How the state uses “police morale” to divert from the violence inherent to policing
Faux concern about "police morale" deflects accountability away from the violence that is policing, forcing it instead onto communities
By Benji Hart
Recently, the Chicago Police Department released a video on its Facebook page entitled “You Are Not Alone!” intending to raise awareness about the high suicide rate among its officers—which the video cites as being nearly 60% higher than the national average. The video depicts a uniformed officer reaching slowly for their own gun, while superimposed images of their frustrated landlord, their disillusioned partner, and community members mourning loved ones flash across the screen (who exactly killed the loved ones being mourned is left up for interpretation).
There are also anti-policing chants referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, and sound bites about violence targeting law enforcement playing in the background. It closes with information about the department’s professional counseling division (available 24/7), and the Police Chaplains Ministry, encouraging officers who are struggling with depression to seek help.
It is important to note the video includes some of the real factors contributing to the astronomical rates of depression, anxiety, and other crises of mental and emotional health among police officers. Those who have witnessed and/or participated in the horrors of any militarized zone know the lasting trauma it inflicts on any psyche.
What the video fails to include are the host of other violent ways this trauma can and does manifest. There is no mention of domestic violence, which one survey indicates is more than twice the national average in law enforcement families (this includes sexual violence). There is no discussion of substance abuse, which, mirroring again those who’ve participated in war, has long been one of the most accessible coping mechanisms for law enforcement.
These stories are left out because the ultimate narrative the video is meant to bolster is one already common in mainstream media: That the current climate of social upheaval—especially in Black communities—is contributing to low police morale, making officers feel unappreciated and even fearful for their lives.
Yet even as the FBI warns of “Black Identity Extremists,” we know that police deaths in the line of duty are at an all-time national low. Meanwhile, the extrajudicial murders of Black civilians are at an unprecedented high. Whose safety, then, should we actually be concerned with?
A new report has thrown the CPD into another scandal, revealing widespread abuse of its poorly-monitored overtime system. The investigation finds that, within only a two-year span, some $27.6 million in officer overtime cannot be accounted for, with some individual officers in that period earning hundreds of thousands of dollars outside of their salary. For 2017, the CPD budget allows for $75 million in overtime, yet officers are on track to accrue over $200 million by the end of the year.
Alderman of the 41st ward Anthony Napolitano, himself a former police officer and firefighter, condemned the release of the report, claiming it further demonizes the police force, and would kill already low morale. The alderman’s attack on the report’s findings illustrates something about these arguments whenever they are made:
Conversations focused on “police morale” are never concerned with the well-being of police officers, and certainly show no concern for the public whose resources and lives are abused. These conversations are meant to defend policing structures as they currently exist, tacitly sanctioning both the mental and emotional trauma they inflict on Black communities, and on police themselves.
In a recent video series from Critical Resistance, UC Riverside Professor Dylan Rodriguez speaks to the misuse of the term “police brutality” to describe what is actually police practice. It’s not police brutality, he notes, if the state sanctions the violence. To imagine the community is only protesting officers who overstep their bounds is to imagine that there are any acceptable bounds within which policing can take place, which is simply untrue.
Rodriguez’ assertion that policing is itself a form of brutality, not an acceptable practice that becomes brutal only when taken to an extreme, is crucial. But he goes further by noting the number of law enforcement members (he includes prison guards and military personnel in this category) who have left the job because they could not handle the inhuman things it required of them.
Just as the false notion of “police brutality” obscures the fact that all policing is brutality, “police morale” obscures the mental and emotional harm policing represents to all those with whom it comes in contact. This harm originates not with dissenting Black and Brown communities, but with those empowered to enact lethal violence at their own discretion.
And just as a discourse of “brutality” must be replaced with a discourse of “abolition,” discussions of police morale must be replaced with one of community mental health. Rather than defending the police system, this pushes us to instead call it into question in its entirety.
Anyone who is from a police family—as I am—can attest that depression, intimate partner violence, suicide and substance abuse are age-old hallmarks of the profession. Attributing them in the current moment, through a paradigm of low morale, to Black communities in struggle isn’t just an irresponsible attempt to slander those movements. It also fails to realize that it is policing itself that produces trauma. It purposefully deflects accountability away from the violence that is policing, forcing it instead onto the very communities both absorbing that violence and fighting to end it.
Rejecting conversations about “morale” isn’t just about rejecting the misleading and anti-Black narratives used to prop them up. It also demands we discuss a range of crises in a framework of mental health—one which not only expands who is impacted by them, but also situates policing as a central source of mental and emotional trauma, not its solution.
The current #NoCopAcademy campaign in Chicago is fighting to derail democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build a $95 million police academy in the West Garfield Park neighborhood—where he also closed 6 public schools in 2013. Its aim is not just to bust through the city government’s transparently false claim of being broke, but to demand money be reallocated towards the community programs and social services that have actually been shown to prevent violence.
The campaign reveals something else left out of the CPD’s recent video: That the department costs the city more than $1.5 billion per year, making it one of the most well-funded departments in the entire country per capita. The high rate of violence in Chicago is regularly cited as the reason spending such resources is justified, and anti-Black fear-mongering is always at the core of the arguments to spend even more.
Yet when officers have better mental health resources than the communities they police (in 2012 Emanuel closed half of the city’s mental health clinics, and Cook County Jail is presently the largest mental health facility in the entire US) the question must be asked: Is the high rate of violence in Chicago actually because the city spends so much on its police department compared to other social services?
The CPD’s own statistics underline this question. For if one of the most resource-rich departments in the nation also has one of the highest suicide rates, is more spending—and more policing—what it really takes to curb trauma?
Policing, like all forms of militarism and occupation, is a fundamentally inhuman practice, requiring the dehumanization first of those it targets with violence, and second of those charged with doing the targeting. Officers must internalize anti-Blackness, classism, and any number of other bigoted ideologies in order to believe they are justified in committing that violence. The internalizing of abusive power festers and spreads to their treatment of all those in their lives, not only the original targets of their state-sanctioned harm.
The argument of morale is inevitably an argument about how we make the process of dehumanization more palatable, more sustainable for those expected to engage it. It actively distracts us from the real discussion we ought to be having: Is there any place in a just world for a system dependent on dehumanization, and on the ravaging of the mental and emotional well-being of our entire communities?
Benji Hart is a Black, queer, femme artist and educator currently living in Chicago. They are the writer behind the blog Radical Faggot, and have essays featured in the anthologies Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief (2017) and Taking Sides: Radical Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (2015), both from AK Press. Their writing has also been published in Truthout, Salon Magazine, Socialist Worker, and other feminist and abolitionist media.