While reflecting on recent episodes of police misconduct in my community and beyond, I began to think about how much law enforcement agencies resemble the Catholic Church. And no, this is not a pre-St. Patrick’s day Irish joke. Consider the following: The Church and police departments have both become safe havens for criminal abusers of authority. Both are allergic to accountability. Both are hierarchical institutions that value blind obedience and discourage internal dissent. Both focus more on covering their posteriors than they do on removing criminals from their ranks. Finally, neither of these entities truly value input from their respective communities.
I do not mean to single out the Catholic Church here. I also could have compared police agencies to Goldman Sachs, Penn State or the White House, I suppose. The root cause of the problems in these entities is not “a few bad apples,” it is structural. The consistent failures of these bureaucracies is intimately linked to the culture of authoritarianism, yes men, corruption and cover-ups created by pyramid shaped organizations all over the world.
But it is particularly dangerous and disturbing when our increasingly militarized police show themselves to be lawless. Criminal cops are more of a threat to us than the average street criminal because they have advantages that common thugs generally lack: Power, influence and, in many cases, qualified immunity on the job. We are, it seems, at their mercy.
This is why it is important that people stop making excuses for “cops gone wild.” The police claim they are here to serve and protect us. They claim that they wish to work in partnership with the community. So let us hold them to these claims, in spite of our skepticism. Let us pull no punches when a member of the “brotherhood” abuses the public trust. They are not simply wayward cops that succumbed to the pressures of the job. They are traitors and enemies of the people. And until decent police officers stand up to these enemies of the people in greater numbers, they too should be considered suspect. Let’s stop falling for the pernicious lie that a person is a hero just because they wear a uniform and a badge. Indeed, moral cowardice is rampant in policing.
People should also understand that modern police, going back to Robert Peel’s “Bobbies,” have served largely as an instrument of class control and rebellion suppression. I know that many individual officers don’t see their jobs that way, but again, the problem is not individual officers per se. Consider the historical evidence. Examine current police priorities. Observe how agencies operate in the ghettos. Look at who fills our prisons. Watch how local police and federal agencies overreact to the “subversives” who dare question the official narratives of American state capitalism. Reforming the police after the 1960s and moving to a “community policing” model has not dramatically curtailed police abuse. In fact, it simply allowed agencies to don a temporary mask of benevolence as they continued doing the same things they have always done. Real peace-keeping in our communities will require nothing short of a revolution.
For now, we need to remind police officers whom they work for. To make departments more accountable, citizens should demand that independent police review boards be set up. Boards should be composed of elected trustees. In keeping with Left-libertarian philosophy, those elected should be easily re-callable, investigated thoroughly for potential conflicts of interest and should serve brief terms. Review boards should oversee hiring, documentation of complaints, investigation, discipline, terminations and policy review. These committees must also have subpoena power to be effective. This change is necessary because the police are demonstrably incapable of policing themselves. Furthermore, since we finance these departments, it is only fair that they should open their doors to us and allow us to have a say in all aspects of their operations.
Movements advocating independent review boards will face intense resistance from police unions. So campaigns to set up official mechanisms of community control should be coupled with citizen-initiated attempts to monitor police. Cop watch programs are becoming quite common and are making more citizens than ever aware of how the police consistently fail to live up to their lofty mission statements. And due to widespread availability of cell phone cameras, one need not belong to any organization to record police activities. Often, cop watchers make their presence know to police while they are filming and this approach certainly has merit. But I would argue that inconspicuous recording–as in the Rodney King case–may be a smarter and safer tactic at times. Teams of monitors may consider sending overt cop watchers to scenes as “decoys,” while covert operatives film from a position of concealment. This can ensure that someone will get away with solid footage even if officers resort to intimidation or confiscation of equipment.
Another way to exert control over the police is to encourage community discussions about the activities they are involved in. What police actions are inherently illegitimate? This is where the fight to end the “drug war” (and other “wars” on consensual acts) comes into play. Conversely, what police activities are truly related to public safety? Well, obviously society must respond in some way to murder, robbery, battery, assault, burglary, larceny and other common law crimes. We also might add reckless driving (not merely speeding or equipment violations) to this list. In order to undermine the state’s tendency to criminalize victimless crimes, we can simply demand that police focus on crimes with victims and behavior that is truly dangerous. Also, one doesn’t need to treat the constitution as some kind of holy relic–the government certainly doesn’t–to insist that the police respect their constitutional limitations. For example, we can urge our local police agencies to put a halt to “consent searches” during traffic stops and “no knock” entries during raids.
Building on this, libertarian-minded people can begin to talk about valid and invalid reasons for contacting the police? Generally speaking, private citizens are rarely required to contact law enforcement. This should be thought of as a way to weaken the state’s monopoly on force. Of course, it will be difficult to overcome the “I’m calling the cops” culture we live in. But we can start by emphasizing that once we call the police, the state takes over. Criminal defense attorney Michael Cicchini explains this in his informative book But They Didn’t Read Me My Rights: Myths, Oddities And Lies About Our Legal System (2010). According to Cicchini, “when wrongdoing is reported to the police, the police refer the matter to the prosecutor’s or district attorney’s office, which represents the state. In that case, control of the case lies solely with the state, which will often press forward with criminal litigation regardless of the wishes or desires of the complaining witness” (p.94). So people need to use good judgement before they decide to call the cops on their loved ones. They should also show some neighborly courtesy and stop complaining to the police about the guy with the loud music upstairs or the pot smokers next door.
My overall point here is that citizens need to learn to own the police departments that they are currently paying for. That’s not so radical, is it? This should not be an anti-police movement, it should be a pro-democracy movement. But the kind of democracy we should be shooting for is a more robust, participatory democracy than we currently have. As progress is made, we can start to ask deeper questions. Should citizen responsibility for community security be encouraged and legally enhanced? Isn’t it possible that a society’s approach to law enforcement can evolve beyond police? Since professional police forces are not the historical norm, what are viable alternatives to today’s police? And how do we ensure that these alternatives would be a step forward rather than a giant leap backward? I hope to address these and other questions in a future article.