Throughout America, police are authorized to exert control in situations in which law or safety is otherwise challenged. Such control will be imposed by force if necessary.
The presumption is that authorizing police control provides the ultimate means to ensure abidance with our collective decision-making, the latter established through the Constitution, legislatures and executive departments, or courts. This lofty conception of police may often be summarized as maintaining “the rule of law.”
From such a perspective — ensuring safety and democracy — police serve a valued and benevolent role.
The problem with this ideal is not with its intentional effects: That police impose control in support of law or well-being. The problem is with the side effects: The deep training police receive in exerting control leads to their harmfully extending the concept well beyond its intent.
These side effects fall into two general categories, what I will call micro control and macro control.
Micro control and the use of retaliatory tactics
Micro control pertains to police interaction with individuals, and is well exemplified by the tragedy which befell George Floyd.
To most safely establish control, police are authorized under law to use more force than they are confronted with, though only in proportional measure. The metaphor they are trained with is the “use-of-force ladder.” If resistance is at one rung of the ladder, a cop may go to the next higher rung. Excessive force would thus most often be assumed to mean that an officer did something clearly disproportionate, such as went three or more rungs higher.
In my years of reviewing complaints against Minneapolis police and having awareness of witness testimony that accompanied court cases, I found that the most frequent and substantial instances of excessive force had little connection to whether an officer went three rungs higher instead of one — the relative level of force applied by the officer. Instead, the most typical and egregious demonstrations of excessive force were acts of retaliatory control: Police using force at a point no force at all was justified, essentially to punish someone for their previous insistence on agency that was in conflict with the officer’s.
A common example was when a driver refused to pull over when ordered to do so and necessitated a chase. Even if the driver voluntarily pulled over shortly thereafter, or, once caught, raised hands and complied with all orders, physical retaliation for having fled in the first place often ensued that bore no relationship to safely securing an arrestee. Other examples inciting violent retaliatory control included verbal “disrespect,” and insufficient or delayed attention to police inquiries and commands.
As retaliatory control is not lawful, there is no formal training. Instead, the practice is passed down through generations of officers, a process that social scientists may label as cultural transmission. While the motivations of Derek Chauvin remain unknown, on the day he confronted George Floyd, he was a training officer working with rookie cops.
Trial testimony appears to be revealing that Floyd, once confronted by police, exhibited fairly severe anxiety symptoms (irrespective of the reason for such) and sought to avoid being put in a squad car (irrespective of whether that level of detention was warranted), citing claustrophobia as a personal disability. Officers did handcuff him without significant difficulty, however, and without encountering resistance that would justify further force such as would be permitted through the use-of-force ladder.
By the authorized standards for which police are trained, control was established. Chauvin then persisted with a knee restraint that substantially reduced Floyd’s breathing capacity which, according to the medical examiner, led to cardiac arrest and death. Whether this particular restraint technique, or its duration, was trained and authorized for any purpose will continue to be argued at trial. But in the specific context of Floyd’s observable behavior, its use only served a retaliatory punitive purpose for failing to sit in the back of the squad car. Was the torturous action and unusual duration a lesson for Floyd? Or a lesson for rookies Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng about how to respond to those not agreeable to each and every officer demand?
While Minneapolis Police Department leaders fired all the officers in question and called the actions unprofessional, they have allowed it to be implied that the problem was limited to some combination of an unauthorized technique and an obviously excessive duration. But they have been vague about the fact that no additional use of force against Mr. Floyd was justified at all. The police profession’s complicity with tolerating retaliatory control runs deep, and leadership is not yet brave or willing enough to confront head on what they themselves found normalized within police culture as they rose through the ranks.
Macro control and the future of public safety
This failure of police leadership relates to the side effect I’ll call macro control, in which the deeply trained instinct and capacity to control extends to usurpation of power beyond what happens in individual encounters.
One example tied to the Chauvin case is control of information. Recall that the MPD supervisors on duty, in combination with the MPD information officer, initially released a false story to the press. The revelation of the witness video led to a correction, but to date no one has been publicly identified and disciplined for trying to control the narrative with a false report. That’s because manipulated narratives to control information are deeply integrated with police practice.
More broadly, the police department controls information about its problem employees well beyond that of any other public profession. Enabling such are friends in the Legislature — in recent years, most often Republicans — who resist changes to laws that overly shield access to police complaint data.
Macro control also includes a strong resistance to any oversight mechanism or other public structures for independently informing or improving the profession not ultimately controlled by police. Which means disinterest in any community led revisit of police prioritization and allocation strategies, such as ones which link to racial disparities regarding stops and searches, and consequently, arrests.
The proposed Minneapolis charter amendments to take some social problems out of police hands are thus also seeing police resistance. When I was involved in police oversight, my training included ride-alongs with officers. In several conversations officers shared a variant of the theme that government allows many gaps in the social safety net that are left for police to deal with. (E.g. homelessness, mental health and addiction.) The implication being that police are forced to do society’s dirty work that they believe should be otherwise addressed.
Yet now that reformers seek to remove police from these social issues, the police are politically fighting back. Maintaining control over all things public safety has become more important than clearing out police work they never wanted.
For the intended benefits of the rule of law to prevail, we must develop new means of controlling those we authorize to exert control. We must develop a new generation of police leadership who are not afraid of transparency, who value independent leadership and oversight for advancing strategies that improve equity, and who are willing to allow new specialized expertise within public safety. Such police leaders must not arise from careers so integrated with presumptions of macro control that they cannot shut down the harms and excesses of micro control — including the cultural transmission of retaliatory violence.
Now who in the police is willing to rise up to be such a leader? Who among our elected officials will ensure that police resist the side effects of their training and learn to refrain from trying to control what they should not?