Impersonating the Police

Posted: March 8, 2009 in Culture, Ethics, Legal Matters

News reports tell of a second case this year of someone impersonating a police officer in the City of Chicago. In the first instance, a 14-year-old boy spent over 5 hours pretending to be an officer. In the more recent case involving a 31-year-old woman, the details are sketchy. It appears she was not wearing a uniform and only said she was an officer, which was probably enough to raise suspicions. The question I saw posed but not taken up is “why would someone impersonate a police officer?” I can think of at least two answers that don’t require much psychological depth.

The Chicago Police represent a lot of conflicting things, among them moral authority. Whether that authority is deserved in the wake of ongoing corruption, scandal, and abuse of power is an open question. Still, the image the police force tries to project aligns with the familiar “serve and protect” slogan used all over North America. For an impressionable youth whose everyday experience is bound up in heroes and superheroes depicted with considerable prominence in the movies and on TV — a reflection of our cultural preoccupations — the attractions of assuming that moral authority at a time of rapidly expanding personal power (as one comes of age) amid a world currently spinning out of control must be pretty seductive. The more prosaic route of earning an associate’s degree in criminology and attending the Police Academy must seem like an interminable delay. And besides, superheroes don’t require credentials; they anoint themselves the guardians and protectors of society, even the reluctant ones.

The other answer to the question is that being a police officer (or impersonating one) confers a clear strategic advantage in nearly every form of conflict. Although few would conceptualize or verbalize it this way, the state has created a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Accordingly, the citizenry has a lot to fear not just from criminals but from the Chicago police, ranging from overweening off-duty officers to planting evidence to outright torture of criminal suspects. The asymmetry of the power relationship is cause for anyone aware of the pattern of behavior of the police to avoid contact if possible. Illegitimate use of force continues unabated, of course, but it’s illegitimate, meaning criminal. So if one is seeking strategic advantage over one’s competitors, impersonating the police is one misguided way to obtain that advantage quickly.


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