It’s a shame that the police slowly have changed from keepers of peace to keepers of discipline. Like many cultural shifts, the role of police slowly has changed due to similar subtle changes around them in economy, housing, family culture and attitudes about racism and elitism.
When mariner was a cub scout, a boy of eight to ten years of age, he remembers considering the local policeman a person of authority but not a person to fear. For one thing the officer walked the streets on a beat; he often talked with local citizens, businesses and did things that quietly protected his beat. He checked that business doors were locked at night; he stopped occasionally to watch a few pitches at the baseball diamond in the local park. Once, mariner’s father had a talk with the policeman about some trouble in a home at the end of the block. The policeman was a citizen of the community just like everyone else. It is likely he knew where trouble may lie. Certainly he had a feel for daily life on his beat.
To make a long story short, class discrimination and accordingly race discrimination. Over decades of living, the suburbs evolved, wages were geographically dispersed as corporations emerged, government tax structures were modified, and neighborhoods became less heterogeneous. When mariner was young, every neighborhood was a town with its own GDP, schools, its own main street and had both working and professional families.
Slowly, mobility became easier for families – especially those whose jobs were outside the neighborhood. Families moved to neighborhoods based on income (class); in the old neighborhood multigenerational families began to disappear leaving no intergenerational history. Consequently, fewer and fewer residents were familiar and housing markets eventually dropped in value where the old GDP had disappeared.
The cop on the beat no longer knew everyone. Eventually it became cheaper to cruise a neighborhood in a squad car. Nobody knew anybody. The glue that made a community exist was gone.
When no one is sure what is happening, when no one knows anyone, when the mean income is dropping, paranoia becomes the dominant attitude. When no one knows ‘that’ person, the person is of less value and deserves less grace. Conversations become polar and accusatory. There was comfort in knowing that the police could ‘handle things’ in this social vacuum. Economically, some neighborhoods collapsed entirely, which led to vacant housing, slum conditions and criminal economies. Fortunately, the police could ‘handle things’.
While the US economy was growing rapidly, classism didn’t matter; everyone’s eyes looked to the future. The past was forgotten. Even so, many still lived in that past and did not share in the future. So society left the past to the police to manage.
In recent decades the future has not been so rosy. Society has begun to notice the disarray of classism. Recent news has begun to take notice of unrest in neighborhoods of the past. It is long overdue that society regroups and establishes more homogeneous rules. The police are part of this movement and need to know their customers personally and, figuratively, to walk the beat again.
Now if we could teach Congress this lesson.