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Cops, crime, and class
Why the new elite doesn't want or need police
One thing I learned about rich people working as a cop: they absolutely fucking hate being arrested. I arrested one guy driving drunk in a $300,000 Aston Martin. I even once arrested a guy who lived in a mansion in a gated community. They were both totally indignant about being arrested. The guy in the mansion actually fought us, the drunk guy in the Aston Martin made sure I knew how much his car cost (“Sorry sir, I’m still towing it.”) and then called his personal lawyer who, unsurprisingly, didn’t even practice criminal law.
Sometimes rich people — especially if they are well-connected — will try to resolve this situation with threats. If you pull over, say, a state senator, and tow their car for expired tabs, they might threaten to change the law and call the mayor:
The dynamic of street cops arresting rich people receives little attention because all of our public debate about policing is about how police treat people on the margins of society — because most criminals are poor. We also tend to ignore debates about police and class in favor of debating issues of police and race.
But rich and upper-middle-class people do get arrested fairly regularly — especially for driving drunk and domestic violence. It’s how the private criminal defense bar stays solvent. The “do you know who I am?!” defense is common enough that a veteran cop once gave me some sage advice: “If someone says they are friends with the mayor, always make sure you write that down in the report.”
I’ve touched on this blog several times on the issue of policing, crime and class — especially as they relate to the politics of public safety. But today, I wanted to look specifically at the implications of class differences for the future of policing, and at where police as a group fall in the American class hierarchy.
I. Crime and the Laptop Class
It’s not much of an insight at this point to say that “defund the police” and hostility to policing in general amount to what Rob K. Henderson calls luxury beliefs: “Ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” An example of a “luxury belief” that Henderson gives is the idea that marriage doesn’t matter:
Relaxed attitudes about marriage trickle down to the working class and the poor. In the 1960s, marriage rates between upper-class and lower-class Americans were nearly identical. But during this time, affluent Americans loosened social norms, expressing skepticism about marriage and monogamy.
This luxury belief contributed to the erosion of the family. Today, the marriage rates of affluent Americans are nearly the same as they were in the 1960s. But working-class people are far less likely to get married. Furthermore, out-of-wedlock birthrates are more than 10 times higher than they were in 1960, mostly among the poor and working class. Affluent people seldom have kids out of wedlock but are more likely than others to express the luxury belief that doing so is of no consequence.
As I’ve written before, this same dynamic applies to criminal justice policy. Poor and socioeconomically disadvantaged people are the ones who are most likely to need the police because they are the ones most likely to be victimized by crime:
Unsurprisingly, if you ask Black Americans — who are disproportionately poorer and victimized by violent crime to an absurd degree — about the most pressing issue in their community is right now, the most common answer is crime and violence. Black Americans are more opposed to defunding police than white liberals are. And while I haven’t seen a breakdown of this polling data by income or education, I suspect that non-college-educated people of any race are less likely to support police defunding. (Edit: Rob himself found the poll, and this is indeed correct.)
Yet luxury beliefs alone can’t explain why anti-police sentiment is widespread among the upper classes in America right now. After all, during the Industrial Revolution, police were clearly on the side of capital. This alignment made sense: owners of capital held a lot of private property, which needed protection. Without state protection of private property, capitalism becomes largely impossible. So why are huge corporations and billionaires suddenly racing to give millions of dollars to anti-police activists? That didn’t happen in the 1980s — business was part of the “tough on crime” coalition that supported Ronald Reagan.
My answer is that capital is increasingly separated from physical reality, and thus, from the threat of crime. The Robber Barons owned factories, mines, railroads, and docks. They needed law enforcement to protect the physical means of production. The wealthiest industrialists could always hire Pinkertons, but this was an avoidable expense if effective policing existed. By the mid-20th century, America also had a large number of upper-middle-class people who depended on the police for safety—small business owners, retailers, car dealers, and so on. The guy who owns your local bodega might make pretty good money, but if he works the counter he’s still running a real risk of being robbed or shot.
Of course, there have always been some people working in the knowledge economy: lawyers, doctors, secretaries, bankers, and so on. But the old knowledge worker used to have some kind of shared experience with a factory worker. They might be in the same bowling league, have fought in the Army together in Korea or WWII, or know each other from church. They still had to share the same physical spaces: restaurants, grocery stores, sidewalks, subways, theaters, parks, and so on. That's all gone now. A programmer working at Amazon doesn't need to leave home if he doesn't want to. He can order groceries online, do banking via an app, work out on a Peloton, and stream movies at home. The use of public spaces is optional, which means exposure to crime and disorder is optional too.
Take a look at this video from a “22-year-old consultant” who lives in Chicago — one of America’s bloodiest cities. Does crime worry her? Or does she spend most of her life in a secured-access building, working online, or riding in an Uber?
