A Brief History of the “War on Cops”: The False Allegation That Enables Police Violence

by Dan Berger, Truthout | Op-Ed –

war on cops NOT

As part of a global action proclaiming “Freedom Now,” Black Lives Matter groups shut down police operations around the country on July 20. From Oakland to Washington, DC, New York City to Chicago and Detroit, these bold and creative acts of civil disobedience issued a demand to “Fund Black Futures.” Protests in New York shut down the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association while those in DC closed the National Fraternal Order of Police office for the day.

These protests, which promise to continue, call attention to the routine police murders of Black women, men, and children. Further, especially in targeting the police unions, these protests challenge the false idea that there is a “war on cops.”

Numerous sources confirm that there is no such war. Last year was one of the safest on record for police officers, and even with the targeted killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, being a police officer does not rate as one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in the country. It is far less dangerous than logging, fishing, or roofing.

Yet, conservative commentators routinely sound the alarm against a “war on cops.” This claim surfaces not only in those rare instances when an officer is killed but also anytime people challenge police violence or authority. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who first rose to prominence as a tough-on-crime US attorney, has made a career of decrying nonexistent wars on police. So it was no surprise that he has found a new calling in politics: declaring Black Lives Matter to be the latest example of that specious confrontation.

People are not at war with police. But police are at war with people. For more than 50 years, the “war on cops” story has provided both public support and material resources for the war that metropolitan police departments have waged on mostly poor Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. The “war on cops” may be an old story, but it is a useful one.

In fact, the “war on cops” narrative helps explain how the United States ended up with a police force that functions like a series of military battalions. The idea behind the “war on cops” treats police like soldiers: going into battle every day, serving as symbols of their country with the overriding objective of winning the war (on crime, drugs, or terrorism) at all costs.

The idea of a “war on cops” owes to the savvy responses police officials offered to the insurgencies of the 1960s. Police seized upon the political upheaval of that time to advocate for greater authority and resources. They understood, as Nina Burgess — a character in Marlon James’s award-winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings — did the sectarian violence in 1970s Jamaica, “If you don’t live politics, politics will live you.” Powerful groups like the police enlist people to support them or risk annihilation. Around the country, police officers used these tumultuous events to argue for more: more money, more weapons, more officers and more authority.

During the urban unrest of the mid-1960s, which were often sparked by incidents of police violence against Black or Latino men, police routinely claimed to be at war in American cities. After the Watts neighborhood erupted in 1965, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) created the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team, an elite and highly militarized police unit. Its first assignment came in an assault on the Los Angeles Black Panther office four years later. As police departments around the country developed their own SWAT teams, they became routine components of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.

Often in these urban conflicts, police said snipers fired upon them. Unable to determine the source of some gunfire during the 1967 uprising in Detroit, police and National Guard claimed to be under attack by snipers. Such reports led a handful of police officers, state troopers, and National Guardsmen to seize the Algiers Motel. They found no snipers but killed three Black men and beat nine other people — seven Black men, two white women — in the process. (Similar unsubstantiated reports of sniper fire during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led police to scale back on rescue efforts in favor of greater policing.)

Some city police departments seized upon the deepening economic crises of the 1970s to develop undercover paramilitary forces. As historian Elizabeth Hinton describes in her new book, From the War on Poverty to War on Crime, the Detroit and Los Angeles police departments created secretive police units that waged brutal undercover operations against low-income Black communities. Designed as elite shock troops in the war on crime, the LAPD’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) and Detroit’s Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS) functioned as urban mercenaries. “In just two years, STRESS made more than 6,000 arrests and killed eighteen civilians and suspects,” Hinton writes. “Of those killed, all but one were Black.”

Police unions have been the central institution promoting the idea of a war on police. The first to defend cops who kill civilians, police unions have for decades declared that they are under attack. Cynical and racist as such declarations may be, they have worked. Take a look at New York City, the country’s largest police department with a storied history of abuse. Describing police beating up children in 1964, author James Baldwin wrote that “Harlem is policed like an occupied territory.” The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the labor union representing members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), has defended police violence and argued for greater weaponry to carry it out.

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout