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How cops see themselves

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.

A few days ago I wrote a post that referenced a story in POLICE: The Law Enforcement Magazine. POLICE is a glossy journal of blue thug culture, which includes charming pieces like America Needs a Surge Against Gangs, How to Justify Officer Safety Searches, Working Informants. Here is a collage of cover photos from the past two years of POLICE.

Here's a cover with a photo of an armed cop standing next to a National Guard soldier with a flag in the background, captioned "Standing Guard" Here's a cover with a photo of two armored SWAT police coming around the corner, with the one in front pointing a huge shotgun obliquely towards the camera. Here's a cover with a photo of a cop aiming a gun at the target on a training range. Here's a cover with a photo of heavily armed SWAT police standing in the door of a huge armored vehicle, aiming a shotgun obliquely at the camera, with the headline "Heavy Metal Thunder: Armored Vehicles Give SWAT the Winning Edge" Here's a cover with a photo of a cop standing in darkness, pointing a lit-up handgun obliquely at the camera. Here's a cover with a photo of a heavily armed SWAT police, with a helmet and body armor, charging directly at the camera with a shotgun pointed directly at the camera, with the headline "SWAT Saves Lives". Here's a cover of a patrol cop's rear end and gun holster, with the cop about to pull the handgun out of the holster. Here's a cover with a photo of a gang of heavily armored SWAT police, with face-plated riot helmets and heavy body armor, forcing a prisoner in an orange jump suit to the ground, captioned "SWAT behind bars". Here's a cover with a photo of a cop in an ordinary blue duty uniform looking through the site of a huge assault rifle, pointed at a target off-camera. Here's a cover with a photo of an armored SWAT police firing a huge TASER shotgun obliquely at the camera, with the shock-delivery projectile actually flying out towards the viewer. Here's a cover with a photo of a patrol officer crouched in combat posture behind a huge SUV with police markings, with her handgun drawn and pointed at a target off-camera to the left. Here's a cover with a photo of an armored SWAT police charging towards the camera, holding an assault rifle that's currently pointed at the ground. Here's a cover with a photo of a line of about 5 or 6 armored SWAT police in body armor and helmets, coming around the corner of a yellow school bus, with the caption "Are Terrorists Targeting Our Schools?" Here's a cover with a photo of a SWAT police in body armor, wearing sunglasses and squared off facing the camera, with a large assault rifle in his hands.

This is a selective collage–but the selection includes the majority of the covers POLICE has printed over the past two years. That’s the way that a magazine staffed and written almost entirely by current or former police, and written for an audience of professional police, on the subject of policing, has chosen to brand itself and its contents for its prospective audience. What do you think that says about the way government cops see themselves these days? What sort of model do you suppose images like these suggest for police to use to understand the ethics and the attitude that they need to adopt in their professional lives? What do you think that a publication like this encourages them to think of when they think of what their job is all about, and what kind of posture they should adopt when they deal with non-police — with people like you and me and our neighbors — on the street or in our homes?

Do you feel safer now?

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  1. LadyVetinari

    Sure it does–IF you accept the assumption that this force will never be directed at you, or at People Like Us, but only at those OTHER people over THERE with darker skin/funny accents/criminal records/violent tendencies who probably deserve it anyway.

    And, sadly, quite a few people do accept that line of thinking.

  2. Discussed at darianworden.com

    DarianWorden.com » Blog Archive » This is What a Police State Thinks Like:

    […] Charles Johnson posted 14 recent Police Magazine covers on his blog today. My favorite headline: “Is America Running Out of Cops?” […]

  3. BigAL

    No magazine tells people how to think. All magazines have an agenda and reflect editors opinions. Look at any security magazine and you will see similar images and fears on display.

    As far as how cops see themselves, it’s up to the individual and how much of the official description they by into. As policing organizations see themselves as the “protectors of the people” it understandable their fears and concerns focus on separating those who would do harm from the rest. Until criminals and terrorists wear uniforms it’s them vs us.

    The militarization of the police and the posse Comitatus being violated is of greater concern to me.

  4. Bigtex

    Why wouldn’t I feel safer? Maybe if you’re a criminal or someone doing something really stupid you wouldn’t like this. Don’t break the law, you won’t have a problem. Morons trying to make cops look bad, I don’t even really like cops at all, but they aren’t bad.

  5. Bill

    Bigtex, you have no idea what you are talking about. Why don’t you try telling your nonsense to Donald Scott or that 12 year old boy in LA? Oh, that’s right, you can’t. Because they are DEAD, killed by the police for no reason other than they wanted Mr. Scott’s ranch and they did a no knock raid on the boy’s home. With the boy handcuffed and lying on the floor of his bedroom, an officer shot him in the back with a 12 gauge shotgun. The fine officer then said the gun discharged “accidentally”. These are but two of thousands of stories of innocent people being murdered by the police. Get a grip on yourself and maybe you won’t look like an idiot.

