(Unless we mean “a few” in the way Krugman does when discussing ObamaCare.)
Gene Callahan–author of Economics for Real People and once a frequent co-author with me on libertarian articles–has a new blog post in which he chastises libertarians for their over-the-top denouncement of the police State. Here’s Gene:
I received a phone call today from a cop from one of our major cities. (We know each other only electronically.) He wanted to talk because he was so discouraged about the state of police-civilian relations in the country right now. He has always been honest at his job…, always obeyed the law as if he wasn’t a cop, chastised his men when they would break it, sought to respect the community he was policing… and what’s more, he assures me that most cops are more like him then they are like the jack-booted thugs of libertarian fantasies, a few of whom actually exist…He readily acknowledges “We brought some of this on ourselves.” He wants dirty and violent cops punished.
But he also tells me that the one-sided sensationalizing of every possibly suspicious action on the part of a cop makes things worse. Naturally, if cops feel they will be attacked and smeared even if innocent of any wrong-doing, they will become defensive, and tend to dismiss any criticism of any cop as just more libertarian/leftist hate…
Once again, assertions that excessive police violence is is merely “the essence of the state,” as one poster fatuously put it recently, is a falsehood designed to promote a political agenda: police forces all over the developed world are enormously less violent than the American police. For instance, in 2011, all of the police from the entire nation of Germany, policing 80 million people, only fired 85 bullets while policing. By way of contrast, in one incident resulting from a driver’s failure to stop when ordered to do so, Miami police fired well over one hundred shots, killing their target as well as injuring five bystanders…So in the course of a few minutes the Miami police launched more bullets at a single man than the German police do at 80 million people over the course of a year. If excessive police violence is “the essence of the state,” every other state in the developed world must have had its essence sucked out.
First of all, it’s a bit odd that Gene is trying to convince us we’re being paranoid when worrying about a police state…by pointing to Germany. OK, maybe the German police didn’t behave very violently in 2011, but I’m pretty sure they had a few bad years back in the late 1930s. The “paranoid” libertarian position isn’t that all States at all times are totalitarian nightmares, just that they have the tendency to move in that direction and citizens must take great pains to guard against tyranny. Hayek’s famous book was titled the Road to Serfdom, not the Parking Lot of Serfdom.
But I also challenge Gene’s entire premise. I don’t doubt that his buddy is a decent guy, who would be perfectly fine to have over to your barbeque or even babysit your kids. The problem is that, as a general rule, “good cops” keep their mouths shut even when they observe some of their colleagues breaking the law. If Gene’s buddy is indeed a cop in a major city, he is probably personally aware of several officers taking money from drug dealers, or at the very least can make very educated guesses. Again, I am speculating, but I imagine if Gene had put this particular guy’s full name in his blog post, that the guy would flip out and tell Gene to take it down, for fear of professional reprisal.
When a member of any other profession is accused of wrongdoing, colleagues are willing to pontificate on whether the accused should be considered in the right or wrong. For example, if a historian is accused of plagiarism, it won’t be hard for CNN to line up other historians to defend or “convict” the accused.
In contrast, police who are still on the job almost never come forward and say one of their colleagues was in the wrong. I admit I conducted only a cursory search, but using Google I can only find retired police officers criticizing the actions in Ferguson. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that plenty of cops around the country are shocked at what’s happening in Ferguson, and I don’t doubt that they call up their buddies and say so…privately, on the phone, when their comments can’t be used against them. Yet I don’t see hundreds of these outraged police writing letters to the editor or signing petitions, asking their fellow officers in Ferguson to re-think their tactics. (I would love to be corrected in the comments, in which case I’ll update this post.) There’s a reason people coined the term “Blue Wall of Silence.”
Let me give a beautiful illustration of what I mean. Watch the following video:
Note in particular that the CHP spokesman (starting around the 0:20 mark in the video) stresses how the woman was “a danger to herself” because she was walking around on the freeway. So even as he’s telling the press that they need to investigate before rendering a judgment on the officer’s actions, he wants to make sure people realize that this lady could’ve been hurt. (I mean, someone might tackle her and start beating the crap out of her; it’s safer to stay in a vehicle on the California highways.)
Notice also that the second cop runs up and jumps in to restrain the woman. When I worked at a grocery store, if I turned the corner and saw one of my co-workers sitting on top of a grandmother, punching her repeatedly in the face, I’m pretty sure my response would be to restrain him and say, “What the hell are you doing?!”
I recognize that by its very nature, law enforcement places cops in hazardous situations, and it may be hard for outsiders to appreciate the constant state of apprehension. But let’s not kid ourselves that there are a just a few “bad apples” out there, as in any other profession. No, the problem with police forces in the U.S. (I can’t speak for other countries) is that there is virtually no accountability. The rot starts at the top. It’s not because everyone who goes into police work is an awful person, but that the institutional structure produces horrible outcomes.
UPDATE: It’s possible that this particular officer will face “serious charges,” though he was initially put on desk duty and he hasn’t yet been charged. Either way, my point was the initial reaction of the CHP spokesman. He didn’t stand there, his face in shock at seeing one of his colleagues beat up a grandmother lying on the ground, but instead his reaction was to try to minimize the PR damage. Even if he does end up getting charged, the mere fact that it’s an open question shows just how much leeway the police have. They operate under a different law from everyone else.
UPDATE #2: I saw this Twitter picture of a Missouri cop marching with the Ferguson protesters.