Saturday, June 22, 2013

Bullying humor: Tempe cops' jokes fall flat, again and again

Don't make any threatening moves while running!

Radley Balko's recent article at Huffington Post, entitled "What Cop T-Shirts Tell Us About Police Culture", is both disturbing and darkly humorous, giving the reader a look into the fascistic and sociopathic humor that prevails in the world of law enforcement.

Because cops are sacred cows in our culture, Balko gives them a bit of a pass at the end of his piece, but that's okay, because everything else is quite damning.  In his article, the cops come off as inhumane, thuggish, violent, racist and perhaps surprisingly unconcerned or just too dense to realize the perception their public displays create.

The Valley has its own history of bad cop humor, of course, some of which we've already detailed, and the rest which we'll be delving into in a future article.  But Balko's piece gives us a chance to offer a little preview of what's to come, thanks to a recent Tempe police 5k run, a fundraiser, cheekily titled "Run From the Cops".  Cheeky, that is, if you've never been on the receiving end of a TPD chase.

The Tempe Police Department announced the 5k jog (and it's 1/2k junior, the "Fuzz Run") last December, inviting participants to run from the cops for charity.  The PR event offered free "play badges" for kids, and other "family fun", such as heavily armed police showing off the latest in fear-inspiring military-style gear, including "the SWAT Armored Vehicle, Police Motorcycle, Patrol Squad Car, and a Police Command Van.".  (By the way, Balko's new book details the increasing militarization of US police forces.)

What's more, and here's the connection to Balko's piece, participants in the race received t-shirts commemorating the run, emblazoned with the event's logo, a graphic that included a pair of handcuffs.  If all you get from TPD for running from the cops is a shirt, count yourself lucky.  Winners in their age category were awarded tastefully engraved handcuffs.  A token, perhaps, of TPD's affection.  Or maybe a not so subtle reminder of their more typical response, one that less affluent and non-white people experience on a daily basis.  People for whom "run from the cops" has much less whimsical connotations.

Thanks for participating!  (Photo via

It makes sense for the Tempe cops to want to play the PR game.  The force, has seen its share of scandal over the years.  For instance, in the mid-2000's the TPD was described by its own non-uniformed employees as a "good 'ol boys" network dominated by white men and resistant to efforts by employees and the city to get it to meet diversity standards.  Recently an officer was sentenced to 90 days in jail for theft and another opened fire on a drunk man tossing wine bottles around.  

In almost eerie coincidence, on December 9th, 2000, almost 12 years to the day before the charity run, Tempe officer Chris Beck opened fire on three unarmed men suspected of breaking into a car in a parking lot, wounding one.  Beck claimed one of the men had made a threatening move, provoking her to open fire.  After the shooting, the men fled in their car and were t-boned by a semi when they ran a red light, killing all three.  No weapon was found in the vehicle.  Incidentally, TPD's charity run took place at Tempe Beach Park, and the route took joggers right past the place where the Officer Beck opened fire.  This probably isn't the image TPD wanted to evoke with their PR event, but the history can't be ignored.

As Balko's article goes to show, and as Tempe's "Run From the Cops" race backs up, underlying police humor is a dark current of class hatred, bullying attitudes and, often, racism.  All the elements of policing, really.  This bad humor is hardly surprising in a society where all major institutions, especially the media, worship the police, and treat them, despite their many, many scandals and crimes, as brave heroes on the front lines of a society always about to collapse.  Police don't receive much criticism, are insulated from criticism by large bureaucracies, don't take criticism well, and regularly have their egos inflated by everything from the local news to prime time dramas.

Whether it's a Phoenix cop tweeting a racist, classist joke about Olympic Champion Usain Bolt, or a Tempe cop making two black men rap in order to get out of a ticket, police humor tends to come at the expense of others.  As Balko points out, it reflects an "us vs. them" attitude.  One that indicates a complete inability to conceive of itself the way others see them -- to get outside themselves and empathize with others and their points of view.  Thus cop humor is of the "laughing at you" rather than the "laughing with your" variety.  And when we indulge it, the jokes' on us.  


  1. It might be said that the cops are considered sacred cows as a result of living in a society dominated by patriarchal assumptions. If patriarchy is, in part, defined by valuing dominance as an expression of power, then law enforcement certainly represent the manifestation of this idea. While it's clear that the classist and racist ideas fuel who the police most often target, it is often glossed over or ignored that the assumptions of patriarchy are what protect such institutions from public scrutiny.

  2. I agree with your comment, however, I think in the US police behavior results from more than mere "classist and racist ideas". Regulating class and property is of course a central function of policing, but in the US, the origins of policing lie directly within the system of white supremacy. We can trace that lineage back to the slave patrols and anti-Mexican militias, for example. In that sense, white supremacy was embedded within American policing at its birth. Thus police get a pass because they uphold the basic pillars of American society: patriarchy, for sure, but also white supremacy and property. In the US, in my opinion, history has shown that white supremacy is the key out of those three, and the other two relate to it, not the other way around. That's not to prioritize one as a worse oppression than another, just to describe the way it functions.