Officer-Involved Delusions

Cops lie to us. We should be even more worried when they lie to themselves.

The latest episode of The Politics of Everything is about police and fentanyl. Specifically, it’s about what exactly is happening when police officers “overdose” on fentanyl after brief skin contact (or sometimes even simply inhaling traces of it), which is not medically possible. For more, do read our guest Dan McQuade’s story on the subject at Defector. Our other guests are Timothy McMahon King, who earlier this year wrote a thoughtful piece on what he thinks he got wrong when writing about the fentanyl epidemic in his book, and Patrick Blanchfield, who wrote a great piece for The New Republic on the phenomena of “coptalk.” I truly think this is one of our better episodes, so I hope you give it a listen.

Basically, what Dan believes, and what I believe, is that police are experiencing panic attacks when they are in close proximity to fentanyl. This is happening in large part because they have been primed to think they are in extreme danger in those situations. As we discuss on the show, the Drug Enforcement Agency warned police departments of the dangers of exposure to fentanyl back in 2016 (the video was only finally removed from the DEA’s site this year). The San Diego Sheriff’s department video of a deputy “overdosing” that was the original peg of Dan’s piece and the inspiration for this episode was effectively a warning to be vigilant and prepared in case this happens to you. Dan writes: “The same day the San Diego video was released, the Douglas County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Office sent it to all its officers as a ‘training video.’”

As we all know, police deliberately and routinely lie and mislead. In concert with the media, especially television news, and especially local television news, they purposefully spread propaganda. It seems like there is truly no way to stop the local news from uncritically reporting impossible and fantastic things, like people are giving expensive cannabis edibles to children for free for literally no reason, once the police say so. The political class’s recent fixation on misinformation has, for some reason, not yet expanded to encompass the police-to-local-TV disinfo pipeline, which has probably led to more delusional thinking among more Americans than any foreign influence operation in the history of psyops.

An underrated problem, compared to police dishonesty, is that police often believe many of their fictions. It is sort of silly to imagine police play-acting fentanyl overdoses for the purposes of creating viral videos. That is how lots of people, with some justification, interpret these scenes of police suffering biologically impossible “overdoses.” It is more frightening to think of cops suffering real panic attacks, refusing to accept them as such, and believing fervently that the threat is external, coming from the people they have life-and-death power over.

But cops do believe. They are trained to think of everyone as a threat and to constantly feel under siege. They are shown gruesome snuff films of police ambushes and trained to imagine that this exceedingly rare occurrence could happen at any completely routine traffic stop. They believe outright lies about the dangers of their profession, and these lies prime them to treat every encounter as potentially lethal. Their politics also prime them to fall for blatant hoaxes. Instagram stories and Facebook posts convinced police in California that hundreds of antifa super-soldiers were descending on a small town. Chicago police sent a helicopter to the Indiana border to search for a similar imaginary antifa caravan.

At some level, whether cops believe their bullshit is unknowable, and in many cases immaterial. Did the Shake Shack cops truly think they’d been intentionally poisoned? I don’t know. Did it matter to the police union account that blasted out the story for the purposes of getting some tabloid and TV pickup? If they’d intentionally invented the attack or truly felt ill, it would’ve served the same messaging purpose.

But cops believing their own bullshit, like Republican politicians believing their own bullshit, is more dangerous than them simply lying, because cops, like GOP elected officials, have a great deal of power over the people their fantasies and conspiracies treat as existential threats. What if you could invent a guy to get mad at, and get away with killing him?