Blacks die at the hands of police and it is called justifiable homicide. Police should die at the hands of the community and it should be called justifiable homicide…People’s arrest warrants should be issued for the police and the community should be the judge and executioner of the wrongdoers.
These remarks from minister, educator and activist Muhammad Kenyatta at a 1971 press conference following the killing of Roger Allison by Philadelphia Police Department officers illuminates the difficulties of forthright communication regarding police. The quote was carried in a Philadelphia Daily News report from February 22 of that year, alongside the newly appointed Philadelphia police commissioner’s announcement that a young man had recently shot a cop. Both the police chief and the journalist described this killing as a natural effect of rhetoric like Kenyatta’s. The commissioner said of the young man’s action: “he said he did it (shot the cop) because of what he’d heard.” The columnist, Tom Fox, likewise suggested that the killing could be attributed to media reporting on the violence of policing, and in particular those outlets which ran Kenyatta’s remarks, asserting: “You wonder what right a man like Muhammad Kenyatta has to say cops should be put to death.”
In The Functions of the Police in Modern Society, sociologist Egon Bittner writes that “police procedure is defined by the feature that it may not be opposed in its course, and that force can be used if it is opposed. This is what the existence of police makes available to society.” The impunity with which we see police act is intrinsic to the concept. As people-groupings designated immune from what seem to be self-evident principles of retaliation or retribution, police exemplify brazen patterns of domination and deceit, and at the same time, reverence for police institutions is seen as the basis of any community’s common life.
Markus Dubber traces the idea to the foundations of Western jurisprudence, showing the term’s usage in early modern European “police science” to name the notion of a political community’s welfare, which authorizes policing’s characteristic violence against perceived threats, “the power of the state to govern the persons and things within its dominion as a householder would his household.” Mark Neocleous writes that “as noun, verb and adjective ‘police’ was historically used to describe the way order was achieved” and thus is “as important a concept to social and political theory as ‘sovereignty’, ‘legitimacy’, ‘consent’, ‘social contract’, ‘violence’, and all of the other concepts regularly used by theorists grappling with the nature of state power.” Micol Seigel sums up critical research on policing by terming it “violence work,” and points out that “‘Police’ is one of the least theorized, most neglected concepts in the lexicon of reformers and activists today.”
Police serve as icons of secular legitimacy, a global justificatory apparatus through which ruling regimes can unleash force upon threats to perceived social order, as visions of community welfare authorize seemingly unchallengeable crimes. Slogans emerging from the rebellions against police violence in 2020 called for defunding and even abolishing the institutions which represent themselves as the condition of political community, and the reaction of professional political communications consultants was predictable enough, scoffing at the idea that, whatever their faults, police could be seen as a bad thing. All the while, the officials empowered as representative “violence workers” for particular municipal bodies stifle and mock appeals for justice. In an era during which police institutions and ideology are so fundamental to our cultural common-sense, how can theologians and critical theorists challenge this form of power?
The War on Spiritual Poverty
Consider as an example an ongoing case in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania (ED PA 2:21-cv-01945),a “civil rights survival and wrongful death action…raising supplemental state-law claims concerning the brutal violent acts inflicted upon Plaintiff’s decedent, Jonathon B. Dowd (‘Dowd’), by Defendants.” According to a recently filed complaint, Jonathon was “disoriented and confused due to receiving an injection of Naloxone” at a Rite-Aid in Philadelphia. After being seized and handcuffed, “while lying prone on the ground, Dowd yelled to Defendants Officers that he could not breathe, that he wanted to die, and pleaded ‘help me daddy,’” before “a Philadelphia Police Officer struck him in the face and head with a closed fist at least three times.” Needless to say, these first responders are accused of not providing the care required both by their own operations manuals and by the apparent needs of the person they saw dying, and relief does not appear forthcoming from this court, thanks in part to the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity.” Everywhere police are found committing “conscience-shocking” abuses, and everywhere declared essential.
Devotion to perceived protectors may not be new, but the religious dimensions of support for police stand out especially in today’s ostensibly secular society. Today one can find circulating on various internet craft sites some version of a ‘police officer’s prayer’, written nearly a century ago by a Jesuit priest, addressed to “Saint Michael, heaven’s glorious commissioner of police, who once so neatly and successfully cleared God’s premises of all its undesirables…” and supplicating the heavenly patron to “look with kindly and professional eyes on your earthly force.” Early in the 20th century there emerged a new ceremony in the United States connected with the feast of St. Michael, a “Blue Mass” organized to honor and uplift those designated as society’s “first responders,” including police, firefighters, and medical personnel. Over time, the rite has become even more explicitly focused on those whose work is violence administration, and the latest gathering was scheduled in September of 2021 to coincide with remembrances of the United States’ “War on Terror.” “First responders have our back, and we’ve got their back in prayer,” said the principal celebrant, Father Artman.
