Manufacturing consent for Northampton’s kids.
Three SUV police cruisers turn into a school. An officer gets out, and like a chauffeur in the movies, opens the door for the distinguished passenger. Emerging from the back seat, out comes Brody, a kindergartner, with a big fat smile on his face. He high fives the officer who drove him to school, then hugs a second, and high fives a third.
Brody wasn’t in trouble. He didn’t come out in handcuffs. He rode to school in a police car as a reward for collecting all 50 trading cards of Northampton’s finest; part of an initiative to “have officers and the youth within Northampton interact in a positive way with each other,” according to Captain John Cartledge, the mastermind behind the program, who wrote The Shoestring in an email.
The trading card program launched last June after controversial “high five Friday” events—where cops would go to elementary schools to give high fives to children—came to a quick halt last winter. The program was busy over the summer, as kids tried to collect as many trading cards as they could to reap rewards—collecting 25 got you an NPD beach ball and 50 earned either a ride to school in a cruiser or an elusive “challenge coin.” According to Captain Cartledge, “several kids” have collected all 50 cards.
The project was launched at Wal-Mart on King St. The Wal-Mart “charitable” foundation provided a $2,500 grant to the Northampton Police Department to start the project and are the only funder (beyond taxpayers paying officers’ salaries). In other words, Northampton taxpayers are subsidizing the goals of an unaccountable corporation who are resourcing a soft-power propaganda campaign for children.
The Wal-Mart Foundation didn’t respond to The Shoestring’s request for comment; nor were we able to find a comprehensive list of grants to law enforcement agencies. But searching for “Wal-Mart Foundation Police site:Facebook.com” yielded dozens of results in states all across the country. It is common for police departments to receive grant money from private philanthropy (there is even a budding cottage industry to help police departments access and write grants). One police department in Missouri used Wal-Mart grant money to purchase drones; another in New Hampshire got a gladiator suit.
Although, according to The New York Times, Wal-Mart has been accused of using its charitable donations to gain favor in cities where it wanted to expand, the issue here is structural. Rather than pay its fair share, Wal-Mart has managed to swindle the state through various forms of tax–evasion, subsidies, and other forms of grift—like relying on food stamps to feed their workers. Furthermore, Wal Mart gets a tax deduction donating to police departments and other government agencies—like schools and fire departments. And why would they pay taxes? Through philanthropy, Wal-Mart gets to slosh its influence around and garner up praise from fiscally struggling local governments. It’s a win-win.
“Members of the Northampton Police Department fully embrace the concept of community policing,” according to Department’s website. The list notes other innocuous sounding programs like “Safety Day” and “Coffee with a Cop” in the community policing/outreach category. However, despite characterizing these programs as “community policing,” Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper’s 2011 book Progressive Police Supervision suggests that such programs do not constitute community policing on their own. Rather, she argues, that community policing can only be achieved by hiring officers who fulfill a different function: a “proactive” rather than “reactive” beat. In the book she admits that the NPD scrapped immersive community policing in the ‘90s and that such programs are not effective in the modern era (we must fight terrorism now!).
In the book, Kasper writes:
“As the country operates in this [post 9/11] era, police administrators are forced to re-evaluate their overall missions, identified goals and the needs of the community as a whole. It is evident that community policing has significantly improved police-public relations. A comparative analysis through the decades would reveal this enhanced relationship. However, in this new era with a focus on homeland security, terrorism and fear, it is imperative that administrators move away from community policing by extracting the successful strategies that it provided and applying them to current practices.”
The book, a tome of police managerial self-helpy fluff, suggests that rather than engage in old fads—like community policing—cops just need more efficiently managed bureaucracies to achieve their goals. Instead of walking the street to interact with people, “administrators and executives” should “leave their offices” to “walk around the workplace” and “interact with their subordinates.” Better yet, they should “take control” of their department’s image. In a chapter about police-media relations, and in a sub-section called “self promotion,” Kasper aims to “empower police departments” to create their own media. Although the book was written before the trading card idea was hatched, based on other examples (like the Citizen Police Academy), it would fit right in with a Kasper approved PR campaign.
These sports-like trading cards that glorify and idolize the police are exactly that. When you send your cops to train in Sheriff Joe’s jails, beat up black men / peaceful protestors, request surveillance cameras and riot gear, you need all of the positive press you can get. Therefore, the NPD is wise to launch a program where kids can meet Officer Czerwinski on her horse and collect her card. Likewise, due to the nature of this bizarre cocktail mixing corporate philanthropy and police PR, there is no educational value in the stunt: Children are not learning what cops actually do (be it sinister abuses of power or mundane everyday tasks like paperwork), the history of policing (how policing in the U.S. grew out of a desire to suppress organized labor and catch runaway slaves), or why some children—and their loved ones—might be uncomfortable around the police (maybe a parent is incarcerated).
The cards themselves lack much in the way of substance—they are trading cards after all—and are regulated to curated and G-rated human interest fare: “Officer [Adam] Van Buskirk loves hockey and has been playing his entire life,” reads one card. Another, with multiple typos, says: “Officer [Douglas] Dobson is married and tho father of 12 year old Triplets that keep him very busy. Dobson is an avid New England sports fan, and coaches youth baseball.” Of course The Shoestring is unreasonably petty and judgmental towards cops, but we do think it’s important that children don’t capitalize the word ‘triplets’ for no reason. One officer, in his card, is wearing a cape. Another hanging from a basketball hoop.
At the end of the day, while police budgets expand (to pay misconduct settlements), their equipment and demeanor continues to militarize. Likewise, as wealth further concentrates into the hands of ultra-rich “philanthropists,” we’ll see more image maintenance and PR stunts like this one.