Chauvin and our division-of-labor problem

What was Officer Chauvin thinking ( feeling, experiencing) for those 9 plus minutes kneeling on George Floyd’s neck? Was he really more afraid than he looked? Was he feeling racist rage? Or maybe a sense of duty to set a good example for the less experienced cops standing around?

A few minutes of google search turned up nothing on the question. We don’t seem all that interested in what was going through his mind.

In the aftermath of the Chauvin murder trial there is the sense that now maybe we will see some fundamental change in policing. The George Floyd police reform bill, if it can get intact through the senate, is certainly a step in the right direction. But along with new police procedures and rules, what’s needed is a radical ( root) change in the ideology of division of labor, as applied to the work of policing.

Division-of-labor (specialization, professionalism) is a key idea and practice of modern life. I do this for you, you do that for me. I fix your leaky toilet, you take my blood pressure at the clinic. I frame your house, you teach my kids. It’s such a basic way of doing things in modern life we don’t even think about it.

Usually specialization works efficiently. We don’t all have to learn how to do everything. It’s ok for me to defer to your expertise about my heating system.

But with policing it’s different. As body cams and smart phones are forcing us to acknowledge, when it comes to law enforcement the division of labor is a big problem.

One of the benefits of division-of-labor specialization is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time wondering what it’s like to be a cop. We, as it were, hand a gun to one of the people we went to school with and say, here you go, you deal with the darker side of life. Keep me safe while I do my thing.

I have myself been happy enough not to have to walk a mile in that uncomfortable-looking, stiff, heavy outfit on streets that feel dangerous while wearing a gun. Cops probably don’t spend much time thinking about what it’s like to face a room full of students whose idea of a good time is not to spend a fine spring day cooped up in a school room.

Specialization encourages an innocence and irresponsibility about the work we delegate to others. With policing that’s a big problem.

The logic of professionalist ideology is clear: I’m the pro here. You pay me to know about this area of life. So when I tell you , for instance, how much force is required in dealing with an unruly suspect, don’t second guess me because I’m the expert. Makes a certain sense.

But what we are learning, with the help of body cams and smart phone cameras, is the limits of this professionalism logic when it comes to policing. Unlike many areas of life, policing work often involves areas of life in which the expert is not the expert.

The little town of Wellfleet would seem to have nothing in common with big city crime and big city cops. But even here, where the chances of personally knowing a policeman are pretty good., there have been a number of instances over the years that illustrate the limits of division of labor applied to law enforcement.

In the late 1990s an officer drew a gun on what he saw as a possible perp, a Black man walking on the bike path. There was an uproar. The gun was, in the officer’s expert opinion justified. But in a public meeting in response to the uproar (the Black man was an exchange student living with a local family), his expertise was pretty loudly overruled by community standards.

The police chief installed a camera to spy on youth downtown, in his professional opinion the way to deal with reports of unruly teens . That too became an issue. Spying on our kids that way smacked of police state.

The chief proposed the use of tasers, when they became popular in police departments around the country and again was voted down in town meeting.(They have since been OK’d by town meeting.)

The theme in all these cases was the limits of professionalism. We won’t secondguess the plumber’s expertise in fixing the leak, but with police work it’s different.

Entrenched, institutional racism is a problem, as is entrenched class bias. But perhaps the biggest problem at all–because usually not seen as a problem—is the entrenched ideology of professionalism.


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