#HowCopsGetOff Join the

Part 1: The Narrative

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We are constantly bombarded with cop shows, movies and media that make us think cops do no wrong and lead society to call for increased police presence, it’s called copaganda.

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Discussion Guide

  1. What do cop shows tell us about who provides safety in society? What does safety mean to you? Law and order?
  2. According to cop shows and movies, how do we “solve” violence? Do you think prisons and jails have prevented or ended violence within your community? What do you think would actually reduce harm within your community?
  3. Does the media assist you in understanding why “crime” occurs? If yes, how? If no, why not? What do you think contributes to violence within your community?
  4. Have people been offered a vision of public safety that doesn’t include police? Why or why not? What can we do to combat ‘copaganda?’

Kinds of Policing

While we often see simplified images of cops in TV shows and movies, the landscape of the many institutions of policing in the United States is broad and far-reaching. Policing is used primarily for public control rather than public safety.

What is the history behind policing?

When policing began in the United States it served several purposes depending on local needs. They worked to control the working class, suppress labor movements, monitor enslaved Black people, maintained racial hierarchy, and drove colonial expansion. These roles shared one common characteristic: they were fulfilled by gaining social control over the groups being policed. More often than not, police took social control through violent means.

Police in Community Settings

There are various entitled under the umbrella of “policing.” The two most common types of state policing are street policing and sheriffs.

Street Police
  • Most communities have a local police department funded by state and local governments and municipalities. They are often led by a chief who is usually appointed by the mayor or another government official.
  • Many people associate street police with “public safety”. Although street cops are called to respond to harm, violence, and street crimes, their clearance rates (the rates at which they successfully solve crime) are low.
  • Street police are called in to deal with a variety of social occurrences, even when they are not qualified to respond to them in a safe or helpful way. Street police disproportionately patrol poor communities and communities of color.
  • Their other functions include: protecting property; responding to calls to 911; monitoring and controlling the movement of people experiencing homelessness; and responding to people experiencing public health crises, such as drug addiction.
  • Many street police departments are furnished with military grade equipment that is used to demonstrate force and control over the cities and states they inhabit, surveil and intimidate marginalized communities, and disrupt demonstrations of free speech (i.e. protests)

Sheriffs are public officials elected by a county or parish. Sheriffs oversee a group of deputies/law enforcement officers. Much like police officers, these deputies have the power to patrol streets and make arrests. The major difference between a sheriff’s deputy and a police officer is that police usually operate in a city or town while deputies operate within an entire county. Additionally, in many communities the sheriff is also the person who manages the local jail in the county and is responsible for managing the day to day operations of local detention facilities.

What is the history behind sheriffs?

  • In America, especially in Southern states, sheriffs were the chief law enforcement officers. In the 1700s, they were known as slave patrols whose job was to kidnap enslaved people who ran away and maintain control over them.
  • After emancipation, they arrested newly freed Black people, often based on no evidence at all, and drove them into a criminal punishment system that often resulted in death.
  • Sheriffs also received kickbacks and created lists of Black people that they could lease to employers who would force them to perform labor. During the Jim Crow Era, sheriffs enforced segregation and the disenfranchisement of Black people.

What role do sheriffs play now?

  • The role of sheriffs varies greatly from state to state, but their duties might include patrolling, policing, and other civil duties. Some places that don’t have police departments task the sheriff’s office with policing duties.
  • Sheriffs oversee local jails, and this includes maintaining jail conditions and transporting prisoners/inmates to and from jail.
  • Sheriffs may be responsible for several civil enforcement and administrative duties such as enforcing evictions, issuing permits for concealed weapons, issuing permits for protests, serving subpoenas, and in some cases even acting as the coroner.
  • Many jurisdictions also work with ICE through ICE’s 287(g) program, which is based on agreements between state/ local law enforcement and ICE to enable sheriffs and other law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of jail detainees which can then lead to deportation proceedings.
Community Surveillance

Who conducts it?

  • Community surveillance refers to probation and parole officers that monitor and surveil people who have been convicted of a crime. Probation is a type of community monitoring that can be used instead of a jail or prison sentence. Parole is a type of community monitoring that happens after someone completes a prison sentence.

How do probation and parole officers limit your freedom?

  • The parole/probation laws give courts and correctional agencies broad discretion to impose almost any condition on someone serving their parole/probation sentence.
  • These conditions vary in their scope and include restrictions on changing residence without authorization, restrictions on who individuals can associate with, restrictions on drug and alcohol use, and even restrictions on owning devices capable of connecting to the internet.
  • The average person under these forms of supervision is subject to an average of 10 to 20 conditions, but it is not uncommon to exceed 20 conditions.