This woman is clearly wealthy, but dropping $167-a-day isn’t “fuck you” money. She’s not Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, who are so rich they could stop working completely if they wanted to. She’s the Laptop Class: her job pays for everything she needs and affords her a lifestyle that nearly eliminates the risk of criminal victimization. These are the people who lobby to have the police defunded. It’s probably not an accident that the cities which went craziest in 2020 were San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle — overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and hubs for the tech economy.1
If luxury beliefs “confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class” then a software developer is rich enough to “defund the police” while a small clothing retailer is not — even if they both make six figures. The same is true of our new Tech Barons, albeit to a lesser degree. The Robber Barons were always rich enough to hire security, but physical security for property matters a lot less when you run Netflix or Facebook instead of a factory or shipyard.
If anything, rising crime only makes tech companies and workers even richer. A wave of organized retail theft—45 billion dollars per year—is currently crippling Amazon’s physical retail competitors. The thieves then sell the stolen property on Amazon, which takes a cut of the profits. The Wall Street Journal says Amazon has repeatedly refused to cooperate with organized retail theft investigations and lobbied against legislation that would require third-party sellers on Amazon to verify their identities.
This same logic applies to most of the tech industry. A traditional taxi driver has to worry about being ripped off when he picks up strangers, but working for Uber means customers have a verified credit card. Afraid to go out at night, but still want to see a movie? Netflix and Hulu have you covered. Don’t want to go out and eat amidst all the street disorder downtown? Doordash will bring the food to you. If you’re still worried about crime, there’s the Citizen App — which, for a monthly fee, will soon come with on-call private security services. So it’s not just that Tech Barons and Laptop Class don’t suffer from crime — they may actually benefit from it.
II. The contemptible policeman
So where do police themselves fit in the modern class hierarchy? At first glance, policing is clearly a blue-collar job. Cops are mostly men without college degrees, unionized, and work in an environment with a lot of violence, bad behavior, and dirty stuff like poop and methamphetamine. The median annual pay for a patrol cop is about 65k—maybe enough to have a single-income household, and higher than the national median, but you aren’t getting rich. It’s roughly in line with the median income for unionized jobs nationally, which is about 60k/year.
Well-educated liberals often act as if blue-collar careers, including policing, are icky jobs for dummies. If you are a liberal with a degree and think I’m wrong, ask yourself: how you would feel about your child becoming a police officer? When I graduated from college and joined the police department, I distinctly recall being asked “Why would you do that?” many times. A few people were more direct: “You’re too smart to be a cop.” People said this stuff even though I was going to be making more money and have better benefits than friends who were taking jobs with nonprofits, advocacy organizations, or in the private sector.
Lifetime members of the professional-managerial class often find blue-collar culture loathsome and offensive. Consider this anecdote from a female steelworker in Pennsylvania, shared with a reporter right after Donald Trump’s infamous “grab her by the pussy” comments made headline news during the 2016 election:
“I’m setting steel for this new gas plant… I’m operating a rough terrain forklift… So today, I kept thinking about the debate and the audio was released… And I got underneath a load of steel and was moving it… I was laughing and laughing and one of the iron workers asked ‘what are [you] laughing at.’ I said ‘I grabbed that load right by the pussy’ and laughed some more… And said ‘when you’re an operator you can do that ya know’, laughed all fucking day.”
This kind of humor would get you expelled from Harvard, but is accepted in some blue-collar workplaces. It’s much less common in policing thanks to the advent of the body-worn camera, but I have heard female cops say similarly crude things while we were having beers after work, and guess what? Nobody cares. It’s just talk. Many cops I worked with also had an extraordinarily dark “gallows humor” which included joking about death and violence. Nonetheless, they were, by and large, excellent cops and nothing but professional when interacting with members of the public.
An enormous amount has already been written about the disconnect between the Laptop Class and working people (see: “Latinx” discourse). I think this same disconnect explains why academics and journalists semi-regularly freak out about “police culture”, including the “thin blue line”, challenge coins that say “defend the constitution” and ugly sweaters.
But as with crime, generic disdain for blue-collar culture can’t be the whole story. It would be poor form for a white leftist to mock a Latino intellectual as a “pig’s son” if his dad were an ironworker. But it’s completely acceptable if his dad is a cop. What accounts for the difference?
I think the answer is power. Unlike other blue-collar tradesmen, like steelworkers, police officers have a gun, handcuffs, and the legal authority to use them. That power sets policing apart from other blue-collar jobs. It’s also why Egon Bittner called policing a “tainted occupation”:
[T]he taint that attaches to police work refers to the fact that policemen are viewed as the fire it takes to fight fire, that they in the natural course of their duties inflict harm, albeit deserved, and that their very existence attests that the nobler aspirations of mankind do not contain the means necessary to insure survival. But even as those necessities are accepted, those who accept them seem to prefer to have no part in acting upon them, and they enjoy the more than slightly perverse pleasure of looking down on the police who take the responsibility of doing the job.
What’s more, policing is perhaps the last job that comes with power but does not require a degree. The most powerful professions, like law, academia, or medicine, have required degrees for a while. But as more and more people got college degrees, things changed so that teachers, military officers, nurses, middle managers, and journalists — people who have a lot of “soft power” in society — also need college degrees. So you can make a good living as a union steelworker without a degree, but you don’t have the kind of power cops do. Only cops can arrest.
