To Serve and Protect (Themselves)

A friend and mentor of mine, the late Aaron Russo, used to open some of his talks with a question: How can you know whether or not you live in a police state?

Aaron had a theory on the subject, or rather a method for answering the question:

Imagine yourself, he said, driving down the road. Not fast, not recklessly, just driving down the road as any normal person would drive to get from Point A to Point B.

Now, Russo said, imagine that as you pass an intersection, you look in the rearview mirror and see that a police car has turned onto the street behind you. The police officer isn’t running his siren and passing you on the way to the scene of some crime. He’s just settling in behind you, driving at the same speed as you … tailing you.

Are you comforted by the knowledge that the police are out on patrol, fighting crime? Or do you start to worry — do you get that tight feeling down in your gut, expecting to be pulled over at any moment for some offense that you don’t — probably can’t — know you’ve committed?

The latter reaction, Russo said, is a sign that you’re living in a police state: A society in which you and everyone around you are subject to the arbitrary whims, and expected to obey the every command, of “law enforcement personnel.”

If one follows the news at all, one can hardly be blamed for believing that the line separating relatively free society from police state has long since passed out of view in the rear-facing mirror of Russo’s question. It’s not infrequent these days to hear of individuals being arrested and charged with “failing to obey an order of a police officer” — or for “resisting arrest,” often with no charge cited to justify the arrest itself.

Calls for “reform in law enforcement” — review commissions, new regulations to restrain police and hold them accountable — may sound good, but they don’t get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is political power itself, and more specifically its centralization and monopolization in the modern state.

You might be surprised to learn that in western civilization, “police” as we know them are a relatively recent historical phenomenon. The first tax-funded police force in England wasn’t created until the 18th century. Major American cities didn’t form government-sanctioned, tax-funded police forces until the mid-19th century, and in smaller towns and cities, “law enforcement” was often handled by local volunteers well into the 1900s.

As the state assumed more and more power over “law enforcement,” the focus naturally shifted. Volunteer watchmen — serving their communities and answerable to their neighbors — became “professional police,” serving the state and answerable only to their appointed bureaucratic superiors. As their professional structure formalized, they established their own powerful political lobbies to influence those superiors.

The result is what we see today: A symbiotic organism of state in which “law enforcement” serves the political class when called upon to do so, and in turn receives protection for its members. Tax-funded salaries and benefits, of course, but also considerable power to bully the public at will, with their badges serving as de facto shields from accountability for their actions.

The names change weekly, but the stories don’t: Police officers shoot innocent civilians, are placed on “administrative leave,” and are subsequently cleared by their fellow police officers in an “internal investigation” and returned to duty without ever facing a jury. Videos emerge of police officers clearly and without provocation abusing citizens, and if the incidents can’t be handled with the “internal affairs” dodge, we’re told that “a few bad apples” are to blame.

The corruption and abusive nature of “law enforcement” can’t be handled through minor reform; it’s a symptom, not the cause, and it is so intertwined with the nature of the state itself that the two cannot be separated. The political class’s attack dogs have gained a taste for power, and so long as we allow that class to rule us, those dogs will be fed.

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