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Friday, June 21

Gapers Block

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So I went to a large computer store on Elston. Great store, but horribly run. Standing in line, I calculated that in four visits to their service department, I had spent just under three hours in line. One day, while trying to buy a PC, I waited 20 minutes for somebody to tell me if they had something in stock. I watched other customers grow furious and demand to see a manager, and yell at clerks and managers about how poorly the place was run.

Being me, I kept cool. I'm a cool cat that way.

But of course, it's not their fault, is it? The fault, as usual, lay with the bosses. (How long did you think it would take me to work that in? Just wait until you see what the article is actually about.) Each store has a budget, and the store managers must ensure that payroll falls within an acceptable limit. That limit is designed to maximize productivity while minimizing expense to the company. In other words: let's see how hard we can make people work for as little as possible. This is to maximize profit for "the shareholders." Except not really; because most of that money is rerouted to the highest level of executive management, who are beholden to the stockholders by formality only. Corporate governance and shareholder democracy is a complete joke.

So the customers grew seriously enraged at the clerks, who responded with a combination of passive-aggressiveness, exaggerated slowness and frustrated rage. It was really something. I imagined what would have happened if this were a more emergency situation: say, if this store sold food, not computer accessories and high-powered cooling fans for awesome Halo action, and if it was the only food store anywhere nearby. People would probably have started to get violent with this poor of service if they were trying to get some food. And if there was a local food shortage, you'd have to make sure that store was well damn staffed.

Police officers are not corrupt or brutal. The police are understaffed, underpaid, and unrespected. The problem with the police is not the brave, blue-collar men and women who risk their lives to maintain order, order which gives us the security to prosper economically and politically. The problem with the police is that it is an over-politicized, resource-starved organization. I can't imagine being a cop and having an off day. Wouldn't you just walk around looking at everybody enjoying their day, wouldn't you just look at large groups of people, say at the beach, and just think, "You people have no damn idea." Police are what keep us all from descending into a state of chaos so brutal and so unhappy that we would start to lose our very humanity.

They have a very difficult but very important job, is what I'm telling you. And things were never as (relatively) peaceful as they are now for the majority of human beings.

Cops are under extreme pressures at all times. We have spent three decades pulling wealth out of the bottom of part of the economy and redistributing it to the top so that once somewhat unsafe working class and poor neighborhoods are now unbelievably so. Too much wealth goes to these areas in the form of the black market economy, which brings with it the black market "security" needed to enforce it. Tada, crime is a result of "poverty" but really it's a result of theft of productivity from the working and middle class by the investor class; it isn't just the unemployed, it's an increasingly large percentage of Americans sinking into meager existences due to huge indebtedness.

Our reaction to this seems to be to insist on even more productivity from our frontline officers, without a commensurate increase in income and working conditions. Cops are not paid nearly enough. Not even close. There is a serious case to be made that the typical Chicago cop makes about three quarters of what he deserves. But OK, say that is simply not feasible (it is); then you have to do what the other side of the productivity/income equation demands: you have to decrease the expected productivity from a single cop. How would you do that? Hire more cops!

Is that it, do we just pour money into the problem? Of course not. It's not just a lack of cops — it's stupid laws, too. We'd have to do something about making cops chase 12-year-olds for selling two grams of marijuana and turning that kid into a perp-for-life. It's stupid administrative rules that make hiring for a job that values on-the-job experience more than anything too cumbersome.

You'd have to do other stuff, too. You'd have to de-politicize the department. You'd do that by, for example, insulating it from political offices (make it harder for the city to dismiss a Superintendent, and make it harder for the Superintendent to dismiss cops) while making peer-review an actual, integral part of advancement and pay-raises (and discipline). Cops, like nurses, are the best judges of their peers, because of the absolutely critical role of teamwork. Despite our Robocop fantasies, it seems that cops' ability to rely on each other, and act in concert instinctively, is the greatest measure of their effectiveness. They knew the good cops from the bad. Let them have a say. As in so many different public interest industries, the front-line employees need to have a serious level of input in order to get the best working order out of the organization. There is a happy by-product: protect all cops from politically motivated hiring, firing and promotion, while making good-faith local recruitment efforts, and you will erode institutionalized discrimination, which will replace forced diversity with natural diversity.

Arguments that better pay, more cops and more protections for cops would make them "lazy" seem to make sense, until you really consider what you're saying. Do cops have a reputation for being go-getters now? Aren't we, in big cities, constantly maligning our cops for being doughnut-eating, carefree dumbasses? And if a cop is busting his ass, constantly being attacked by the press (and people on the street) and is making garbage money — is any of this an incentive to work harder? Of course not. People work up to their reward, and rarely beyond. The lucky people are the ones whose reward is something more than income. For cops forced into desperate situations, forced to look inhumanity in the eye on a regular basis, I can understand how a "job well done" is just not enough after a while.

