Police Abuse is the Rule, Not the Exception

The recent shooting death of Pace University undergraduate Danroy Henry once again arouses questions about police abuse, a phenomenon continually evidenced anew in the United States. Local police killed the 20-year-old college athlete in the early morning of October 17, responding to the kind of fracas that typically marks the windup of any college town’s Saturday night. Henry’s is a sorry but familiar narrative in this country: A young black man sent to the morgue by law enforcement officers, who will ultimately be exonerated and even praised for their deed.

For libertarians, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the speciously justified police killing of a black man, but usually the victims are casualties of the odious and racist Drug War. Here, in sharp contrast, the decedent’s status as a university student from a fancy Boston suburb drew the attention of the media, which nevertheless promptly advised us of his blood alcohol level (because surely being both black and drunk is more than enough to explain away the shooting).

On the heels of that nauseating bit of police power lust, the New York Times reported last week on a study commissioned by the Center for Constitutional Rights cataloging “[t]ens of thousands” of illegal police stops. The inquiry, which “examined … the 2.8 million times from 2004 through 2009 that officers stopped people on the streets to question and sometimes frisk them,” uncovered the disturbing but unsurprising trend that such stops are routinely, if not usually, based on race.

Not only were stops more frequent among blacks and Hispanics, they routinely and disproportionately involved the use of force, and — perhaps more alarmingly — were 15 percent less likely to yield “contraband.” The data corroborate what has always been clear: That the real hoodlums, uniformed officers, are dedicated to wanton tormenting of poverty-stricken minority communities, not to serving and protecting them.

As cogs in a vast, repressive system — encompassing everything from the Drug War to the prison industry — the police, agents of state power, are an incorrigible evil that can’t be adjusted, corrected or reformed; their criminal nature is immanent in the role itself. Just as the political process cannot, through any supposed overhaul, be set right and its natural propensities counteracted by “good policy,” the police system as it is can’t be repaired.

Municipal police forces function like any other coercive monopolies, gouging those who are forced to pay for their “services” and pathologically misallocating resources. As the singular provider of a particular kind of service, the important work of defense, the police system incentivizes nonliability to the community and abuse of power. One might consider a town where only one business were allowed to provide landscaping services, and where, beyond prohibiting competition, that one business were entitled to predetermined payment without consideration of the quality of its work.

Most of us think that such an arrangement is a bad idea, that there is something wrong with the process even if, in some rare instances, the lone landscaper performs satisfactorily. Anarchists, applying this reasoning consistently, maintain that defense of person and property is a priority far too high to be abandoned to an unfair, monopolistic process.

“Why, then,” asked Benjamin Tucker, “should there not be a considerable number of defensive associations … in which people, even members of the same family, might insure their lives and goods against murderers and thieves? … [D]efense is a service, like any other service.” It may be that we consider our lawns and shrubs more important than the protection of our lives, or maybe we think that there is some other reason why we ought to abide the state’s monopoly on defense services.

One objection of the minarchist — the advocate of a government limited to the narrow function of defending individual rights — is that defense businesses faced with disagreements would battle in the streets. But, anarchist theorists like Dr. Roderick Long point out, violence is expensive and institutions forced to bear the costs of their excursions into hostility are, as compared to the state, far less likely to see armed conflict as the best way to resolve disputes.

We can brush aside police abuse as an aberration in an otherwise sensible system, or we can correctly understand it as an unavoidable feature of a warped incentive structure designed by and for the power elite. To achieve optimal results, we must completely open the insurance of priceless human life, like any other enterprise, to competition and to its byproducts, efficiency and innovation.

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