What happens if you violate parole or probation?

  • Parole and probation officers are given a lot of discretion in how they want to address violations of supervision conditions, from ignoring them, issuing warnings, imposing sanctions like electronic monitoring, mandatory treatment, jail time, or sending someone back to prison, called a revocation.

Why are these forms of supervision harmful?

  • Although parole and probation are presented as alternatives to imprisonment, they are merely an extension of it. Instead of keeping people out of jails and prisons, these forms of supervision end up serving as feeders into mass incarceration. Nationwide, there are more people locked up for violations of these conditions than there are those who are convicted of new crimes.

Police in Educational Settings

School Resource Officers (SROs)

What are they?

  • SROs are police that work in schools.
  • While advocates claim that school-based policing serves the purpose of keeping students safe and preventing crime, there is little evidence to support that police presence creates safer schools. There is enough data, however, to conclude that police presence results in higher rates of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests for black and brown students.

What do they do?

  • While not explicitly called “police”, they usually have the power to restrain and detain students, and report/recommend that criminal charges be brought against young people in schools. Their responsibilities are similar to the responsibilities of regular police officers, but within a school setting.
  • They also use their powers to search students and confiscate/dispose of their belongings.
  • They patrol the school hallways and campuses, carry weapons, and use force and intimidation to protect property under the guise of maintaining “order.”
  • While it is highly questionable whether expanding police presence in schools has made students safer, one thing is certain: police in schools have a disproportionate impact on the safety black and brown youth. This is not only because school police are more likely to use excessive force on black and brown children, but also because they are more likely to be arrested for minor issues that others are not disciplined for, which in turn increases the likelihood that these children will end up in the criminal legal system.
  • SROs are frequently used where a social or mental health service provider would be more appropriate, safer, and more effective.
Campus Police

What are they?

  • Many colleges and universities have full police departments on campus. They are directed by the college and university they operate in. They consist of uniformed, sworn police officers that have as much authority as regular police officers.
  • Campus police often work together with local and state police, but they operate independently from them.

What do they do?

  • Campus police carry weapons, have the power to arrest people, can conduct searches and criminal investigations, and enforce local, state, and federal laws.
  • Campus police often have jurisdiction beyond the campus. This means they can police the housing, roads, and public spaces around the campuses they serve, and these communities may or may not reflect the racial composition of the student body.

Federal Law Enforcement


What are they?

  • The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is a federal intelligence and law enforcement agency that is a part of the Department of Justice. Often, FBI agents are not uniformed. They typically wear suits on duty or plainclothes for investigation and carry badges to identify themselves when needed. The FBI is not a national police force, but a national security organization that has some law enforcement responsibilities.

What is the history behind the FBI?

  • The FBI was founded in 1870 as an organization whose purpose was to enforce federal law. The federal government used the FBI to investigate criminals, but the agency was eventually used to spy on any political radicals or dissenters and disrupt the activities of civil rights organizations.
  • The FBI has a history of targeting Black activists. During the Civil Rights movement, for example, their COINTELPRO program involved a series of covert projects that targeted civil rights leaders such as Dr. King by using methods to spark conflict within the civil rights movement. This is the same program under which the FBI assassinated the Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton.
  • More recently, the FBI has turned its attention to Black Lives Matter leaders. In 2020, for example, FBI paid unscheduled visits to the homes of Black Lives Matter organizers in D.C. and questioned them about their social media posts, protest plans, and whether they had connections to Antifa, ultimately finding no evidence of any such connection.

What do they do?

  • The major functions of the FBI include conducting investigations and collecting intelligence to identify and counter domestic and international terrorism threats, investigating violations of federal laws, and enforcing federal laws.
  • The FBI also has the power to assist state and local police when their aid is requested. In the U.S., FBI agents can make arrests for federal offenses.

What are they?

  • ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) is a federal law enforcement agency that is primarily responsible for immigration enforcement. ICE was formed following the events of 9/11.
  • ICE agents are uniformed officers and these uniforms are labeled “Police ICE”.
  • Even though their uniforms create a lot of confusion for brown communities and they are allowed to announce themselves as police, ICE agents ARE NOT police officers and cannot perform routine policing functions.

What do they do?

  • ICE has three main functions: immigration enforcement, investigation of undocumented people and goods, and the prevention of terrorism. In recent years, ICE has focused on immigration enforcement within the US.
  • ICE works with other agencies, including local police, to carry out the arrests, detention, enforcement, and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

ICE also conducts worksite enforcement, which involves investigating employers and employees in worksites to enforce federal laws. Undocumented immigrants, if identified, are often placed in deportation proceedings as a result of worksite enforcement efforts.


Further Reading