Designed for Harm (Preview)

How Products of Policing Enforce Extra-judicial Practices of Control and Submission


The conversation about policing is a Molotov cocktail of trauma, bias, propaganda, and cognitive dissonance. Many Americans are raised to think of the police, and by extension policing, as a mechanism to protect and serve. Yet, this stands in stark contrast to the experiences of those who interact with one of the nation’s largest and most dominant civil services as a purveyor of fear and dominance.

Illustration by Sophia Richardson

By Timothy Bardlavens and Jennifer Rittner

While the binary of “good cop vs. bad cop” lays blame at the feet of the individual, that framing is ultimately inadequate to interrogate the fundamental challenges of policing practices, in particular the physical and psychological damage wrought by products of policing.

Safety & Mediation or Control & Submission?

If we remove the rose-colored definitions and media-fueled propaganda around policing, ultimately there are only two definitions that matter: control and submission. Policing is, at its core, control; and that control is often applied through acts of forced submission. The brand language of policing—protect, serve, safety— justifies all manner of abuses under the guise of law and order, which viewed historically, reveals a system built by people in power to control a broader group, with the explicit goal of having them operate in ways that they—the powerful—deem acceptable and moral. We certainly agree that the prevention of loss, death, and destruction is paramount to a healthy, thriving society. In this instance control = good. But control is not evenly distributed. In fact, it is disproportionately levied against historically underrepresented communities, among them Black, immigrant, poor, neurodivergent, disabled, gender non-conforming, sexual minorities, and religious minorities.

The uneven application of law and order never rang more true than on January 6, 2021 when insurrectionists stormed our nation’s Capitol, an event that was planned on social media under the watchful eye of law enforcement, who responded with what can best be described as an inept show of force that ultimately led to death and destruction of individuals, physical property, and the national psyche. The discreet absence of law enforcement on that day stands in stark contrast to the Black Lives Matter protests on June 2, 2020. Protest participants reported what was captured in photos from that day: a dramatic show of force from the National Guard who lined the stairs of the Capitol building in pristine formation, armored and ready for war. If policing is control and submission, these events are their products…









From Design Museum Magazine Issue 018