  6. Bigtex

    There are rapists and murderers out there, I wasn’t condoning the actions of every police officer in the United States. There are plenty of bad seeds. Grouping every office together is the same as grouping all civilians together. Just because we have a few bad ones doesn’t make them all bad. I do know and read stories of unfortunate and horrible acts that have happened. It is still a rare occurrence in every day life. Are there those that take advantage of the power? Of course. Does they all? No.

  7. Rad Geek


    As policing organizations see themselves as the protectors of the people

    Of course police organizations do not, as a rule, see themselves as protectors of the people; just ask anyone on the business end of a nightstick, pepper spray, or taser how much they were getting protected. At the most, police organizations see themselves as protecting one group of the people from another group of the people. Which is something quite different, and which raises questions as to how they draw the line between the two groups. (On message boards frequented by cops there’s a popular metaphor of wolves and sheep, with the cops as the sheepdogs, of course. The fact that this is what they think of the people that they view themselves as protecting is itself part of the problem.)

    But, in any case, even that more selective form of protection is not the primary stated purpose of police organizations. Their primary purpose, and what they insist on when describing themselves internally and to others, is that they are enforcing the law. That’s quite a different goal and sometimes antagonistic with the goal of protecting people.

    it understandable their fears and concerns focus on separating those who would do harm from the rest. Until criminals and terrorists wear uniforms it’s them vs us.

    1. Very few U.S. police forces have any members who have ever had any interaction whatsoever with terrorists on American soil. It’s interesting that you would go out of your way to mention terrorists, who play exactly no role whatsoever in the average cop’s working life, as a separate category that needs special mention apart from all the other criminals in the world. Why would you do that?

    2. There are good reasons to believe that the them in that versus involves a lot more people than just violent criminals and terrorists.

    3. I’m confused. What difference do you think it would make if criminals and terrorists were wearing uniforms? Is this supposed to reduce the use of heavy weaponry, paramilitary tactics, and military hardware shown on these covers, or in the aggressiveness of the posture that cops assume towards people who fall under the category of criminals and terrorists? Or towards people who don’t fall under that category? Or towards people who cops don’t yet know how to categorize?

    If the former, why would it reduce that? If anything, it seems like it would increase that, since clearly knowing who posed a danger of violence would mean that cops could act with less doubt.

    If the latter, then I think that that attitude is part of the problem, and closely connected with the problems you claim to be concerned about. It’s a more or less explicit use of counterinsurgency doctrine, applied to a domestic populace that the cops are supposedly there to serve and protect, in order to justify treating everyone as a presumptive threat unless and until and only to the extent that the cop feels that they’ve proven they are not. I certainly would say that many cops have that attitude, but the question is whether they ought to have that attitude, and whose needs the attitude ultimately serves, and who tends to get hurt, or worse, by it.

    The militarization of the police and the posse Comitatus being violated is of greater concern to me.

    I’m confused. Did you look at the hardware, postures, tactics, weapons, etc. being depicted on those covers? Do you think that cover stories like Standing Guard: What Are You Doing to Prevent the Next 9/11 or Heavy Metal Thunder: Armored Vehicles Give SWAT the Winning Edge (the actual story is headlined War Wagons (!)) or Are Terrorists Targeting Our Schools? How You Can Train To Fight Back don’t have something to do with the militarization of the police? Really?

    As for Posse Comitatus restrictions on the use of military within the U.S., I’m actually much less concerned about that than many people I know. Not because I think it would be O.K. or even tolerable to have U.S. military swarming around within the U.S., but because I think that the political safeguard that Posse Comitatus is claimed to establish has long since been completely destroyed. Precisely because there is so little difference between straight-up military and the paramilitary police forces and gang units and SWAT units that exist in every U.S. city, and because they are so closely connected with the U.S. federal government already in terms of supply chains, training, joint operations, grants, etc. etc. etc., I think there’s more or less no operational difference between having a major urban police force patrol the streets and having the Army patrol them, except perhaps for the color of the uniforms. Things are already much worse than some people would like to realize.

  8. Rad Geek


    Non-police officers are not properly referred to as civilians unless the police are a military force. This has not traditionally been the position of police in free societies. Do you think that police ought to be treated like a military force? If so, why?

    In any case, I don’t think that anyone was denying that there are rapists and murderers out there. The question is what that has to do with the present discussion.

    Do you think that the existence of rapists and murderers somehow justifies this kind of hyperaggressive, militarized posture on the part of government police? If so, why? The purpose of all that miltary hardware, SWAT training, etc., very rarely has anything to do with dealing with cases of murder or rape. The most violent examples of that kind of policing — e.g. no-knock SWAT raids — are most commonly used in order to serve drug warrants.

