BUFFALO, December 5, 2014 – Protests erupted in New York City yesterday following a second grand jury decision not to indict a white cop who killed an unarmed black suspect. Unfortunately, all of the attention is focused on the racial aspect of the two tragedies and not on a question that really needs to be asked.
Do we really need armed government agents patrolling the streets, looking for people to cite or arrest for mostly victimless crimes?
Few people propose to abolish police forces entirely, although some small communities have done so. Most believe that police forces are necessary to protect life and property. Whether that’s true or not, many honest police officers will tell you they spend very little of their time actually doing so.
The image of the friendly, neighborhood cop walking his beat became iconic in the 20th century. But as Anthony Gregory observed, the police force as we understand it today is largely a product of the early 20th century progressive movement. That’s not surprising, as the job we ask policeman to do today violates every principle of our legal system.
Few people have a problem with a police officer making an arrest when serving a warrant issued by a judge or answering a 911 call. Those are situations where someone has made a claim indicating he or she is the victim of a crime or is in imminent danger of being the victim of a crime.
That wasn’t the case for Michael Brown, Eric Garner or the vast majority of people who have encounters with police on American streets. Brown may well have eventually been arrested for the robbery he apparently committed prior to his death, but that’s not why he was stopped. He was stopped for jaywalking.
Does anyone really believe we need armed government agents patrolling the streets to protect us from jaywalkers?
The same question could be posed for the overwhelming majority of what cops actually do. As John Baeza tells us from first-hand experience, a huge percentage of police time and resources are spent prosecuting drug crimes. What if cops weren’t charged with that task? Would we be less safe? Less free?
On the contrary, we’d be safer and freer, whether the drugs in question were legal or not. That’s because no one would seek the government’s help based purely on those laws being broken.
That there are way too many laws against way too many peaceful behaviors is a subject for another article. But regardless of the wisdom of laws against selling individual cigarettes, for example, there is a good argument that we don’t need armed police combing the streets making violent arrests when people break them.
People have a vague idea that the police protect them from violent crimes, but that’s rarely the case. Most violent crimes do not occur in the presence of a police officer. That’s not a knock against police; it’s just logistical reality. Defending one’s life against violent crime is left up to the individual. That’s what the Second Amendment is all about.
The policeman’s job is supposed to be arresting the suspect after a crime has been committed and only when a judge gives him that power. That’s what the Fourth Amendment is about.
How many people are hurt or killed by police merely for “refusing to obey the officer’s orders?” In a free society, police officers don’t give orders. Only judges have that power, after an adversarial process in which the judge first assumes the suspect is innocent. The judge orders the cop to make an arrest or conduct a search. The cop’s authority originates from and is limited by that written order.
These fundamental pillars of a free society go out the window when cops are sent out into the streets “on patrol.” Now, there is no adversarial process. In most cases, there isn’t even a victim. There is just an armed cop giving orders and backing them with force, almost always for some petty violation.
America might not be ready for a libertarian utopia where all security is provided by the free market.
But it is not unreasonable to consider whether cops should be prohibited from interacting with the public unless serving a warrant from a judge or answering a 911 call. That’s really what the constitutional protections in our federal and state constitutions assume.
Keeping cops off the streets unless serving a warrant or responding to an emergency call wouldn’t stop them from doing what most people believe they should be doing and what most cops join the force to do: enforce laws protecting life and property when they are broken. It would stop them from running roughshod over our rights on a daily basis, as they do now, whether they intend to or not.
Oh, and one more thing: Michael Brown and Eric Garner would still be alive.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.