A Consistent Approach to Policing

A Consistent Approach to Policing

We have written so much about the police in recent months but said too little about what we really want and expect from them.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This article is one in a series of arguments on policing in our summer issue.


In the immediate aftermath of the demonstration/riot/insurrection/attempted coup of January 6, American liberals and leftists made three points, again and again, with emphasis: First, had this been a Black Lives Matter demonstration, the police would have been massively prepared. Second, the fact that the police didn’t think it necessary to prepare is an example of white privilege—some people apparently have an enhanced right to march, shout, and threaten. Third, even unprepared, the police would have responded much more forcefully to Black than they did to white demonstrators. Reading subsequent accounts and analyses of what happened on that day and the days before, we now have to acknowledge that ordinary bureaucratic inefficiency and the desire not to anger the president (these were his people marching) played a large part, perhaps as large a part as racism, in the security failure. Still, our emphasis was justified—a necessary addition to the general conversation.

The FBI’s energetic search for the organizers of the January 6 break-in and the extraordinary mobilization of security forces in Washington on Inauguration Day prevented any further violence—and raised questions on the left about the civil rights of right-wing activists who never worried about anyone else’s civil rights. Still, liberals and leftists have more to say—or should have. There are now hundreds of far-right and neo-fascist groups, politically engaged and operating more or less openly in almost every state. Some of this is ordinary American craziness of a sort that we are more accustomed to seeing on the religious than the political margins. But there is a difference: the new crazies have guns; they often have military training, and many of them are organized in actual militias. More than this: the crazies have promoters within our political class—“respectable” men and women who think, like Trump, that these are useful people. The sharp rise in hate crimes over the past couple of years is also ominous. In many cases only solitary individuals are involved, but they are inspired by postings on social media that come from more organized sources. It follows, I think, that we need a major refocusing of police attention on the threat from the right.

This isn’t a task only for the FBI, which is already engaged; many of the militias are local, and a local response from state and city police is also necessary. The police don’t need enhanced legal powers; they have enough power—since 9/11 more than enough. Nor do they need more weapons; again, they have more than enough. What we need from them is a change in focus: looking right, politically smart. That will require reorganization and retraining so that the new focus is effective. It will also require a purge of police officers who are members of white supremacist and Christian nationalist groups and all the militia militants—very hard to do given our commitment to freedom of speech and association (and given the power of police unions), but possible over time if police chiefs are committed. Then local police forces should begin recruiting men and women who value constitutional democracy.

Like it or not, liberals and leftists have to insist that federal, state, and local governments provide the resources needed for all these tasks—and make sure that they are actually accomplished. Which means, finally, that maybe this isn’t a good time to defund the police, let alone abolish them. Other writers have made this point in recent months, and there already are responses defending defunding—mostly by postponing it, also a good idea.

There has to be a consistent liberal and left position here. We can’t say that the police behave too brutally against Black demonstrators and not brutally enough against whites. Our maxim should be: the rules of engagement are the same for everyone. Whatever we think should have been done on (and before and after) January 6—that’s what should be done always and everywhere. But, someone will say, we should distinguish violent demonstrations from peaceful ones. Yes, the description of what’s going on is important. Watching too many hours of television, I heard one Trumpist Republican say that the demonstration at the Capitol was “largely peaceful.” A vanguard of militants, several hundred, maybe more, fought with the police and broke into the building, but thousands didn’t break in; they stood outside, carrying placards, shouting (vile) slogans, exercising their constitutional rights. “Largely peaceful” is literally accurate, but radically untrue.

Perhaps we should say the same thing, more quietly, about reporters who stood in front of burning buildings in Portland only a few months ago or in front of looted stores in many other cities and said: this is a largely peaceful demonstration. Most BLM marches and demonstrations didn’t end in violence; “entirely peaceful” would be the right description. That’s true also of other left protests, including the sit-in/sleep-in occupation of Wisconsin’s state capitol in 2011, which actually had the support of some police unions and was peaceful and, most of the time, good-natured. Occupy Wall Street was another left protest that was largely nonviolent and surely warranted a nonviolent response from the police.

But some of the recent anti-racist marches and demonstrations did end in burning and looting. How should the police have responded in those cases? Let’s focus on the looted stores. I know that it is vastly more important to protect the U.S. Capitol than the shops of the petty bourgeoisie. Still, there should have been police in front of the shops, ready and waiting—shouldn’t there? And then shouldn’t the police have scoured the video tapes and tried to identify and arrest the people who looted the shops? Instead, they beat up innocent bystanders and peaceful demonstrators, made useless arrests, and failed to protect private property—and this in a capitalist society! I am unsure about how the looters should have been treated, but some judicial response was necessary—if only to teach the leaders of future protests, and the protesters, too, that the discipline of the march is an important factor in its effectiveness.

One could say: the poor police; they never get it right. Too much or too little. But we, liberals and leftists, should try to get it right. How much force, when, and where? We know the maxims and bywords: the police should always disregard race, religion, and politics; they should exercise restraint; de-escalate; keep their guns holstered except in dire emergencies; help the injured instantly; defend the innocent and the property of the innocent; avoid pulling in bystanders; be ready to arrest and transport violent individuals—and no one else. But this is only the beginning of an argument. We have written so much about the police in recent months but said too little about what we really want and expect from them. It is time to do better.

Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.