Why there are no “good cops”

A case study of Middletown, Connecticut analyzes how modern police enforcement tactics are used as mitigation measures of corrupt policy in the United States. Rae takes a nuanced look at “Officer J” that examines detaching long-held beliefs from contextual reality.

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Middletown, Connecticut (TFC) – I used to talk with a girl in my college about her boyfriend who, according to her testimony, was a good cop. We’ll call her Ashley. I gave Ashley the benefit of the doubt for a while, I wanted to get a grasp of her understanding. She sent me some information, and I did some research.

Her boyfriend participated in a ride-along February of this year. Weslyan Student, Bryan Stascavage, spent time with “Officer J,” as well as Officers “E” and “A”, with the permission of “Captain M” of the Middletown Police Department. You might think this sounds silly; like a children’s detective novel.

But I study power. I know that anonymity is one of the steps in the process towards the demoralization of those in power. Unlike the student in the ride-along, Stascavage, I don’t approach things with “an open mind”—but a skeptical one. Why do authority figures hide if they’re so good? We’ll just push that question aside.

Officer J is described by Stascavage as “the community-oriented officer”, which is the picture Ashley painted as well. He patrols an area with a concentrated population of mentally ill and homeless people. They describe how he knows people’s names and life stories. Officer J walks those streets simply because he’s aware that he’s needed. He’s a helper. I assume this is the kind of “good cop” people ambiguously refer to. Stascavage tries to break it down for us:

“This neighborhood calls the police a lot, so the police spend time there when they have no other calls. It has nothing to do with demographics—not race, ethnicity, or wealth. It simply is the result of an experienced officer knowing that a neighborhood needs more of his attention because they call him relatively often.”

This is where I had to pause. What? The connections between poverty and mental illness have been apparent to the scientific world for a while now. The trope has otherwise existed as a narrative throughout literature and media. Why is it lost in this story? Last time I checked, poverty and mental illness are demographics. Did Stascavage forget that he’d just written two paragraphs up that Officer J “told [him] that Middletown has one of the highest populations of individuals in Connecticut who have some form of mental illness or disorder, or have had some kind of addiction”?

It wouldn’t have mattered if Stascavage had asked Officer J. the right question though, which would have been Why does this community have so many problems? It wouldn’t have mattered because Officer J. isn’t a psychologist, he isn’t a sociologist, he isn’t even apparently aware of Mental Health Service Budget cuts in Connecticut. So I did some research on that. Come to find out, as reported on this year’s budget cuts by Yale News:

“…one of the main cuts was not even part of the proposed budget — rather, it was a relic of the last one. In the budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, $25.5 million was cut from [Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services]’s state grant funding for mental health and substance abuse services, reducing the agency’s previous sum of $41.3 million in grant funding by 62 percent.”

Budget cuts have rippling effects. I interviewed mental health care professional Rick Lavine*, who detailed some of the effects budget cuts have on the way Health Care Facilities operate and administer help.

“Unless the hospital is private pay or receives large endowments, where budgets aren’t an issue, most hospitals are under pressure to increase “productivity”, so to speak. See, more people make the hospital more money. More people means [a] larger caseload, which means fewer contacts per patient and more clinician burnout. So to break even, the hospital needs to see more patients, without increasing the number of clinicians.” Explains Lavine. “Burnt out clinicians mean less effective clinicians, which further reduces mental health [of patients].”

As money is the foundational ‘commodity’ which controls all others, money can tell you a lot about priorities. Whose priorities? The legislators of Connecticut have articulated their neglect every day this problem goes unchecked as the public emergency that it is, and continues to de-fund available resources.

When placed back in the context of Officer J., patrolling the streets and talkin’ to the local crazies, this story becomes a dark one filled with delusions and savior mentality. One would think that doing-good threshold would be higher than making sure homeless people don’t fight in line at the soup kitchen, and calling someone else to fix problems if things go wrong.

Those aren’t even exactly my words, Stascavage wrote that Officer E told him “something that surprised [him]: he rarely solves problems. The police are called when people have no other options, and their job is to assess the situation and find people the help they need. ….The officer is simply the intermediary.” Which is interesting, to say the least. Stascavage has written a world into existence where cops are a certain type of ‘hall monitor’. I’ve seen the tropes of hero cop and victim cop often, but I’d never heard of this one.

To be clear, this whole situation didn’t fall out of the sky. Poverty is a long-documented problem in Middletown. Homelessness got a segment in the 1990 NY Times, about the then-current epidemic which “homeless people […] outnumber shoppers on some parts of Main Street.” As Bob Kaczmarek put it back then, without the soup kitchen “there would be a lot of dead bodies lying on Main Street.”

Now it’s two and a half decades later. Officer J. (who must live in some kind of bubble) feels he is doing-good enforcing smoothness in the social order around decades of injustice. It’s the image of a benevolent enforcer. Stascavage, Ashley, and the Officers haven’t looked at this through a historical or scientific lens, just the micro lens of learning names and being chummy with citizens. That’s a real problem. But why would Officer J. pay attention to legislation and budget cuts? He doesn’t make the law, he doesn’t have a say in the law—he just enforces it.

This is a case study of Middletown here in my home State of Connecticut. This story, though, speaks to the bigger problem. There are no “good” cops because our social systems have always been corrupt. That’s what they’re enforcing. The two concepts are, for some reason, hard for people to contain at the same time…even some of those who like Bernie Sanders and hate the 1%.

This has a lot to do with denial. Beliefs are hard to shake. There’s little room for nuance, like say, for a cop who enforces years of systematic poverty but tries every day to be a nice guy. Or a couple generations of white people who grew up with bright ideas like ‘Officer Friendly’ and ‘the police are here to protect you’. These narratives are woven into the fabric of our neurobiology. To question them is to question ourselves.

But the point is that trying to claim some cops are good people negates their structured and systematic existence. It doesn’t matter how nice Officer J. tries to be on a daily basis. His job is that of a particular texture: dealing with the behavioral blowback of societies’ most vulnerable when yet another round of budget cuts go through.

As Stokey Carmichael said: a man cannot condemn himself, so you stand condemned.

*Name has been altered for privacy purposes.

Charles Rae is a theorist, journalist, and artist. Although new to TFC team, Rae writes frequently about law enforcement and power dynamics, as well as other social justice theories.