The readiness of the liberals among us Leftists to attack the police as individuals, or attack the character of cops generally, is unfortunate and betrays our core principles. Is there a sordid history of terrible, unwarranted police brutality? Absolutely. This is not only because of understaffing or poor pay; it's because of bad oversight and a lack of accountability to the community. But the police deserve respect and dignity — and privacy — on the job. At the same time, the police, and those who speak for them, can't be content to paint themselves as victims of media hype and a hostile community. Police brutality is real and it cannot be tolerated or excused on the grounds of poor staffing when it happens. But cops, like the rest of us, are workers, and they are not properly rewarded for their effort. Like the rest of the workers in their strata of the economy, they are expected to harness the moon, but excoriated when they ask for commensurate pay and respect on the job.

It's like at the store; just like the customers shouldn't blame the front-line employee for the situation, so the employee shouldn't blame the customer for being upset. They would be just as upset in their situation. They both need to turn their rage on those who set the system up, who benefit from it, and who perpetuate it. The bosses — the policymakers. Our elected officials, but more importantly, their paymasters. Since the late 1960s, our big city political organizations — almost uniformly Democratic — have been of the liberal, rather than Leftist, bent. We pay lip service to diversity and "community input" while we allow the working people to get exploited in ways that just make the problems worse. When valid cases of brutality erupt, punish the officers according to the letter of the law. But don't start tut-tutting about today's cops. Demand accountability from the bosses who make their job even harder.

And just as with those faceless corporate giants, ultimately, this solution would be arrived at if we had true "shareholder" — voter and taxpayer — democracy. Let the people decide how their money is spent, and they'll spend more on cops, and less on corporate welfare.

GB store


Chef / November 1, 2007 11:28 AM

Hi Ramsin,

Interesting piece. I would like to apologize now if I am too off topic here.

“Corporate governance and shareholder democracy is a complete joke”…and “most of that money is rerouted to the highest level of executive management, who are beholden to the stockholders by formality only”.

I would hope you could expand on these points.

Shareholders do have rights and obligations…in fact, it is clearly pointed out what shareholders are entitled to…it is also clearly pointed out what the CEO and the “highest level of management” are entitled to…this is all pointed out in what is called a “Shareholders Agreement”.

To infer that “shareholders” are somehow losing out to what the highest level of management make doesn’t make much sense.

I know this piece was about the police, and I don’t mean to be too off topic.

But, can you expand on those points?

C-Note / November 1, 2007 5:25 PM


I apologize too, for the following:

Police overworked, under pressure, underpaid? Get in line. You work for the people; for the government - a not-for-profit job, to be sure.

And although police may be overworked, etc., they do have a budget of well over a billion dollars annually - more than 20% of the total city budget; the police are reasonably paid for the work they do, relative to everyone else (I doubt many people think they're overpaid), and giving them a raise doesn't seem to be feasible, given the problems with the department, the costs of litigation to protect them when they fuck up, and city taxes (not to mention federal taxes) at an all-time record high.

I have a job myself, and actually I'm kind of envious of having a job that would not only fire me, but might promote me, pay for my legal defense, give me a pension, if I decided to beat up, torture, or shoot to one of our clients.

t0nic / November 2, 2007 4:32 PM

"Police officers are not corrupt or brutal"???

A "some" in front of that sentence would have been a whole lot more accurate than that pitifully erroneous statement. Have you READ the papers lately, heck, even in the last few weeks? Officers in league with the mob? And what exactly did that tiny barmaid do to warrant getting her ass kicked by Anthony Abbate?

Look, I respect the cops too... MOST of them. But I'm not stupid enough to say that all of them are upstanding defenders of the law with no bad apples among them. C'mon, wake up.

C-Note / November 4, 2007 8:49 AM

I suspect Mr. Canon's on the city payroll.

mike / November 4, 2007 8:06 PM

Those who are quick to blame cops, teachers, nurses etc. do not have a clear sense of what's at stake in further professionalizing these professions. Like any profession, there are those who under-serve and, yes, are corrupt; however the majority invest their very lives into their jobs and also try to pursue more input into how their very critical roles can keep us all from becoming further dehumanized.

It's clear that Ramsin is arguing that if we choose to turn our attention towards these professions it should also be towards those men and women who's very role is to limit them and apply a media-based gloss, just enough to keep the real monies with the investor/hedge fund class and just enough to keep our darkest imaginings right outside our comfort zone.

Kenzo / November 6, 2007 5:12 PM

Re: C-Note

I propose a moratorium on accusing political writers of being on a city's, state's, or political party's payroll. Although there are instances where this is true, claiming that someone is being paid in no way wins an argument.

Chef / November 6, 2007 5:43 PM

Kenzo...maybe...just maybe...C-Note was prodding Ramsin for an answer to our posts.

I would like to know why Ramsin uses unsound Economic references to set up his points.

In his writings he seems to leave many important Economic items out of his equations. Which, then, leads me to wonder if he knows the basics or Economics…or is he just regurgitating Howard Zinn or someone like that?


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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