Cop Killer 2011: Police, power and the case of Lt. Pike

I think at some point in our lives, most of us imagine that it might be cool to be famous. But perhaps…perhaps not like this.

That’s Lt. John Pike of the UC-Davis Police Department, and his moment in the sun probably isn’t going as he might have hoped. Not only that, his 15 minutes have stretched into hours and days and interminable weeks, and unfortunately for him there’s every reason to believe that he’s going to famous for a long, long time to come. In an age of ubiquitous Photoshop, it starts here…

…and there’s no telling where it ends. Or if it ends.

It’s easy enough and obvious enough to conclude that Lt. Pike (now on paid administrative leave) is a bad guy, especially once you learn that the university had to cough up nearly a quarter million dollars to settle a discrimination suit against him a few years back. But there is now a conversation afoot – predictably, perhaps – that considers Pike’s actions less in terms of the “individual bad actor” motif and more in terms of systemic, institutional dynamics.

Writing at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal details the “strategic incapacitation” paradigm being employed by police agencies in the increasingly securitized post-911/post WTO United States.

Structures, in the sociological sense, constrain human agency. And for that reason, I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too. Our police forces have enshrined a paradigm of protest policing that turns local cops into paramilitary forces. Let’s not pretend that Pike is an independent bad actor. Too many incidents around the country attest to the widespread deployment of these tactics. If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy.

Madrigal’s take is detailed and devastating. If it feels like the tone of police response to civil disobedience in America – even relentlessly peaceful disobedience of the sort that typifies the Occupy movement – you’re not imagining things, and Madrigal’s article explains why. However, he comes in for a bit of critique from Marc Bousquet at the Chronicle of Higher Education. While acknowledging the validity of institutional analyses, Bousquet accuses of Madrigal of over-servicing his readership’s smugness and its need to feel innocent. In short, he lets “us” off the hook.

We are Eichmann. Arendt wasn’t trying to get us to “feel bad for” Eichmann, but to see his evil in our ordinary selves, recoil, and change. The discovery that Lt. John Pike is a nice fellow to watch the game with and a good scratcher of puppy ears isn’t meant to lift his moral responsibility—or ours. His and our failure to refuse the system is the system.

Madrigal’s note erases personal, moral agency on both margins of his caricature. The lieutenant—and a few tens of million like him—have not resisted the inner Eichmann. They have chosen obedience and the warm praise of their masters, and the material rewards of their complicity.

By contrast the objects of Pike and his masters’ brutality have chosen the brave, difficult, path of refusal.

I get both arguments. I’m certainly glad that the institutional frame was raised. I also appreciate the tenacity of the Bousquet rebuttal, which very neatly examines the institutional frame that drove Madrigal’s institutional frame in the first place. There is much to think about here, and the debate arrives at a time when we as culture need to be thinking deeply about who we have become and who we want to be.

In 1992 Body Count released a song called “Cop Killer.” Before we continue, take a few moments to watch the video (live at Lollapalooza). If you’re having trouble following along, here are the lyrics.

If you were around, you recall the Category 5 shitstorm that “Cop Killer” touched off. If you weren’t around, well, it was everything you might imagine and then some. The “establishment,” if I might use the term, was indignant that a gangsta thug was inciting blacks everywhere to round up some caps and then find themselves a cop to bust them up into. At a glance, this might be how it looks from a certain white, suburban, middle-class perspective. But in truth, that’s not what was going on at all. As Ice T says in the intro to the video above, “Cop Killer” isn’t about all cops. Instead, it’s what we would have recognized, in another day and age, as a dramatis personae.

I saw Body Count on that tour, at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem, NC. Sweet hell, you want to talk about a town wound tighter than a banjo string as black-clad Armageddon advanced up I-40 toward the city limits? Winston had its share of racial tensions surrounding the police force already and talk radio, not an engine of progress to start with, certainly didn’t see any profit in trying to calm down the jittery white folk.

The show was freakin’ awesome, end to end. But the moment that everybody came for didn’t go off like some might have expected. Let me paraphrase T’s preface as best I can.

This next song is not about all cops. We all know there are some crazy motherfuckers out there and the cops risk their lives trying to deal with them. Every hand in the air right now: peace to the cops! [Every hand, every fist in the building was in the air, along with Ice T’s, saluting the police.]

But we also know that there are some power trippers. Little motherfuckers that nobody has ever respected who use the badge to abuse those they’re supposed to be protecting. This song is about a man who’s been beat down one time too many because of the color of his skin and he’s about to snap.

Yes, that’s right. Ice T, the man who enraged America with “Cop Killer,” led the crowd in praise of the police and recognition of the dangerous job they have to do.

