Thanks for talking to me about your book
"Our Enemies in Blue". Your book is extremely critical of the
police. What does the police department of the United States
represent to you?
The police are specialists in coercive force.
Their distinguishing characteristic
is the combination of surveillance and violence to make people
do what people with power want them to do.
That usually gets described in terms
enforcing the law, but what I found in my research is that the
real distribution of power is a much better indicator of how the
police will act in any given situation.
On the whole, they behave in ways
that serve the interests of the powerful at the expense of the
rest of us.
To me, a police officers main job is to
keep things the way they are "supposed to be." In your opinion,
is the job of the police force to stop crime, or to control the
Well, both, but the latter is more important. In fact, what gets
counted as "crime" is generally class-coded.
The disorderly behaviors of poor
people get criminalized, while wealthy people see their misdeeds
sanctified by the law, or handled as administrative matters, or
- when they are considered criminal - met with loose enforcement
and light penalties.
So, sleeping under a bridge is a
crime, but evicting poor people from their housing is just good
Of course it's not just class. The police also work hard to
maintain our society's racial hierarchy. Racial profiling
affects people of color of all classes, limits their geographic
(and therefore social) mobility, and so serves to marginalize
And, interestingly, every reputable
study has shown that it has no use in terms of fighting crime.
It is purely a matter of preserving
You argue that acts of police
brutality and violence are not aberrations, but are in fact the
norm. Can you expand on this at all?
I devote an entire chapter to this question in the book, but the
short version is that violence is inherent to policing.
They're trained for it, armed for
it, authorized to use it. Their institutional culture supports
it and to some degree their collective self-perception is
centered on it.
Viewed at the level of the
institution, it is a routine aspect of police work, even if the
average officer uses violence rather rarely.
The question of how much of that
violence is legitimate and how much is abusive is a normative
one; it depends on questions of law, policy, ethics, and social
But the point is, if you
institutionalize violence in this way, it is fairly certain that
the members of the institution will sometimes exceed the
Looked at that way, even the
excesses are part of the normal functioning of the institution.
Are there any solutions to this
issue? Where do you see things going if this doesn't change?
In the short term, I think it is worth pursuing reforms that
make the police more accountable and that limit their access to
violence. In the long term, I think we need to abolish this
institution and find some better means of ensuring public
Since the police are both a product
and a protector of social inequality, the abolitionist project
requires an entirely different kind of society, one
characterized by a radical egalitarianism.
Of course it is impossible at this
stage to know exactly what that will look like, and it's hard to
see how we could get there from where we are at present. That
doesn't make it any less pressing, however.
The only real check on power is
Without it, things inevitably get