Police Officers and the Politics of Law(less) Enforcement

For my first post, I thought I would handle a topic that has become more and more prevalent in the last several years; police misconduct.

 From what I’ve read and based on conversations with people, there seem to be three prevailing views on police.

 The first is that the police are here to protect and serve us, the public. They are to be trusted, because they are looking out for our best interests. From this perspective, the only type of people who don’t like cops are those who are either breaking the law or wish they could but don’t because the police are there to discourage them. Police serve in a sacrificial role and are willing to put their lives down for civilians, who don’t appreciate what they have to go through. People who subscribe to this attitude see the armored cars, bullet-proof vests, military equipment and weapons and view it all as necessities to combat terrorism and criminals who are equally equipped and prepared. Any time there is an accusation of police brutality, these people will defend the police officer and give them every benefit of the doubt, while assuming the person arrested or harmed is guilty. The phrase “anyone who lawyers-up is guilty,” makes sense to them.

 The opposite view is that policemen are all pigs and scum. The only reason a person would want to be a cop is because they love power-tripping, want to use a taser on people, hit them with a baton, and have no qualms shooting and killing people. According to this view, most people cops harass are innocent and the officer is just looking for trouble where it does not exist. They see the armored cars, bullet-proof vests, military weapons and tactics and consider officers to be cowards for using them as they invade homes of civilians and react in a paranoid, violent manner to any perceived threat, no matter how small or weak the individual may be.

 The last view is more complicated. These people don’t see cops as necessarily bad or good. It all depends on the officer specifically. They’ve met good cops who are more concerned about finding a rapist and murderer than they are about whether a ten-year-old set up a lemonade stand without first getting a health inspection permit. But they’ve also encountered officers who are clearly itching to ticket or arrest someone, anyone, just to display their total authority and control over another human being or to meet some unspoken quota. According to this view, a lot of people cops arrest are criminals, though many times the situation escalates into a violent arrest when a simple rebuke would have sufficed. They appreciate what cops do when they have to visit crime scenes that are as grotesque and gruesome as anything ever seen and deal with the worst scum in the country. They understand why cops can be paranoid when they approach a car during an encounter or serving a warrant on a house; there is always the chance a person will kill them. But these people also think that this comes with the territory of being a police officer and it requires sound judgment; if someone cannot handle this they should not sign up to be a policeman. And though they don’t think there is a blatant conspiracy, they understand on a basic level that an officer’s main goal is not to protect and service the public, but to protect and service their continued employment by obeying their superior officer. This is the person who decides whether they get promoted or fired, whether their life in the department is comfortable or miserable. The public has zero control over this. Therefore, when it comes between choosing to do what is right and doing what he is told, an officer will choose the latter every time. When these people see the armored cars, bullet-proof vests, military weapons and tactics, they realize that the traditional relationship between officers and the public has been radically transformed into a war zone mentality in which all civilians are considered potential threats and are treated as such.

 If I were to choose, I would fit mostly into the third category. Unlike a lot of other libertarians, I don’t see a police officer as a de facto enemy or bad person. The fact is that in my own life my experience with cops has been mostly positive. I’ve never met an officer whom I was afraid of or who I felt threatened by. I’ve been pulled over for speeding or failing to stop at a red light and then let go with a warning, rather than ticketed. It all really depends on the officer’s intent; is he looking for public safety, or for revenue?

I get irritated when people are automatically hostile to a police officer under any and all circumstances and lump them all into a single category. It feels good to do this, but it’s intellectually lazy. Unfortunately, the world is far more complicated than that. And as a libertarian, I treat people as individuals. A uniform does not change it.

But I also acknowledge that my experiences are unique to my life and cannot be used as a reflection of the country as a whole. Other people I know have had bad encounters with officers. And I also understand that at the end of the day I must look out for myself and protect my rights and freedoms because an officer, despite how much he may want to believe it, is not primarily concerned with whether I am innocent. He is interested in making an arrest, obtaining a confession and securing a conviction.

 An incident occurred recently that showcased the three separate views people have on police officers. In Austin, Texas, cops handcuffed and arrested a young woman jogging down the street for failing to provide them with identification. It is also believed she was jaywalking.