I couldn’t help remembering a night a few years earlier when I found myself sitting across a table from a cop who was clearly the sort that “Cop Killer” was about. (And yes, I’m working my way around to a relevant point. Stay with me.) I worked for the Wake Forest University campus police when I was in school. The department employed a number of students at jobs like foot patrols, desk duty, dispatch, etc. I was even the student supervisor for a couple of years. During that time I got to know some of the officers pretty well (including the two who later went to prison for using their access to steal school property). Especially on third shift the students would sometimes ride with the officers on patrols and we’d frequently take middle-of-the-night coffee breaks with them at this little greasy spoon just off campus. City police officers took breaks at the same place sometimes.

One night we wandered into the diner and a Winston-Salem cop (whose name I remember, but won’t use here) was sitting at a table near the door. The officer I was riding with knew him and we sat down. Ordered a glass of tea and a slice of pie, as I recall.

Over the next few minutes I heard the N-word more times than you probably get at the average Klan rally. Now, I certainly knew the word. I grew up in the 19th century and had my own embarrassing past. But I was working diligently to become a civilized kid. And the world I lived in at that point had no room for the N-word or any other words like it. I was absolutely shell-shocked by what I was hearing.

My whole life, it seemed, I had heard African-Americans complaining about how they were treated by the police. Stories from faraway cities like Philadelphia were in the paper all the time, but I grew up in a society that made clear what those complaints were: criminal blacks bitching because they got caught.

But here I am, sitting across the table from a city cop (who I fear was actually a distant relative), and every word out of his mouth was evidence that all those blacks with all those complaints about all those cops were telling the stone cold truth.

So, smart-assed kid that I was, I looked across that table and said something to the effect that “you know, you almost sound kind of racist.” I’ll never forget the reply, if I live to be 1,000: “Hell yeah, I’m racist. Ain’t you?”

I don’t honestly remember what I said to that, but I’m certain it was insufficient. I do recall the next time I heard anything about that officer, though. A few years later he had been put in charge of the drug enforcement unit in the city’s most heavily black (and poor) neighborhood.

Back to the debate about Lt. Pike. I don’t want our considerations of the role institutions play in creating thugs with badges to miss out on an important point. It seems to me that a couple of things are true here.

  • Yes, Lt. Pike is a bad actor. Whatever dynamics might be at work in the UC-Davis PD or with police philosophy generally, he acted appallingly and others in the same system or the same kinds of systems daily resist the impulse to unprovoked violence against peaceful protesters.
  • Yes, the system is a serious problem. It encourages those who work in it to behave in egregious ways that are antithetical to the function of a working democracy.

However, one more thing is also true, and it goes to the lesson of “Cop Killer” and my own late-night coffee break experience in the early 1980s. And that is that bad people seek out systems that empower their personal evil. Ice T’s homicidal maniac wasn’t after a cop who’d been created by the LAPD. His target had been a pencil-dicked punk his whole life and had sought out the badge because it would allow him to inflict his own pathological rage on the world, making people he hated feel his own powerlessness. And the Winston-Salem city cop across the table from me was a racist a long time before he became a cop. The force, though, provided him with a legitimizing platform to do something about all those dirty, thieving, drug-addled n_____s in his precinct.

I don’t know Lt. John Pike. But I can’t help making some guesses based on his behavior. I make some assumptions based on the casual, matter-of-fact tone with which he pepper-sprays those students. I don’t know how he feels about blacks, Mexicans or Arabs, although that lawsuit suggests something about how he regards gays. All of the evidence before me makes me believe that he’s a type I have known before, a man frustrated by his powerlessness in the face of social change that he feels threatens his place in society.

I think he’s probably the kind of cop who, had he been working 400 miles to the south 20 years ago, might have inspired a controversial song about a man who’d been beaten down one time too many.


  • Excellent piece! There’s so much I could agree with in your analysis point-by-point, but for brevity’s sake I’ll limit it to two.

    First, a giant THANK YOU for having the courage to drop the n-bomb in exactly the right context toward the end of the article. It is a word laden with some of the ugliest ugly humankind has yet embraced, and for fear of offense we all too often do NOT use it when it should absolutely be used…to vividly paint a picture of that extreme ugliness and elicit a sense of revulsion.

    Second, if I took your meaning in the right way, I think we’re agreed that, ultimately, personal agency trumps structure when it comes to responsibility. Milgram be damned. I grew up in a racially intolerant neck of the woods outside of New Orleans where the local greasy spoon was frequented by some of the local Klan, and I had more than my fair share of exposure to race hatred at an early age. I eventually went on to work for the construction of the King memorial in DC. System be damned. I grew up in a family structure that did not value fidelity in relationships. Rather than being that way myself, I chose faithfulness. I grew up in a suburban area where respect for women was not the norm and ERA supporters were called bra-burning bitches. I lean very closely to radical feminism. The list of examples could go on and on. I like to think that my life now is largely an intentional rejection of life as “they” would have had me lead it.