Even worse, cops are allowed to arrest anyone. As I mentioned, cops can and do arrest lawyers, judges, journalists, businessmen, professors, and politicians—and those people hate it when they get arrested. They cajole, threaten, and call you a racist. To upper-class knowledge economy workers, it is unacceptable that dumb cops, who don’t even have college degrees, could have so much power over them.
Of course, police can and do abuse power at times. But the people concerned about police abusing power are never concerned about white-collar professionals abusing power. Did you know that billing fraud is rampant in the upper echelons of the legal world? Did you know surgeons all know who the bad surgeons are? Why don’t the good ones turn in the bad ones? But lawyers and surgeons all have degrees. They aren’t rabble like cops are, so they get the benefit of the doubt—even when they regularly kill people via negligence or send innocent people to prison. It’s not about abuse of power—it’s about the right people having power.
I suspect a similar impulse lies behind the thought that all cops should get college degrees. One could justify this impulse by saying a degree requirement ensures new cops have a certain level of intelligence and healthy psychological disposition. Based on the performance of our highly educated public health officials recently, I think that’s a very questionable claim. More importantly, if intelligence and psychological stability are the concern, those traits can be—and are—tested by police departments during the hiring process, so there is no need for a degree requirement. Your local police department’s hiring process almost certainly already includes a civil service test, background investigation, and a battery of psychological and medical exams.
III. The Brazilification of America
If I am right about these trends — and it remains quite possible that I am not, since I’ve been wrong before— I don’t really know where all of this ends up. I suspect this is part of a broader long-term trend toward the “Brazilification” of American life — eventually, the top 20-30% of our society will live in “golden prisons” with armed guards, remote doormen, and designated slots for pizza deliveries. It’s already starting to happen in Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, and elsewhere.
This is why public safety must be a civil right. The people lobbying judges and legislators for a weaker criminal justice system and less policing are not the ones who will ultimately pay the price. They will go home to an email job, a secured-access apartment building, and a Doordash delivery. In the meantime, the cost of rising violence and worsening police service will be borne exclusively by those on the lower end of the income spectrum and by blue-collar workers who do not have the luxury of removing themselves from urban America’s shared public spaces.
Comments Archive (7/10/22):
My kid brother was a cop on the East coast and on the West coast. Specifically urban Maryland and Portland, Or. He was raised in NYC. One police week he brought several Portland Police Bureau friends with him to visit NYC. They couldn't believe how they were treated by the citizens and businesses in New York compared to what they had to put up with in Portland. It reflects your observations in your article. The Yuppies and Bonobos of Portland hate their local cops. They resent every dollar they make and view them as you described as having too much power for their low-class status. In New York, on the contrary, they were sent to the head of the line, waived through and comped entry fees, treated to meals and drinks, and given tours by local cops. It was a funny experience for them. Of course, we have our share of Ivy League cretins, but the average NYers- rich and poor and in-between- have a very pro-cop attitude. My kid runs a big restaurant and has made it a point to reach out to the local precinct and fire house. He had the cops over for a big barbecue fest and now, his place is a go to place for their motorcycle club, retirement parties and family outings. One hand washes the other. I think part of the difference is that so many people in the city make so much money and can't really physically separate themselves from the "street," that they appreciate the young- and very diverse- force that keeps the barbarians at bay. I can only point out the public reaction to the funerals of the two young Latino cops killed in Jan. Rivera and Mora were subject to deep public grieving across all classes. Thanks for a fine article. My brother says the "do you know who I am" response makes it very easy for him to decide which way he will exercise his discretion.
#2 (Rob K. Henderson):
A YouGov survey found that Americans in the highest income category were the most supportive of defunding the police and those in the lowest income category were the least supportive.
This is an interesting read. Two responses though:
1) Another thing that changes as classes stratify is who people are trying to signal they're above. In a more consolidated society people will want to signal they're above criminals. In a more separated society (where being mistaken for a street criminal isn't on the upper-class people's radar) they may prefer to signal they're above the people who want to signal they're above criminals. Note that which signal people go for has mostly changed among the UMC, not the super-rich (you'll still get e.g. Ken Griffin talking about crime being a problem in Chicago, even if a lot of his lower-level employees have moved left).
2) On the consideration of power, I think you're understating how all classes with power generate hate - this isn't specific to cops. Lawyers, HR departments, and (in some areas) techies all get a whole lot of hate in the right circles by people who don't like them having power over them, and people hate fancy-degree politicians and judges more universally than any of those. AFAICT doctors are the only group that mostly manages to avoid this.
I think it’s true that class politics apply to everyone, as you say. I just think police are in a unique spot because, as blue-collar workers with power, they get all the disdain reserved for the lumpenproletariat and all of the hate directed at authority figures. The upper-middle class knowledge economy worker feels bad about “punching down” on an iron worker, but he doesn’t feel bad about doing it to cops. In fact, he sees it as punching up.
Also, in denser American cities like New York, you have to be really, really rich to totally avoid public spaces. It’s much easier to do on the car-centric West Coast.