 Read the comments below the video and story. What I found was fascinating. On one hand, people vicious attacked the cops, calling them vile names. The other group of comments sided with the officers, saying the girl shouldn’t have been jaywalking and that it was necessary to enforce the law. The third group of comments remarked how completely unnecessary it was for them to handcuff her and can’t help but wonder why it is so critical for citizens to have personal identification on hand at all times and, most importantly, why it causes officers like this to respond in such a manner.

 For some reason, the people in the second category didn’t seem bothered by the fact that a person was arrested for failing to prove she was somebody, that she didn’t have some form of identification with her while jogging. Nor did they seem bothered by the fact that this isn’t a crime.

As this writer puts it, demanding papers from people was a staple among countries like the Third Reich. A free people should never have to prove they are someone to merely move around in public.

While other libertarians would approach this as a blatant act of police misconduct, I’d prefer to address it from a different angle by asking some basic questions about it.

What was the purpose of the arrest? Police arrest individuals who they suspect of breaking the law. She clearly had not broken any law, save for jaywalking. One must then ask if jaywalking is a crime, who then is the victim? If there is no victim, then she was not hurting anyone by jaywalking. If so, why is it a crime? Additionally, why was it necessary for them to handcuff her and arrest her, rather than politely ask her not to jaywalk?

And, finally, they did not arrest her for jaywalking, but for failing to provide identification, which is not a law. Therefore, they arrested her for breaking a law that does not exist.

Why did the officers do this? Should officers have the authority to arbitrarily arrest someone and claim they broke a law that does not exist? If so, why, and are there any negative consequences as the result of giving them this authority?

There are plenty of similar cases of such behavior, and worse. William Norman Grigg at Pro Liberate dedicates his blog just to these types of cases.

But I will grant, for the sake of argument, the possible claim that these are just the exceptions and most cops are good. I don’t really see the point of this statement, unless by good cop one is inferring that they are good enough to oppose bad cops when they break the law.

If these cops brought the girl into the station and declared to a good cop that they had arrested her for breaking a law that didn’t exist, what should the good cop do? Should he demand they release her? What if he just shrugs and goes about his business? What if he does this every time he sees another officer breaking the law or abusing it?

I want to emphasize this again. The officers arrested this woman for breaking a law that does not exist; their authority only extends to enforcing the law. When they are not enforcing the law, but their own personal will, is this moral? Is it legal? Is it illegal?

Courts have ruled that people do not have the right to resist illegal arrests, and people who have tried to escape during an illegal arrest have been successfully charged and convicted for it.

What this does is grant power to certain people to enforce the law, or their own will, while having immunity from the laws they enforce and requiring compliance from those whose rights they violate. It is the ultimate “Do as I say, not as I do” situation.

From a libertarian anarchist point of view, this is the result of a system where law enforcement is funded entirely through involuntary means. People do not get to choose whether they are going to fund a police department. This means they are not the customer.

Good police officers protect the public out of a personal desire that often is at odds with what is demanded of them and the attitude of officers around them who have no scruples about taking advantage of their authority and privileges.

All this would be removed if police departments were privatized and different security firms competed for peoples’ money. In this situation, the citizen is the customer and has full control over where their money goes. Also, a security guard does not have immunity from law or authority over their customer. They do not tell their client what to do; their client tells them what to do, and if they don’t like the service provided they go elsewhere. We do not have this option right now.

If police departments were privatized, situations like this wouldn’t occur for several reasons

  • Police would have an incentive not to arbitrarily arrest someone on a private road, because then people would avoid the road to avoid such police behavior, and the owner of the road would lose revenue. Therefore, the rules for the road would be reasonable and probably not include jaywalking.
  • Even then, the police would be courteous and probably just inform the girl of the rules.
  • They could not demand to see her identification because she wouldn’t be required to have it just to travel, unless it was required to have such documents while on that road. But it’s unlikely the owner of a road would have such a rule, when other road owners would attract customers by not having that rule.

Lastly, I want to end on this note: By choosing to arrest her and handcuff her, the officers were demonstrating a moral belief in the use of coercion and violence to force a non-violent person to do something. What kind of message does this send? Is this the kind of morality we want encouraged and promoted in our society?

Food for thought.

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One Response to Police Officers and the Politics of Law(less) Enforcement

  1. Pingback: But without government, who would threaten to arrest people for trying to save a drowning victim? | The Anarchist Notebook | Libertarian Anarchy

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