By Alexander Strada
“To protect and serve.” The Los Angeles Police Department coined the phrase in 1955, and it has since been adopted by police forces across the English-speaking world.
But what does it really mean? Whose interests, exactly, are the police protecting and serving?
Presumably, you’d like to think they’re serving the public interest. You’d like to think that, to the best extent possible, the police are acting in our interests with pure selflessness.
That’s the myth, after all. Our traditional image of the police is one of righteous blue statues, standing tall against the evils of the world and keeping us safe from the ravages of the loathsome criminals that crouch in dark alleys all around us.
What would we do without these noble protectors?
This is what Plato called the “noble lie.” In his landmark work “The Republic,” he presents a scene in which a teacher explains to a student a socially stratified society with rigid class barriers.
Though they know it is false, the rulers of this society establish a common mythology that justifies the separation by claiming members of each caste are made from different grades of metal. Rulers are made from soft gold, guardians from purest silver, workers from hard iron, and so on.
Plato argued that such lies were necessary to maintain a stable social structure because they kept people happy with their circumstances and under control. He believed most people weren’t bright enough to look after their own best interests or those of society.
I’m not so sure I disagree.
One need not look far to find examples of people seemingly unqualified to possess a live body. This is especially true in America, but it’s universal to human nature, as evidenced by New Zealander Natasha Harris, whose heart attack death was recently linked by her coroner to a ten-liter-per-day Coca Cola habit.
I’m not joking, you can Google that. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
This irredeemable “ends justify the means” logic enables an infinity of potential evils and misuses. Dumb or not, each person has just as much right to dictate their existence as the next, and no one, however smart, has the right to assert authority over another.
Noble lies can’t be justified, no matter how stable a society they set up. If a society cannot handle the truth, then it doesn’t deserve to stand.
The truth is, cops are just people. There is no special metal glittering in their souls. They’ve got the same rusty stuff in their veins as the rest of us, and like people in any situation, they will sometimes behave heroically and sometimes behave despicably.
During the search for renegade ex-cop Christopher Dorner earlier this month, LAPD officers patrolling the house of a police captain threatened by Dorner saw a truck that they thought looked like Dorner’s. Never mind that it was a different make, a much brighter shade of blue, and being driven by a 71-year-old woman and her daughter; they drew their guns and unloaded into it without warning or hesitation.
Los Angeles Daily News reports a neighbor claimed to have heard as many as twenty shots. The report also stated that the older woman took two shots to the back, and though she was expected to survive it was likely she would suffer permanent damage.
The woman’s attorney accused the police of dispensing “street justice,” and there’s no better way to describe it. These cops behaved like gang members, looking out for their captain with no regard for protecting or serving the public.
It is a lie that the badge or the uniform automatically signify heroism, and it is a lie that cops automatically deserve respect. No one deserves respect, it must be earned.
Boston Police Officer Edward Norton, of Fight Club fame (not really), dove into the frigid waters of the Boston channel amid storming rain and blustery winds to save the life of a drowning woman in December. Witnesses say he reacted without hesitation, but Norton brushes this off, saying, “She was in there calling for help, and I can swim.”