decisions in a split second, as police officers do, then surveillance of them and giving up a little of our privacy in the process is well worth it.
PETER: Yeah. And I think too, Brian, we shouldn’t discount the rights of the community to safety, to predictability, and the rights of the community to make sure that its agents, the people it pays to serve in maintaining social order, don’t abuse that power. So we as citizens want that kind of surveillance of those who conduct surveillance. That’s checks and balances. That’s fundamental to our system.
BRIAN: It’s time for another break. When we get back, a white senator from Oklahoma spends a day at a Milwaukee barber shop and gets schooled about the police. More BackStory, coming up in a minute.