It should not take an event so devastating to break the spell of policing mythology about what cops do — and what they don’t.
Here’s what we know so far, based on haunting videos from the scene outside Robb Elementary School and statements from police officials themselves. Salvador Ramos murdered 21 people. Despite earlier, misleading claims from law enforcement officials, it appears that no police officers engaged with the shooter before he entered the school. Instead of rushing in to protect the children and staff when reports of a gunman approaching the school were made at 11:30 a.m., police instead waited outside and aggressively confronted parents who were begging them to enter. The parents were threatened with arrest — one cop brandished a Taser — as they attempted to access the school to save their kids themselves.
Police at the scene acted as they usually do, in accordance with standard policing practice: Rather than risk a hail of gunfire to stop the killer, they kept themselves safe.
One mother who was urging the police to enter the building, Angeli Rose Gomez, was handcuffed. When she was released, she managed to run into the school, grab her kids, and bring them out to safety, which is the alleged job of the police. According to one Texas Department of Public Safety lieutenant interviewed by local news, some officers did run into the school — but only to grab their own children.
The Border Patrol SWAT team that eventually engaged with and killed the shooter — 40 minutes to an hour after first shots were reported — was not able to break down the door to the classroom where the killer was holed up with more children. A staff member had to unlock it with a key. According to the chilling firsthand account of a fourth grader in the room, cops told children to yell “if you need help”; when one little girl did, the gunman immediately shot her.
The police failed at protecting the schoolchildren, yes, but we should not be under the illusion that this is an example of the cops failing at their jobs. As far we can tell from reports, police at the scene acted as they usually do, in accordance with standard policing practice: Rather than risk a hail of gunfire to stop the killer, they kept themselves safe.
As Akela Lacy noted on Wednesday in The Intercept, the approach is not an outlier: “As the number of school resource officers has ballooned over the last two decades, so has the number of school shootings. There is no evidence that police have the ability to stop these shootings from happening.”
The behavior of the police at Robb Elementary is only shocking if you are committed to a mythic notion of what policing entails. The “thin blue line” does not, as reactionary narratives would have it, separate society from violent chaos. This has never been what police do, since the birth of municipal policing in slave patrols and colonial counterinsurgencies. The “thin blue line” instead separates those empowered by the state to uphold racial capitalism with violence, and to do so with impunity.
It is disgusting, not shocking, that police officers would sooner harass and handcuff parents — parents begging them to save their children from a massacre — than they would run in and put themselves in the line of fire. What is striking, though, is how inconceivable it is to so many people that policing is not, in fact, what they’ve been told it is by the police themselves, by those in power, and by the mainstream culture built around those mutually reinforcing myths.
Since police propaganda relies on the repetition of lies, certain corrective truths bear repeating too.
Being a police officer is not even among the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Roofers, loggers, and delivery drivers all face greater risks to their lives at work. For the last two years in a row, the leading cause of death among cops, purportedly in the line of duty, is the coronavirus pandemic.
And cops don’t solve most crimes. Only around 2 percent of major crimes are solved by police. Police also don’t prevent crime, they criminalize: Ninety percent of the almost all Black people stopped under the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy were not committing any crime at all. There’s scant evidence that police surveillance reduces or prevents crime. What policing does do, however, is criminalize poverty and the communities of color forced to live in it.
In just the last month, the vast and wealthy army that is the NYPD failed to apprehend two shooters on the subway system — a system that crawls with cops and surveillance. When the first of these shooters was eventually taken into custody, thanks to the intervention of a civilian who spotted him, he was just blocks away from the site of a homeless encampment, which the police were busy destroying.
So what are cops up to? Katie Way, writing on the All Cops Are Posters Substack, gathered the social media posts of the Uvalde Police Department to show that, rather than saving lives and risking their own, the Texas cops spend a considerable amount of their time arresting and caging desperate men, women, and children attempting to enter the U.S. through the southern border.
Even the Supreme Court affirmed in 2005 that police departments are not in fact obligated to provide protection to the public. Our safety is quite simply not what our tax dollars, endlessly funneled into glutted police departments, pay for. Meanwhile, it was two teachers who put their bodies in the line of fire and died trying to protect children during Tuesday’s massacre.
As Patrick Blanchfield, author of the forthcoming “Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence,” noted on Twitter, “U.S. police are trained to maximize control over situations while minimizing their personal risk. That translates into beating parents while a rampage shooter executes their children just as easily as it does their rolling up on a kid with a toy guy and executing him seconds later.”
To be clear, this was not a question of funding or training: Police in the Uvalde school district had both.
Those of us who have been calling for the defunding of police departments — indeed for police abolition in favor of real, collective public safety practices — have been treated by Democratic and Republican leaders and commentators alike as fanatical. In the face of decades, if not centuries of evidence exposing what the work of policing actually entails — and does not entail — the true ideologues are those committed to policing as a social solution.
It should not take an event so devastating — with police behavior so counter to the task of saving lives — to break the spell of policing mythology.
It would be too generous to those in power to grant that they have simply been misled by copaganda. By insisting that we double down on policing, they make clear that they too uphold what the institution of policing defends: property, power, and racial hierarchy.
The police response to just this latest massacre of children is drawing rightful ire. Yet that alone is unlikely to turn the tides of political will when it comes to shattering the myth of policing. The lionization of the police is as deep seated as any American ideology — resistant to buckling under its own contradictions and obvious falsities. This is a country, after all, founded on genocide, slave labor, and universalist claims to equality for all. Violent contradictions should come as no surprise.
Those who have dismissed calls to defund the police as too radical ought to question their own convictions about policing. It should not take an event so devastating — with police behavior so counter to the task of saving lives — to break the spell of policing mythology.
Correction: May 31, 2022
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of writer Katie Way’s name.