North Texas Daily

We must come to terms with who the police serve

We must come to terms with who the police serve

We must come to terms with who the police serve
April 30
10:55 2021

As a sociology major, and someone who has discussions with my peers about the nature of our country in general, I spend a lot of time thinking about social contracts. In short, the social contract is a set of agreed-upon rules that a group of people creates in order to form a society. While the rules of a social contract may be codified into law, there can also be unwritten rules that everyone follows, sometimes subconsciously. These unwritten rules come as assumptions over the way things are or the way they should be. Such examples could be: Everyone deserves shelter,” “Beggars can’t be choosers” and “Police have the authority to kill whoever they want.”

The thing about societies, and the social contracts that govern them, is that they are fluid. They change. Rules and norms change over time. New things become acceptable and celebrated, and old things become passé or even looked down upon. Right now, we are part of a nationwide discussion over-policing and its function in our society. There is a huge chance that police as an institution may radically change in the coming years. I believe that it is imperative that we as members of communities and as a nation come to terms with who the police serve. 

The first thing we all need to recognize is the racist history of the police, going back to slave patrols in the 19th century American South. These patrolmen were hired by landowners or paid for by taxes levied against a community, and tasked with hunting down escaped slaves to return them to their “owners.” While these men did not directly become police officers after the institution of slavery was abolished, their methods laid a model followed by local sheriffs in the late 1800s. 

The important thing to note here is that slave patrols and sherriff departments that formed after them functioned as an armed hand of the state, reinforcing the social contract in place at the time. When the written rules of society changed and slavery was no longer legal, the nature of policing changed as well. These ‘proto-cops’ went from chasing down escaped slaves to apprehending those who break the law.

The other root of policing stems from strikebreakers. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when industrial workers would go on strike protesting for safer workplaces, those demonstrations were classified as riots, which were then violently broken up by police. In both of these cases, when oppressed people attempted to radically change the norms of society, either by escaping enslavement or fighting for a safer workplace, police have been used to violently snuff it out. 

When you look at events happening today, it’s easy to see an analogy between the actions of police then and now. Sadly, police have become even more dangerous. One-third of all Americans killed by strangers are killed by police. It seems that every week we get news of another person — most often a Black person — that has been murdered by a police officer. Instead of protesting for change in a separate part of society, people are now protesting against the institution of the police themselves. Likewise, they are being met with even more violence. 

Throughout history, police in America have acted as a violent means of suppressing change. From upholding slavery to fighting against workers organizing for safer workplaces, to shooting a pregnant protestor in the face with a bean bag gun and permanently blinding her. Police have constantly been used to stand in the way of progress, and now we are finally in a place where we can try and move on from policing as we know it. 

Many people shiver at the idea of defunding and abolishing the police. There is the often-cited claim: “But what about violent crime?” “What about sexual assault?” These fears are valid, to a degree. But I would remind my readers that cops barely solve these cases or prevent them from happening in the first place.

In Travis County, police let rape kits back up to the point that over 2000 rape cases were left unsolved. Police aren’t solving these important crimes to begin with, why should we keep funneling money to their departments if all they do is harass and murder Black people and fail to solve any actual crimes?

Police serve as a force to prevent change. Now, change is desperately needed, and police are standing in the way of that. For decades, the police’s place in our social contract has been accepted and reinforced by laws ensuring their existence. But, social contracts change, and the way that they change is determined by all members of society. We as communities and as a nation have the ability to radically change the institution of police, but first, we must recognize who the police truly serve.

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

About Author

Javi Cavazos Weems

Javi Cavazos Weems

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