Book Review Police: Streetcorner Politicians by William K. Muir Jr.
The complex and challenging role of the policeman in society is given a rigorous treatment by author William K. Muir. The book serves multiple purposes at once – it is part of sociological research, part collection of interesting anecdotes and part informed commentary. The author excels in meeting each of these three objectives with élan. One of the attractive features of the book is how it combines armchair analysis with on-field documentation. With regard to the latter, the author seems to adopt a hands-on, spontaneous documentary style, where he walks into situations of interest with a recorder/scribbling pad at hand.
Muir acknowledges the propensities of policemen for stereotyping victims and resorting to easy violence. Yet, he constructs his narrative in a manner empathetic towards them. He highlights how highly stressful the daily duties of police are and how their poise can consequently sometimes snap. A policeman’s professional life is mostly filled with tragic or emergency situations. These situations demand an elevated degree of resourcefulness, alertness, and decisiveness. Needless to say, such great demands on the body and mind take a toll on their health and wellbeing. It is mostly as a result of such adverse conditioning that a policeman comes across as having an aggressive and rigid personality. It is interesting to note that these same apparently negative qualities turn virtuous in situations demanding valor and fortitude. By highlighting these nuances of the psychodynamics of policemen-on-duty, Muir has crafted a well-rounded personality profile of a police officer.
Muir treats the phenomenon of corruption among policemen without getting judgmental. He illustrates how even honest and forthright police officers face peer pressure to play along with the system. An isolated well-meaning policeman simply gets ostracized by his peers if he does not conform to the general culture of the corruption prevalent in most police departments.
In terms of style of scholarship, breaking away from conventions and decorum expected of academic research, Muir builds personal camaraderie with his interviewees. He makes them feel comfortable by projecting that he is one among them. They then give answers in an uninhibited fashion. This atmosphere also allows Muir to elicit answers that are not colored by psychological defense mechanisms or protective rationalizations. Muir is thus able to get a composite portrait of policemen, with both the professional and personal facets included. He is able to show how many policemen struggle to separate their personal and professional lives. The high volatile environment of police duty incurs a personal cost. Oftentimes, their interpersonal relations with close family members suffer due to this imbalance. Muir attempts to thus portray policemen with humanitarian understanding. All things considered, police personnel plays a crucial judicial function (law enforcement) that no democratic civil society can do without. However, they often get a bad rap as greedy and ruthless – a perception that melts away under Muir’s scrutinizing scholarship.
The other underappreciated facet to a police officer is his blind subjugation to existing laws. Even when a policeman personally disagrees with law and perceives it to be unjust, he is bound to enforce it with an attitude of detached solemnity. Despite overcoming several such moments of conflict in the course of his duty, the policeman yet remains negatively stereotyped. Muir endeavors to correct this general misunderstanding.
Muir also analyzes also a policeman in the context of power. This explains why he parallels a policeman with a politician since both share a platform of power. The author recognizes the power’s tendency to corrupt the soul. In turn, an otherwise good policeman is susceptible to the rot that police work poses. The text strays from the superficial understanding of a policeman’s work to presenting a policeman as a person with intellectual and moral choices to make. He uses the first-hand account of 28 retired police officers about their work in an American city, in the 1970s.
In chapter 10, the author explains why the police use threats to survive through their career1. He uses the analogy of roughneck politics whereby having a nasty reputation helps a person establish an easy working relationship with people in the long run. The easy working relationship, however, develops out of fear rather than respect. A policeman, therefore, may employ intimidation and a rough personality in order to coerce people towards respecting one’s demands.
The book delves into the subject of irrationality and how such an aspect commonly confronts a policeman. A policeman deals with irrational characters such as street burglars, who may always possess a one-dimensional perspective on things. This, however, does not accord a policeman the power to act irrationally. In essence, the author characterizes a policeman as a person endowed with significant power. The large capacity to abuse such power can severely affect a policeman and the society that one lives in the same. A good policeman, therefore, chooses moral and intellectual viewpoints that help better society.
In sum, the book is deeply humanistic. Although Muir brings to the table a degree of distanced objectivity fitting a research scholar, one cannot but help feel his sympathies with the police profession. The composite picture of policemen that he paints is one showing them as decent human beings by and large.
Muir Jr., William K. Police: streetcorner politicians. Chicago, IL: Published by University of Chicago Press, 1977.