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

The war on cops does not exist, but the idea has been used to justify increasing police violence.

Police loom in the background as activists from BYP 100 and the #LetUsBreathe collective form a blockade line at Chicago's Homan Square facility, a site of documented torture of civilians by the police, on July 20, 2016. (Photo: Sarah-Ji)

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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.

The PBA’s influence increased throughout the 1970s as it advocated for wartime policing. After four officers were killed in two days in May 1971, the PBA called for officers to carry shotguns as well as pistols. While the claim was derided for being shrill, the proliferation of SWAT-style policing meant that new hardware flowed to major police departments at an unprecedented scale.

Two years later, the PBA told The New York Times that police “should have sufficient retaliatory means at our disposal” against anyone who would attack the police. The PBA claimed to be in a guerrilla war with the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a military splinter group of the Black Panther Party. But in fact, police tactics more resembled the American military than a guerrilla force: Police sought to overwhelm their opponents with superior hardware and sheer force. The NYPD and FBI dedicated 150 officers to kill suspected BLA member Twymon Meyers on a New York City street in 1973 and then stationed snipers on rooftops at his funeral in Harlem.

Shotguns and legal immunity became more common among the NYPD, as in the rest of the nation. In 1984, an officer used a shotgun to kill 66-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs during an eviction. As is by now expected news, the officer who killed Bumpers — like the officers who killed Michael Stewart, Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell,Eric Garner and so many other New Yorkers — was either acquitted or never indicted. As part of its war, the PBA has provided legal, financial or public support for officers who have shot, choked or otherwise killed people in the line of duty.

At the same time, the PBA claims that an ongoing “war on cops” necessitates denying parole to anyone who was convicted of violence against police officers, regardless of their conduct in prison or risk to society. A button on the PBA’s website enables visitors to send letters to the New York Parole Board opposing release of parole-eligible people who were convicted of attacking police officers. According to the Release Aging People in Prison campaign, the PBA’s hardline stance turns the parole board into a “re-sentencing body” to give people a life sentence not imposed by a judge or jury. This goes against the logic of parole, which is supposed to judge whether someone poses a risk of harm in the present rather than on the basis of the offense for which a person was originally convicted.

This is the world the “war on cops” has made; one in which police kill unarmed people regularly yet claim to be under attack themselves. Even as some high-profile commentators have proclaimed that Black Lives Matter, they still act as if police lives matter more. Pundits who lament the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile protest the “horrific murders” and “cold-blooded killings” of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Were Sterling and Castile’s deaths not horrific? Why is there no attention to the blood temperature of the officers who killed a 37-year-old man for selling CDs on a sidewalk or who pulled over a 32-year-old man for a broken taillight and a “wide-set nose” and ended up shooting him to death in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old child?

“I do not believe in the war between races,” Lorna dee Cervantes declared in her classic 1981 poem. “But in this country/ there is war.” The “war on cops” functions similarly: its truthfulness may be easily dispelled but its power is much harder to dislodge. The task, embraced with such clarity in the recent #FreedomNow protests, is to end the war by police. There is no war on cops. But in this country, there is war.

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