Monday, October 23, 2006

The Symbolic Standing of the Police after the War on Crime

To try to understand why law enforcement is so reluctant to engage in serious efforts to regulate our investigatory techniques which pose serious risks to conviction of the innocent, we must appreciate the radical shift in public confidence that the police have come to enjoy since the middle of the 20th century. From the 1930s through the 1960s, academic experts agreed that the public perceived police as corrupt, inefficient, and capable of brutality. Popular culture, pulp fiction and movies that regularly portrayed the police in precisely the same terms. Consider The Maltese Falcon (1941), where Humphrey Bogart and everyone else knows that whole game is to give the police some body they can blame for the murder of Sam Spade’s partner and it does not matter whether they did or it not. As the War on Crime unfolded since the late 1960s, police were recast as the chief protagonists of citizens as potential crime victims (as David Garland would suggest, the representative citizen of our time),--- and as symbolic stand-ins for citizen-victims themselves--- the perception of the police has gone from cynical to reverent. This shift is captured in public opinion surveys. In 1977 (almost a decade into the War on Crime) 37 percent of a national sample rated the honesty and ethical standards of the police “Very High” or at least “High,” by 2005, 61 percent shared that rating. Asked how much confidence they had in the police in 2005, a 64 percent of a national sample indicated “A Great Deal or Quite A Lot”. In contrast, only 53 percent said that of Churches and Organized Religion, 22 percent of Congress, 44 percent of the Presidency, and 41 percent of the Supreme Court. Criminal Justice overall, by the way, is lower even than Congress. The only institution that evokes more confidence than the police is even more steeped in symbolic identity with the body politic, i.e., the military, in whom 74 percent of respondents held such high confidence.



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