We've all heard and seen it for ourselves. It used to happen every
year. Then it was every month. Now it's every week and soon we'll hear
and see it every day: there are families in America whose lives have
been ruined and futures obliterated because the SWAT team got the
address wrong, smashing down the doors of the innocent.
There are other individuals doing time in prison, right now, for
taking pictures of the police while they were violating someone else's
rights. They're luckier than the man the police dragged out of his car
and beat half to death because he had a license to carry a concealed
weapon. Meanwhile judges tell us, when we're attacked by cops, that we
-- Americans -- have a civic duty to get beaten up and killed.
In nearly every instance where the police have injured or killed
somebody they shouldn't have, they are automatically found to have
been acting within official policy -- whether that policy was ever
approved by representatives of the people, or is consistent with the
Bill of Rights, or not -- and that's supposed to end the matter.
I find it hard to believe these atrocities, occurring all over the
country, originate at the street level. My guess -- admittedly it is
no more than that -- is that they're being "suggested" by somebody
higher up the bureaucratic food-chain than mere patrolmen. It would be
educational to be a fly on the wall at roll call, when officers of
each new shift are briefed and given their orders.
Naturally, it doesn't help to have Janet Napolitano and Homeland
Security warning local police that anyone with a Ron Paul, NRA, or
Libertarian Party bumper sticker is a potential terrorist. Most cops
know better, but the federal government is issuing a license to kill
to all of the crazies and bullies among them.
Of course it didn't begin with Napolitano, DHS, or the Obama
Administration. 1999 saw the New York police murder of Amadou Diallo
in which forty-one rounds were fired at a single unarmed man at close
range -- in what has been called an act of "contagious shooting" --
only nineteen of which actually hit the mark. Villainy is bad enough,
but _incompetent_ villainy?
Jimmy Cliff was right: you can't get no justice under this system.
Robert LeFevre used to describe government as "a disease masquerading
as its own cure". Clearly, the police have become a worse menace than
anything they claim to protect us from -- and it may always have been
that way. Equally clearly, it's past time to do things differently.
What might things be like under another system? It all depends on
whether you value the idea of a free society, how free you think it
should be, and what role, if any, you think police should play in it.
I've been interested in these questions a long time -- to the
point, in the late 1970s, of becoming a reserve officer in my local
police department to provide background for my writing. In my 1980
novel _The Probability Broach_ I envisioned the peace being kept by a
combination of armed citizens capable of defending themselves, private
security agencies in a competitive free market, and a volunteer group
standing as a neutral intermediary between the criminally accused and
what served as the police.
It's always seemed insanity to me -- and a situation ripe for
potential abuse -- that individuals suspected of having committed
crimes are automatically handed over to the tender mercies of their
But perhaps I digress.
Since then, I've had thirty years to think over what I wrote then,
and now (especially thinking about the Pinkertons' excesses in the
past, and those of Blackwater today) I wouldn't place as much trust in
private security. In some ways, they're like the police: "When seconds
count," as the saying goes, "they're only minutes away".
More fundamentally, it isn't their own wellbeing, or the wellbeing
of those they love, that they're protecting. Like the uninspired
"money monkeys" whom the heirs of millionaires employ to take care
their wealth (giving rise to the adage, "Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves
in three generations."), such hirelings are at one remove -- meaning
one remove too many -- from whatever they've been hired to preserve,
and therefore less eager to preserve it than they might otherwise be.
Jeff Cooper, the "Yoda" of the .45, who turned armed self-defense
into a martial art, warned his wealthier clients against relying on
bodyguards. One way or another, no matter how trustworthy they seem,
they can be gotten to, through bribery, extortion, or threats, because
they don't -- they _can't_ -- value your life as highly as you do.
But for me, analysis came later. The words in which I first
realized it were these: like eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom,
and making love, self-defense is an individual bodily function that
can't be delegated to anyone else. It doesn't even make sense to think
about it. So the question arises, how do we achieve peace and civil
order -- or in their absence, equity and justice -- without something
like the police?
A veteran sheriff's deputy once told me that, given the number of
square miles his department had to patrol, he believed it's the
sheriff's job to come along after any violent incident, and make sure
the right person had been shot. Twenty years later, when he ran for
sheriff himself, I voted for him. Unfortunately, he lost. But this
conversation pointed me in an interesting direction. A hundred years
ago, the guy with the badge and the gun was called a peace officer.
Nowadays, he says his job is "law enforcement".
Maybe nobody except libertarians know this (mainly admirers of
Lysander Spooner), but most laws are unnecessary or bad. Some of them
are both. Many are downright evil. Dedicating oneself to enforcing
evil laws is the same as dedicating oneself to evil. And the way cops
"resolve" this moral dilemma is simply to evade it, telling themselves
and others that it isn't a law enforcement officer's job to evaluate
the law or the orders that he's being given by his nominal superiors.
Of course the Nuremberg Tribunals held differently.
In places like Vermont, with an emphasis (deliberate or otherwise)
on self-defense rather than law enforcement, crime rates are low. With
this in mind, one measure worth pursuing might be to abolish municipal
police departments (which have only been around a century or so) --
saving a lot of money in hard times -- and rely on the ancient and
honorable office of the sheriff, who is directly accountable to the
people, unlike the chief of police, armored under layers of politics
Many such measures will be necessary to straighten out this mess,
first and foremost, the demilitarization of local police. Some of
these will seem harsh to peace officers and "law enforcement" alike.
But they are long overdue and, like amputating a gangrenous limb, can
no longer be avoided.
For those who are interested, I have addressed these ideas in
greater detail, in a chapter called "Toward a Police Reform Movement"
in my new book, _Down With Power_, presently available online at
<http://www.down-with-power.com/> and soon to be published in both
dead-tree and electronic format by Arc Manor.