Daring to sympathize with China’s unhappy police

China’s Unhappy Police” is a perfectly-named and very interesting paper by Suzanne Scoggins and Kevin J. O’Brien, reporting the results of numerous interviews with low-level cops in China (link courtesy of Omnivore). It’s an unusually sympathetic account of a group that does not get a lot of sympathy. Some excerpts:

Facing piles of tedious, repetitive work, young police report that life on the force is not what they anticipated. Fresh recruits in their early 20s typically start out full of hope, imagining that they are taking up positions as brave law enforcers who will command prestige, get to wear a sharp uniform, and maybe, if they are lucky, fire a gun. They tend to be aware of the long hours and dangers of the job, but few are prepared for the monotony of street-level policing. When on patrol, they often spend hours parked on street corners with little to do.

Instead of fighting crime, many also find themselves occupied with matters unrelated to law enforcement. Members of the public often do not know what falls within their job description, and officers say they must respond to every phone request, no matter how insignificant. This means that street-level cops may be summoned to find lost cows in the middle of the night, search for missing dogs, or retrieve forgotten QQ numbers (login information for a popular social network). Despite being fix-it men for a host of community problems, young police complain that they have far less authority than they expected. “I can tell someone on the street to stop,” explained one officer, “but they don’t care. They just start arguing with me.” …

The trials of street-level officers have only worsened in recent years as they face new demands and reforms that tie their hands. Older cops complain bitterly about procedural changes that make it harder to conduct investigations and interrogate suspects. Officers of all ages lament a 1994 rule that forbids them from carrying guns (except under extraordinary circumstances) and often attribute some of their limited authority to being under-armed. Police are also unhappy about stepped-up reporting requirements. Chinese street cops, like those in many countries, are frustrated by the number, length, and complexity of the reports they must file with their superiors and the Ministry. Beset with busywork and pinned to their desks, officers argue they have insufficient time to attend to more important tasks such as conducting investigations. Finally, attacks on police have increased both in violence and frequency, undercutting the belief many hold that they are respected and, when needed, feared by the public. …

Like unhappy employees everywhere, discontented officers look for ways to avoid work. Some shirking is easy to observe. Parked patrol cars filled with dozing officers are a common sight on Chinese street corners. But most shirking occurs in the station house. Although none of our respondents admitted to evading their responsibilities, some commented on goldbricking by their co-workers. “The old guys do what they like,” explained one officer. “They don’t care about new rules [forbidding government workers from drinking alcohol during lunchtime]. They just close their office door after lunch and go to sleep.” While officers may prefer lunchtime boozing over afternoon work for any number of reasons, a group of older cops cited the stress that comes with the job when asked about their midday imbibing. “Drinking is the only pleasure we police have,” said one, as the others roared in agreement and continued enjoying just the sort of alcohol-infused banquet they had been told to eschew.

Shirking can also take on more creative forms. “Protocols are not specific,” explained one young officer. “One day I went to bust up a small hair salon, and when the boss fled, I ran a long way until I finally caught him. My colleagues laughed at me and said I was crazy [to chase the man]. We get paid so little and procedures don’t say what to do when criminals run.”

The general lesson, as in so many cases, is that China is messier than you might think:

China is often thought of as a well-funded and tightly organized security state, with a full palette of formal and informal agencies to maintain social order. Front-line police are only one part of that apparatus, but their unhappiness and weak job performance suggests a certain brittleness that may signal problems elsewhere. Since 1989, the Party has proven quite adept at managing or at least suppressing social unrest, but dissatisfaction and mismanagement of the lower levels of the security state speaks to abiding weaknesses that merit more attention. What ground-level agents of state power have to say matters. As our interviews reveal, the life of a front-line cop is filled with uncertainty, hardship, and feelings of powerlessness. Their accounts, self-serving as they may be, show them in a new light: as overburdened, under-armed and unhappy men and women trying to make the most of a difficult job.

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