Mutual appreciation between ecclesial and police leadership is longstanding. Early in the development of police as a protected class and political force, police and church organizations partnered in attempts to publicize and enforce moral practice, as in the 1950s anti-delinquency initiative “to reindoctrinate the youth of the city in a back to church movement” for the purposes of “the welding of police and church leaders into a ‘hand and glove operation’ to meet the current problems… to weave a knot of responsible spiritual leaders.’”
Likewise in 1968, writing to Richard Nixon, the Archbishop of Philadelphia called for “an all out war on spiritual poverty” in response to the pervasive problem of the “depletion of this nation’s religious capital,” a war which included and transcended the police; The National Catholic News Service reports the archbishop’s conviction “that merely increasing the size of police forces is not going to get at the root causes of widespread disregard for law and authority.” The archbishop’s ire against “spiritual poverty” might seem strange given how often that term is connected in theological tradition with blessing and the virtue of humility, or dependence on God. We can see the logic of police work as something like humility’s antithesis.
Appeals to piety in justifying police belie the self-serving nature of its institutions. Stuart Schrader has described movements for reform and professionalization shaping police into a formidable interest group “acting as a type of dominating class for itself, inscribing its power on the state and civil society” and characterized by “a profiteering outlook, attached to a capacity for organization, that deserves its own analytic attention, separate from the way police protect and serve social conditions amenable to capital accumulation.” The rhetoric of morals enforcement has been fundamental to the growth of police power, but police themselves are resistant to any form of accountability that could deflate their prestige. A recognizable police culture has emerged, replete with slogans and symbols reinforcing their apparent necessity and mustering indignation against restrictions or oversight.
This culture can be seen, for instance, in a series of T-shirts that local police have printed to advertise their brutality, raise funds, and promote police fraternity. One such shirt, pictured here, features an image of Philadelphia police beating a man suspected of carjacking around the time of the 2000 Republican National Convention. Higher-ups in the department chided the sale, expressing concern that it could tarnish the image of police.
More recently, when an officer named Joey Bologna was caught on tape taking a baton to the head of a student protesting the police killing of George Floyd, Philadelphia’s reform-minded district attorney quickly moved to charge him, and the local police union just as quickly moved to his defense, sharing an Instagram post and printing T-shirts with the slogan “Bologna Strong” in black and blue, and as Bologna made his way to turn himself in, he was surrounded by fellow officers applauding him in a show of solidarity.
Earlier this year, plainclothes officers shot a 12-year old in the back, and the union responded to their eventual firing by selling a series of T-shirts lamenting the officers’ plight: “Heroes when we die, fired when we try.” Once again, police brass expressed their concern and sought to distance themselves from the message, yet as of this writing it is still prominently displayed on the police union’s digital merchandising shop, in several colors and styles.
No matter how immoral their works, faith in the potential goodness or necessity of police seems to be a rare point of unity across partisan divides. It may be tempting to begin and end reflection upon the police by imagining the idea of a more restrained, equitable or benevolent force, the same notion advanced by police advocates in bids for additional trainings and investments. Theologians and critical theorists oriented by concerns of truth and justice might turn to policing not as a solution but perhaps the most prominent and seemingly intractable example of how violence is authorized in the construction and reinforcement of social hierarchy.
How can police authority be challenged? Perhaps another local t-shirt may provide some direction. While it is clear that religious symbols and ideas can be used to reinforce police power, the Philly Muslim Freedom Fund employs them to challenge the existence of police and invoke a higher law, with shirts declaring “Pigs are haram”: a force that thrives on marginalizing and accumulating and dominating, in restricting the formation of communities attuned to the invaluable and unrepresentable, compelling trust in worldly power and calling evil good. Religious traditions have many tools for both supporting and embodying this sort of work, as well as for describing and challenging it. How warped are understandings of God, of the human, of the community, or any other object of theological reflection, by the nexus of pre-authorized violence known as police?
Macaré, Joe, Alana Yu-lan Price, and Maya Schenwar, eds. Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2016.
This series of essays by activists and organizers reports on a variety of community struggles for justice against the police, shedding light on the many forms of violence these forces intensify, and providing information on movements to recognize and end patterns of torture and genocide.
Center for Research on Criminal Justice. The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove: An Analysis of the U.S. Police. Berkeley, CA: The Center for Research on Criminal Justice, 1975.
This comprehensive study by a group of radical criminologists detailing the rise of the “police-industrial complex” surveys the rapid growth of police institutions in the mid 20th century, describing their structures and strategies in ways that are still relevant for today’s struggles.
Schrader, Stuart. Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2019.
This book narrates police growth in the 20th century as part of a global history of imperialism, showing how movements to update, reform and professionalize police also connected and reinforced regimes of control domestically and worldwide.
Balto, Simon, and Max Felker-Kantor. “Police and Crime in the American City, 1800–2020.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.56.
This recent article surveys developments in policing in the United States, showing how efforts at reform and professionalization fail, and includes a helpful guide to contemporary critical literature.
Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie, eds. No More Police: A Case for Abolition. New York: The New Press, 2022.
This forthcoming collection by two of the most prominent voices in the struggle for justice against police in the United States articulates a vision for community safety that does not rely on state violence.