It might be tempting to dismiss this choice of words as a rote cliché. But to criminologist and cultural theorist Travis Linnemann, these remarks betray a profound connection between police violence and the conventions structuring the genre of horror itself. Consider the contrast between MPD’s initial incident report and the brutal reality captured on Frazier’s phone. In it, we glimpse the jarring disjunction between the world that the cops and their stenographers present — which many Americans are all too happy to imaginatively inhabit — and the reality that plays out on streets across the country. “Dread and menace sitting just behind the familiar,” Linnemann writes, “this is the place from which horror fiction begins.” His book The Horror of Police (University of Minnesota Press, 2022) explores the “dread and menace” evoked by policing in the United States, pressing us to consider how Floyd’s murder comes to stand for the reality of American policing as a whole.
Linnemann’s debut book Meth Wars: Police, Media, Power (NYU Press, 2016) unpacks the cultural constellation of associations and meanings that surround the methamphetamine drug. Linnemann details the spurious body of “meth talk”: the supposed facts that every person thinks they know about use of the drug, thanks to media including the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program and the television show Breaking Bad. A former parole officer who resigned in disgust of social ravages of the carceral system, Linnemann casts a withering skeptic’s eye at the largely fanciful narratives through which large parts of the United States have been recast as meth-fueled wastelands, its inhabitants designated as enemy combatants in an endless, extralegal drug war. In the process, he reveals meth talk as a conversation that says far more about the society that produced it — rife with inequality, racism, and a declining standard of living for working people — than it does about the quasimagical powers of one particular drug to reshape vast swaths of the country in its image.
The Horror of Police works in the opposite direction. Whereas Meth Wars begins with a body of knowledge purported to be true and tracks the devastating fact of its unreality, The Horror of Police begins with the genre of fiction, particularly horror, a body of deliberately distressing material that comforts its consumers with assurances that it’s all just made up. As viewers seeking so-called “escapism” flock toward twisted fantasies of real-world problems, Linnemann instructs us to take the social potency of these myths seriously, and apply their narrative logic to understanding the real world. “What is hidden from view,” he asks, “or rather, what provisions have we made to shelter our minds from that which is too terrifying to confront?”
Horror, Linnemann argues, inhabits “the space between what appears and what is.” So what appears to us in the endless spectacle of violent cops? Through close reading — or, as he insists, critical misreading — of the sizable US cultural canon of potted “police story” narratives and law-and-order “cop knowledge,” Linnemann explores the liminal space between the comforting stories our society tells itself and the violent reality lurking just beneath the surface. It is this reality which episodically erupts into spectacular savagery like Floyd’s murder and catalyzes moments of collective horror.
Linnemann is particularly effective when using this framework of horror to challenge the curious cultural figure of the liberal police reformer, who, like the members of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, argue that the biggest problems with police violence are the individual “bad apple” cops who disrupt the legitimacy of the institution. This strange, circular argument begins with the unproven premise that the US police deserve legitimacy in the first place and proceeds to identify a staggering litany of police misdeeds. Countless acts of police brutality, these reformers insist, are not the real face of American police. They are unfortunate aberrations. Linnemann begs to differ. Drawing on an extensive analysis of the conventions of horror fiction, he argues that moments like Floyd’s murder are revelations; the subsequent confrontation with reality overwhelms our senses and produces “[b]loodcurdling revelation, the genre’s remuneration.”
When the horror of reality is glimpsed at last, we may doubt what we are seeing. Linnemann points out that it is a classic trope of horror that a lone witness to the fantastic, supernatural, or macabre is dismissed by those around them, forced to question their own senses, facing an unenviable dilemma, in the words of philosopher Eugene Thacker: “Either I do not know the world, or I do not know myself.” Recasting the horror protagonist as the contemporary witness to police violence, Linnemann counters: “What if things are precisely as they appear? What if we saw what we saw?” This is the fundamental question of The Horror of Police, quickly answered in the affirmative and giving way to the still more provocative idea: what if, as the police supporters often insist, monsters are real, and the call is coming from inside the station?
Befitting the imagination of the liberal reformers, Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of Floyd — a rarity in itself, achieved with nearly unprecedented levels of cooperation throughout the Minneapolis city government and police department — was presented to the public as an exorcism of sorts, cleansing the social body of a great evil, restoring health and upstanding morality. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even thanked Floyd directly “for sacrificing your life for justice.” This was no gaffe; the state’s sacrifice of Chauvin, one of a miniscule number of cops made to bear responsibility for their wrongful actions, was designed to rescue the legitimacy of the whole system. Chauvin’s actions catalyzed a national outcry, such that those in power cast him as the bad apple whose wickedness only confirms the goodness of the rest.