    As for the bad seeds argument, I don’t know how familiar you are with my website, or with other websites that discuss issues like police brutality or the militarization of policing. But you should know that this is nothing we haven’t heard before. Phrases like bad apples and isolated incident are subjects of mockery among police watchdogs because of the ways in which they are used to cover up the existence or the scale systematic problems. Please take a look at this map, and at the frequency of new posts on a website like GangstersInBlue.org. As I said in another post:

    But what’s even more foolish, and extremely dangerous in the long run, is the notion that a tightly-organized class of people, who exercise such a tremendous advantage over the rest of us in both physical force and legal power, ought to be given every benefit of the doubt when they’re accused of hurting people that they willingly chose to put under their legally-backed and heavily-armed power, and that the basic institutional structures which back up their power cannot be called into question without unfair “generalization” or “stereotyping.” When every fucking week brings another story of a Few More Bad Apples causing Yet Another Isolated Incident, and the police department almost invariably doing everything in its power to conceal, excuse, or minimize the violence, even in defiance of the evidence of the senses and no matter how obviously harmless or helpless the victim may be, it defies reason to keep on claiming that there is no systemic problem here. What you have is one of two things: either a professionalized system of control which tacitly permits and encourages cops to exercise this kind of rampant, repeated, intense, and unrepentant abuse against powerless people, or else a system which has clearly demonstrated that it can do nothing effectual to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.

  9. Ninjahedge

    Simple analogy.

    An any good grocer, they watch their stock to make suer they do not HAVE any bad apples.

    A “few bad apples” in a display stand ruins the grocers entire display and causes doubt in the minds of customers as to the quality of not only the apples, but everything else in the store.

    “Bad apples” should be removed before they hit the shelves, and certainly before they hit the table.

    Oh, as for the general militarization of police? If you doubt the lack of servile attitude in general, all you need to do is visit some places like NYC or some of the smaller towns surrounding it. Hoboken would be an excellent example.

    Some of these guys are a real trip. They do not work to “serve and protect” anything. They act like bouncers and enforcers, not as mediators and conflict resolution specialists.

    No, I do not mean they should start a round table discussion with a perpetrator, but they should treat things with a bit of moderation when dealing with “civilians” on the street.

    Their job is to try to make the community feel safe, not make people fearful of doing anything wrong.

  10. Presto

    You might find this piece from BoingBoing interesting:

    The Denver police union is selling T-shirts commemorating the good times they had last month. It costs just $10, which is quite a deal!

    The back of the shirts reads, “We get up early to beat the crowds” and “2008 DNC,” and has a caricature of a police officer holding a baton.

    Detective Nick Rogers, a member of the Police Protective Association board, said police often issue T-shirts to commemorate big events.

    Rogers said each Denver officer was given one of the shirts free and others are on sale for $10 each at police union offices.

    He said the union expects to sell about 2,000 of them.

    There is a pic at the link.

  11. TommyGunn

    Posse Comitatus has been circumscribed, not totally destroyed. But it appears to be heading that direction. Machiavelli, the Italian political scientists of the early 15th century, claimed that “there has never been a case where a new prince has come to power and disarmed his people. Instead when a prince comes to power and finds his people have been previously disarmed, he arms them, and in arming them, make those weapons his own.”

    Well, we don’t have princes today, but his solution would be far better than those we’re actually employing. Department of Homeland Security. Huummmph. WE THE PEOPLE are supposed to BE the “department” of homeland security.

    But they keep trying to take ourguns ……

  12. Duc

    Not sure who first made this observation, but it’s true: office friendly on the street corner has been replaced with office decidedly unfriendly in a riot helmet, flack jacket, and combat boots.

— 2009 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-01-29 – Welcome, Antiwarriors:

    […] GT 2008-09-25: How cops see themselves […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-03-28 – It doesn’t take much imagination.:

    […] somewhere in the middle of Texas there was a large foreign military base, say Chinese or Russian. Imagine that thousands of armed foreign troops were constantly patrolling American streets in military vehicles. Imagine they were […]

  3. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-05-28 – How cops see themselves (#2). National Police Memorial Week and El Monte, California.:

    […] vein of GT 2009-05-07: Occupying forces, GT 2009-03-28: It doesn’t take much imagination, and GT 2008-09-25: How cops see themselves, see also this all-too-earnest article by Robert O’Brien, in POLICE: The Law Enforcement […]

— 2010 —

  1. Discussed at makenolaws.com

    Protect and Serve? : Make No Laws:

    […] take a look at recent covers of POLICE: The Law Enforcement Magazine. The title of the referenced post is “How cops see themselves.” Apparently, the armored […]

  2. Discussed at www.copblock.org

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    […] Johnson, “How cops see themselves,” Rad Geek People’s […]

— 2011 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2011-01-28 – Non-Lethal Force (Cont’d):

    […] urban SWAT teams, who go beyond everyday bullying and instead are trained to think of themselves as paramilitary strike forces who are occupying hostile territory, and engaged in a war of classic […]

  2. Discussed at www.copblock.org

    “Non-Lethal Force” by Rad Geek | Cop Block:

    […] urban SWAT teams, who go beyond everyday bullying and instead are trained to think of themselves as paramilitary strike forces who are occupying hostile territory, and engaged in a war of classic […]

— 2014 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2014-01-28 – Welcome, Reasoners:

    […] GT 2008-09-25: How cops see themselves […]

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