Discussion: What Are Cops Really For? A Brief History

Discussion for article #232847

HUH. Good God, y’all.


This is a brilliant piece, thanks for it. One thing that struck me, reading the original “Broken Windows Policing” piece is that advocates of that approach believe that the purpose of the police, first and foremost, is to “maintain social order,” and that the secondary purpose, by a long shot, is “solving crimes.”

Maintaining order is a more militaristic function. In the Broken Windows article, for example, they explicitly defend a Newark cop who does things to people that would not “stand up in court” in order to keep order in a Newark business district. Of course, for that to work, the officer has to never be dragged into court. That means the tactics can only be used sparingly on people who might have the time and means to navigate the court process. That means targeting the poor.


Whatever cops are for it isn’t harassing the public and intentionally causing trumped up charges that cause long time pain for law abiding citizens. The cops themselves commit far worse crimes.
Cops have quotas that they must meet and they have theme nights where they only target certain crimes and the cop who catches the most violators wins. This causes them to arrest people for the slightest inkling of an infraction. To hell with guilt or an individuals rights, they toy with people’s lives just to pass time.
Since they are public servants, in theory anyways, we should have them doing community service jobs while they are on the clock and not busy handing out tickets. Just like the people that they wrongfully arrest.
Maybe they could teach gun safety and both sides would benefit.

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Police forces are really good for employing people who otherwise would be unemployable. I know this because “Law Enforcement” are the only jobs a number of my friends and relatives could get, because they could not get any other job.

It should be noted that the Courts have decided that one can be “too smart” to be a cop.


"Jordan, a 49-year-old college graduate, took the exam in 1996 and scored 33 points, the equivalent of an IQ of 125. But New London police interviewed only candidates who scored 20 to 27, on the theory that those who scored too high could get bored with police work and leave soon after undergoing costly training.

Most Cops Just Above Normal The average score nationally for police officers is 21 to 22, the equivalent of an IQ of 104, or just a little above average."

btw: To dovetail the issues:

“IQ is related to frontal cortex function. Frontal cortex function is related to behavioral inhibition. Behavioral inhibition is inversely related to anti-social behavior. So when we only hire low IQ persons as cops, we are selecting for anti-social behavior.” Anon.



What an excellent and timely essay! Three cheers for Monica Potts!!

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So a slightly above average IQ, which you say most cops have, correlates with anti-social behavior? Really?

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So I guess there is something I am not understanding, and if someone understands the distinction please help me out. Seriously. When the Eric Garner story became big news, some Republicans seized on it as an example of big government gone awry because the police were essentially hassling Garner as a tax collector. That notion was ridiculed here. But isn’t that the point of this piece? That the police have moved well beyond their traditional role and now just hassle people for minor and petty issues?

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A big part of the problem is that “criminology” is still basically a 19th century psuedo-science dressed up as a legitimate field with statistics and policy gets made on the basis of lofty grand pronouncements by learned men without much regard to empirical evidence, even when they are tried and the empirical evidence doesn’t support the thesis.

A lot like the way Germany does fiscal policy, now that I think about it.


The parts you skipped are kind of important. Police forces were a response to urbanization, factory labor, the labor movement and radical socialism. The social order the police were designed to protect was to break up labor rallies, protect factories and other private property, and protect middle class sensibilities from vices such as public drunkenness, prostitution, and gambling. The police protect we the people from THOSE (poor) PEOPLE, be they immigrants, people of color, or just the working classes. Oh, and direct traffic. Solving crimes was an afterthought, and they still aren’t much good at it, except maybe high profile murders and derp stuff. Later traffic safety became an important role and source of revenue. Still is. The most important role, though remains protecting rich people from poor people.


As the above comment indicates, the point of this essay is that basically, cops are bad, and the community is at their mercy. I wrote a response and then deleted it because I just didn’t want to get into another tiff with Josh and have comments turned off in response to my opinion. But this last comment is really over the top.

I agree that there are horrific examples of police who should be behind bars; there are terrible cops. But this essay did not examine anything except headlines, and the very fact that they are headlines might make one think they are exceptions rather than the rule.

These are quotes which have NOT been examined in any way in this post:

“If officers’ jobs were still to keep the peace, they must have noticed that lately, they’re often the source of turmoil, rather than its cure. We’re living in a country where officers disrupt the peace as much as they keep it.”