    From what I’ve seen of your writing, I suspect your own story is all too similar and that your own list would be easily as extensive.

    In each of those cases (for me, at least), I think it came down very simply to personal values and mindful valuation. Perhaps it was because for every massive negative to which I was exposed, there was an equally massive positive somewhere in my experience that afforded me some degree of agency in choosing my values. I don’t think so. More likely, it was one massive negative perhaps countered by myriad little positives in my experience, which would leave it to me to connect the dots and determine that singly or collectively they possess more value.

    So, yeah, structure be damned right along with Milgram and the system. The pencil-dicked punks amongst us start out that way long before spreading their wings, and somewhere down the line, exercising their agency along the way, valued punkishness the more highly, else their vestigial pencil-dicks would have fallen away, permitting them to mature into fully grown members of society 😉

    Oh, hell, did I say brevity?

    • Hi Frank, and thanks for the insightful comment.

      I don’t think I’d say that the individual trumps the system, exactly, although I know exactly what you mean in your comments and you’re right in guessing that my story is a lot like yours. But I’m more of a Complexity Theory type and I don’t see nature/nurture as an either/or. We’re shaped by context and we in turn shape the context. Somewhere along the line you probably came across positive influences that helped you overcome the dominant system you grew up in (this is certainly true for me) and we can regard those influences as part of an alternate context. It’s really one big infinitely mutually causal system, I think, and I’m also guessing that along the way you have become part of a context that someone else has drawn on to combat their own negative influences.

      The thing is, we reach a point where we’re by god responsible for our actions whether there are negative systemic influences or not. Recognizing those influences can explain bad behavior, but they don’t excuse it…..

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  • Great article. Thanks. Some food for thought. I heard a story on This American Life about a test they give to violent criminals to determine whether or not they should be eligible for parole. The “Psychopath Test” supposedly determines whether or not someone is psychopathic. While the test is controversial and the creator never intended it to be used in this way. The fact remains that it is used. I’m rambling here, but I’ll get to my point soon. Since the discussion is talking about systematic verses personal/societal culpability I argue that one way to address the system is to ask it to provide their agents with the same test. Or in any case some sort of extensive psychological screening, to root out any of those “pencil dicked punks”.

  • jeez, you are old! Grew up in the 19th century, eh?

  • Very nice, insightful and well-written article. I’m glad you addressed the “19th century” comment because it had me scratching my head a little bit. I’m planning on looking further into “Complexity Theory” as well, so thank you for the lead.

    Your personal stories and the conclusions you draw reminded me of the story of Adrian Schoolcraft. He was a police officer here in New York City who started secretly recording the rhetoric from his superiors during roll call over a period of months and eventually handing the tapes over to a journalist with The Village Voice to do an expose.

    Schoolcraft was a beat cop who joined the force because his father was a cop and because he genuinely wanted to make a difference in the communities he served. For him, the best way to achieve this was by getting to know the people of those communities, earning their trust and, in turn, coming to rely on them to help him better execute his duties when trouble arose.

    Schoolcraft was disgusted by the orders consistently coming down from the top brass to meet monthly ticket quotas by fining locals for extremely negligible or made-up infractions, encouraging people who were victims of serious crimes to either not file a police report or file a report under a lesser charge in order to promote the image that crime rates were going down, and persistently being ordered to harrass and antagonize the people he was meant to serve.

    He explored every supposed avenue available to him within the institution he worked for to absolutely no avail. Instead of being treated with respect, he was labeled a rabblerouser (this, incidentally, is why I laugh at those so obsequious to authority that they scoff at the OWS protestors by suggesting they should use legal means and work within the system in order to air their grievances, or that the UC Davis protestors got what they deserved because “the law is the law and they were breaking it”).

    When all else failed, Schoolcraft began making the recordings so that the proof would be undeniable once released. I won’t give away the entire story, but I encourage you to look him up if this teaser has piqued your interest. Like Bradley Manning, Schoolcraft paid a steep price for going against the grain in the name of what his conscience told him was right. You have to admire that kind of courage and the willingness to take a stand in a climate where the insane are the ones running the asylum.

    For me his story is a continuation of your own in that it demonstrates how the institution can create the bad actor and the bad actor can, in turn, promote the institution in a vicious cycle.

    Some of those bad actors seek out the institution because it validates something preexisting within them. Others may start out with the best of intentions and allow themselves to be corrupted by the institution because it pays for their livelihoods. I don’t know which one of these people John Pike is, but he most certainly is not among those rare few who, through sheer bravery and nobility of conscience, make the painful choice to be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

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