But what do the bad apple cops actually represent? The textbook civics-class response, espoused by conservatives and liberals alike, is that these bad actors cast shame on the vast majority of cops who do, in fact, uphold the law. While this belief animated copaganda classics like Law & Order and contemporary mediocrities like End of Watch, Linnemann is attentive to just how much popular, pro-cop media no longer even pretends to believe this. Through a close reading of the popular HBO series True Detective, with a little help from philosopher Walter Benjamin, Linnemann explores the illegality at the center of effective policing, what Benjamin called “something rotten in law.” Linnemann explores a popular tradition stretching back at least to Dirty Harry and one lent its most novelistic sheen by HBO’s The Wire, in which a cop protagonist breaks the law in a striking fashion, deploying great violence toward the ends of defeating evil and fabricating capitalist social order. On one end of the spectrum, we have the strait-laced officer of the law, hemmed in by codes and regulations; on the other, we have the tough cop who is both bad boy and good (enough) man, who we permit to be above the law, because his heart is in the right place.
Where do these outrageous ideas come from? As an adept dialectician, Linnemann demonstrates how police stories have never reflected the world that produces them, but have always worked to actively shape it. He recalls the midcentury inroads made by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and LAPD chief William H. Parker into crafting the representation of cops in film and television, perhaps especially through the latter’s cooperation in the seminal “police procedural” television show Dragnet. While it is a common enough joke that real police awkwardly emulate the cops they see on TV, these images have themselves been furnished by cops and their allies in the entertainment industry.
In the critical celebration of “prestige drama” copaganda, with the move from moral binaries toward supposedly more complex moral economies, the cops, however flawed and criminal in their own right, still wage a quasitheological battle of light versus darkness. Linnemann points out that in these films and series the forces of good can and must seek justice by any means necessary, including becoming monsters themselves. And voilà! The stodgy old binary that we enlightened postmodernists have supposedly cast aside reappears, now cast in the gritty hues of 21st century neo-noir. In this moral economy, Linnemann explains, “we are not simply informed of the existence of the monstrosity in police but warned of its absolute necessity.”
This vision of American social order even has its own flag: the familiar stars and stripes, recast in dramatic monochrome, traversed by a single blue line, synonymous with the revanchist “Blue Lives Matter” movement. As Linnemann reminds the reader, the image of the thin blue line represents a colonialist fantasy, society scripted as an immense wilderness of barbarism and evil in which the cops are the only actors standing between our daily lives and a Hobbesian state of nature. The ubiquity of this image today renders banal what is, in reality, a stunningly radical conception of our world, individuals cast as either helpless sheep or predatory wolves. Such a vision sanctifies in advance an almost boundless authoritarianism by our self-understood protectors — wolves themselves, but only, they insist, to other wolves. With the weight of the “civilized” world sitting singularly on their shoulders, any power the cops claim for themselves can be deemed legitimate, any action justified.
In this context, the thin blue line’s wanton desecration of the flag, which has historically been a considered an unpardonable transgression by the American right, seems less like a matter of droll irony and more a manifesto for the “law and order” set, a sequel in the horror franchise that is the United States’ punishment system. Its message is the seeming paradox that all laws can be broken, in the interest of law and order, by those with the power to decide right from wrong. But in practice, this merely rewards the brute force of the strong — the very barbarism which the cops pretend to keep at bay — with impunity. The incessant repetition and endorsement of this theme in media, educational indoctrination, and virtually every aspect of public life promotes the widespread belief that, as Linnemann argues, “police not only defend civilization but are tasked with bringing it into being through the violence meted out under conditions of ordinary emergency and perpetual war.”
“Why,” Linnemann wonders at last, “must we collectively cling to what the police offer when they offer very little?” The debacle in Uvalde is only the latest instance of police departments proving even worse than useless, and it introduced many Americans to the reality that cops, according to the Supreme Court, have no actual duty to protect citizens. (See, for instance, Winnebago and Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales.) The horror of police lies at last in their inability to produce anything but coercion and violence — and their disinterest in finding a way out of the social problems they, at best, quell on behalf of our society’s entrenched economic and political powers. Ultimately, Linnemann concludes, the cultural power of the American cops comes from a public fear of moving beyond the present social mess, and building a new world based on meeting the needs of all.
The ravages of global capitalism have sown humanitarian and ecological crises for centuries, today threatening the very existence of life on earth. All the cops can do is keep this society running as it speeds to the edge of a cliff. But even as moving beyond our violent and self-destructive social order has become, quite literally, a matter of life and death on a planetary scale, the prospect of this immense task, and what it might call upon us to do, remains, even to the politically courageous, justifiably terrifying. As Linnemann puts it: “[W]e have not yet let the police go, because to do so would require that we let this world go.” But the true horror will come if this is not achieved.
Jarrod Shanahan is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University in University Park, Illinois. He is the author of Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage (Verso, 2022) and co-author of States of Incarceration: Rebellion, Reform, and America’s Punishment System (Reaktion Books, 2022).