Really? Is this subjective, or supported by evidence?

And this:

“The police’s Us versus Them mentality frames the communities being policed as inherently dangerous. In that worldview, every young black man is an Ismaaiyl Brinsley just waiting to shoot.”

Was there any attempt to look at communities where policing is respected and considered a valued part of life? I think it is pretty obvious that the answer is no.

(I didn’t click on every citation but every one I did click on was simply to a newspaper or magazine article. — nothing beyond that for research)

So at the risk of ticking off the parties that be…again…I would like to see this subject handled objectively. Yes, there are huge problems. In what communities is policing working well, and how can they inform us about how to solve the problems of those where it is horrifically NOT working.

But as trendy and cool as it is to paint all police with a negative brush, maybe we could delve into this in a way that might provide solutions.

I honestly think this “slice” section could use some people with some maturity.

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“Maturity” equals “thinks cops are never wrong”? Based on my very limited experience with police, they are average people, except that they enjoy making people “respect” them. So, they tend to punish those who don’t “respect” them. That also means they totally believe that all of us have to do exactly what they tell us to do in any situation. Those of use who hesitate to do that are fair game.


No, but it doesn’t mean thinking cops are always wrong. That was my only point. Your comment seems to think the latter. Well, i guess we shall have to agree to disagree.

Very though-provoking article. Perhaps this is an urban legend, but I’ve always heard that Guilliani was only able to clean up New York by focusing on going after low-level offenses. Given the national exposure of Guilliani’s crazy at this point, I imagine he’d claim responsibility for making unicorns fart rainbows.

Of the many police officers I’ve known, I’ve come to believe that the vast majority are caught between their good intentions and what we as a society have come to require they do. Questioning the impact to both the individuals in their chosen profession and the larger civic body is exactly the discussion we need to be having right now.

Granted, the police are a much better option than the option prior to your theory of how policing started. I’d much rather have a professional PD overseen by elected officials than the private armies, personal honor duels, and might-is-right from the 19th century.

True…but if you think about, that might is right culture survives today as “organized” crime. Private armies, personal honor dues and might is right describes a fairly significant part of the global and local economies. Just thumb through the headlines from any major urban area and many nonurban areas on a Monday and it’s plain as day. Many of the so-called gang killings are the result of that culture. In economies where law enforcement is weak and the court system ineffectual, virtually all business activity acquires many of the same characteristics.

Whenever I hear of the “broken windows” policy I think of the Mother Jones article on the link between the crime rate and the phasing out of leaded gasoline. Guiliani implemented the broken windows policy and took credit for the lower crime rates, except the crime was already going down before he even took office, and crime rates nationwide have been going down since the early 90’s regardless of any policy changes, the only link appears to be when leaded gas (and the effect it has on childhood IQ and social skills) was phased out.

But I also think : the crime rate keeps going down, and police departments keep buying Humvees and tanks and riot gear, and that stuff has no relation to crime rates (it’s not like a thief is going to consider the police department purchase of a tank a deterrent.)

Clearly we need to press for more police oversight, more training in diplomacy, and a better way to raise municipal funds than tickets and fines (not to mention property forfeiture, which seems to drive some police departments into a sort of legalized theft.)


The graphic at the top of the page, with a police dispatcher facing an array of armored vehicles, somewhat beclouds the point for a reader who can recognize Soviet BMP-2 personnel carriers. Threw me off. I found myself expecting that the article would be about Cops versus Commies somehow.

It might have been better to use artwork portraying a type of armored vehicle that U.S. police departments actually use, perhaps the sort seen in Ferguson.

(Now someone will write in and tell me that lots of American police departments have purchased ex-Warsaw Pact tracked armored vehicles, exposing my ignorance to the world.)

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hell for a long time where I lived it was well know that if… ya want the best drugs go to a cop…

Giuliani was largely responsible for turning NYC into a semi-police-state in the wake of Dinkins’ overly-permissive attitude toward urban unrest, yes. However, ‘cleaning up New York’ was actually not his doing. Like many other politicians, he benefited from the times: 1994-1998 were the strong years of economic growth during the Clinton Administration. When economic hardships ease, crime drops.