The tragic and largely still unclear events that recently unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri have once again catalyzed a very important social discussion regarding the role and nature of law enforcement in modern America. Clearly, as evidenced by a growing resentment generally aimed, rightly or wrongly, at police by many citizens of all walks of life, such a notionally open and honest discussion is long overdue.
Contextually, the righteousness of Officer Darren Wilson’s actions on 9 August is not specifically under scrutiny here. Instead, the concern here lies with a general social attitude that such events have brought to the fore and how their aftermath and the way in which they are subsequently handled that is under scrutiny.
For sake of argument, I make a reasonable assumption here that a) broad social resentment toward American law enforcement is generally growing and b) routine exposure to police entities of various types and levels have dramatically increased due to technology (e.g., mass media, YouTube, etc.) and presence proliferation (e.g., greater numbers of patrolmen, shows of force, etc.).
Obviously, perceptions of gross police misconduct nowadays, perhaps taken out of context but nonetheless observable with one’s own eyes, are probably the biggest evidence-based reason behind this resentment. Widely reported police militarization and/or otherwise captured incidences of intimidation and seemingly wanton brutality are surely at least partially to blame (a simple YouTube search will unfortunately reveal many, many more such events). Anecdotal evidence further exists of numerous extreme abuses of force by at least some of these state agents, ranging from (at best) poor judgment to (at worst) apparently cold-blooded murder.
But such general resentment does not, I believe, stem solely from these types of (hopefully) limited anecdotal occurrences. For such broad-sweeping feeling, it seems there must be some more widely observable phenomena working in concert with these aforementioned extreme incidences to foster such a general emotion. I suggest there must be an observable ill perception of general organizational culture that buttresses these reported events for the resentment to indiscriminately take hold in the psyche.
I posit that people may be growing more accepting of a presumption that extreme incidences of misconduct broadly characterize law enforcement as a whole because of the more commonly observable characteristics that law enforcement officers (LEO) commonly convey. These observable general characteristics serve as a subconscious (or perhaps quite conscious for some) foundation for these deductive judgments. It is this perception of general organizational culture, namely that of being “above the law” so to speak, that – again, rightly or wrongly, makes the worst conclusions easier and easier for folks to accept.
Take for example common traffic laws. It is certainly my experience, and those of a growing number of my colleagues, that the folks who most routinely and consistently break common traffic laws such as speeding are the LEOs whose very professional purpose on this Earth is to uphold them in the first place. Who has not personally witnessed clearly marked squad cars with emergency lights off moving through traffic at a minimum of 10-15 MPH above the posted speed limit (or more)?
An additional cultural contributor is the demonstrable efficacy (or lack thereof) of law enforcement in America, particularly as it relates to the so-called War on Drugs but also in a much more general capacity. Some studies indicate that
So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia… and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.
All this (some $635 billion since 9/11 from the federal government alone) while clearance rates for general crime and homicide in particular continue to decline. The national homicide clearance rate has “steadily” plummeted by 33.7% to an aggregate 61% clearance rate overall from 1961 to 2005, according to the Department of Justice. At the very least, such results foster a general feeling of wastefulness and purposelessness that, when coupled with state-sponsored violence and intimidation, make for an inherently contentious mix.
Referencing that last point, some LEOs blatantly promulgate an attitude of superiority to the civil populace (known in some circles as a so-called “sheepdog” perspective). In a recent editorial by Los Angeles Police Department veteran Sunil Dutta tellingly titled “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me,” the officer writes
Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long (emphasis in original)?
To that point, how difficult is it to control one’s violent behavior in the face of overwhelmingly non-violent actions (as listed above)? The only hypothetical suspect behavior here that might warrant a violent response (all-important context aside for the moment) is the aggressive “strong walking.” Do arguing, name-calling, labeling, threatening litigation, or other words/speech ever warrant a violent reaction in any other walk of life, particularly with dangerous weapons? The right to self-defense for civilians does not imply a righteousness in responding to name-calling with violence, so why the difference with those who derive their just powers from the consent of these very civilians?
This sort of feeling gives insight into the might makes right and bully mentality that in part characterizes the increasing corruption of the very meaning and purpose of democracy and the modern oligarchical Big Government state at a macro level. At best this perspective is tantamount to blaming a rape victim for acting flirtatiously or wearing suggestive clothing prior to their being violently assaulted by the hypothetical rapist. Yes, the civil populace, like the aforementioned assault victim, can notionally take some steps to somewhat mitigate the probability that they will be violated but this in no way absolves the violator in question of their undeniably unethical behavior. Such is the worst form of rationalized excusing of frankly bad decision making and unjust behavior. At worst this sentiment betrays an arrogance of violent elitism, plain and simple: do as I say, not as I do, or I will hurt you.
Of course, this general sentiment fits a paradigm of behavioral conditioning that both Dutta and the archetypal police state as a whole propagate: fear. We must recognize that everyday LEOs – specifically local patrolmen, sheriffs’ deputies, and the like – are the average citizens’ practical first-line, day-to-day interface to the modern state and thus they function effectively as de facto representatives for larger state apparatuses. In this respect, the modern police state reveals a far more disturbing problem than what a cursory examination might reveal of its surface. The rise of the police state is directly correlated and inherently associated with the rise of Big Government statism; the one goes hand-in-hand with the other.
Mises Institute President Jeff Deist suggests in part the evolution of the “peace officer” to a “law enforcement officer” – both in terms of linguistics modification and actual manifestation as a consequence of various stimuli – as possible causation for this evolution of the pseudo-militarized police state. He posits that the peace officer, such as that embodied in bygone popular culture by The Andy Griffith Show’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, should “exhibit four key traits that profoundly distinguish [the peace officer] from most modern police officers.”
First, he is part of the community. He does not see himself — nor do others see him — as somehow apart from the residents of [his jurisdictional community]. He does not exhibit an “us vs. them” mentality that seems so prevalent in many police officers today. He does not see himself first and foremost as a government employee or union member. He does not resent the people he protects, but instead considers himself a fellow citizen. In other words, [the peace officer] is a true civilian.
Second, he truly seeks to maintain peace within [his community], and sees his job as keeping the town safe, quiet, happy — peaceful. He is a peacekeeper, not an enforcer. In fact, he seldom uses force. He does not want a crime wave in [his jurisdictional community] to justify an increase in his pay or budget; on the contrary, he would view an increase in local crime as a personal failure. He is apt to downplay, rather than exaggerate, the importance of his job. His focus is on creating an environment that discourages crime in the first place.
Third, in every instance [the peace officer] attempts to smooth over and defuse problems, rather than escalate them. He invariably looks for simple, common sense, polite answers to conflicts, rather than using his legal authority to threaten or arrest. He rarely concerns himself with technical application of the law; but rather uses his judgment to solve problems and make them go away with the least fuss possible. He never makes a bad situation worse. …
Fourth, [the peace officer] genuinely cares about and tries to help the people of [his community], having their best interests at heart. … As a result, he has the trust, admiration, and respect of the townspeople (emphasis added).
Obviously the situation today is very different… Police have suffered a very serious decline over the last several decades, both in terms of their public image and the degree to which average citizens now often fear police officers rather than trust them. As an aside, poor and minority communities have long been less trusting, or perhaps less naïve, about the real nature of police. But today that jaundiced view has found its way into middle class consciousness (emphasis added).
And this last point is the underlying crux of this discussion. Gone are the days in which only the largely marginalized in society (the poor, largely black inner city communities for example) harbor fear, resentment, and distrust of law enforcement organizations and their agents. As Deist put it, “if we don’t see the growing parallels between totalitarian societies in history and modern day America we have only ourselves to blame,” and this is equally true of the LEOs themselves, as well.
If LEOs honestly care about restoring relations between themselves and the citizenry then they must take a more active role in policing their own. They must insist on equitable public punishment for violent crimes that police officers commit as compared to the individual misbehavers within the populace. They must organizationally enforce compliance with all the laws they are entrusted to enforce – including the inconvenient ones such as speeding and protecting free speech. They must work to reintegrate themselves into their respective communities and retard the vibe of superiority and elitism that fosters “us vs. them.” In short, if LEOs do not wish people to assume the worst about them then they must work tirelessly to ensure that the state-sponsored violence they wield, a fundamental and substantive difference between state agents and its citizenry, is heavy-handedly and disproportionately balanced with justice, judgment, reason, and ethics at all times.
The might makes right approach is perhaps more expeditious but it is also antithetical to a sustainably favorable relationship with society at large.