We can see a frightening and deeply concerning trend sweeping across the United States. It is the breaking down of policing and respect for the law. There is no single cause, no single antagonist and no single solution. If you had asked me a couple of years ago what my opinion on the police was, I would have conveyed a very negative one. My position has since evolved. It is a fact that police forces are part of the enforcement arm of the state. As a libertarian I oppose such enforcement by a coercive entity. It is important to clarify that I don’t oppose the role in society that police serve. Greater minds than I have explained how libertarians envision policing done in a free society. I recommend “The Market for Liberty” and Stefan Molyneux’s writing on DROs for an in-depth discussion of the subject. But, that being said we live in the present. As long as the state retains its monopoly on the “legitimate” use of force, policing should be bound by certain principles. Fairness, an unbiased approach and proportional response being some of them.
For the sake of argument, I will from now on leave out the future vision of libertarian policing. Current political views on law enforcement are deeply tied to political leanings. Liberals in the US are in favor of shackling the police and support for anti-police groups such as Black Lives Matter is widespread. Conservatives on the other hand are pro-police, much in the same way they’re pro-military. A thought changing moment for me was watching a YouTube video of a traffic stop of a young man by two officers. The video showed the driver pull out a gun, shoot one of the officers and bolt from the car. He made it incredibly far on foot in less than a second. It was almost as if it had been Usain Bolt’s identical twin. It was incredible to watch. Such moments really make you think. Cops are expected to put their own personal safety on the line every day on the job. The situation showed in the video left no doubt that police frequently encounter potentially dangerous situations with incredibly little time to react and room for error. If the cop makes a mistake and for instance shoots a unarmed suspect. Condemnation and wall-to-wall media coverage will surely follow.
Judging the individual police officer misses the larger picture. We must look at the systemic situation and judge based on that. There is precious little reward for the officer if the correct call is made, and an enormous downside if a mistake is made. Taking that into consideration I find it rather puzzling that anyone would willingly become a law enforcement officer. The pay and working conditions are mediocre at best and the personal risks to oneself and the family are not insignificant. Heather Mac Donald and Sheriff David Clarke Jr goes into the restrictive and counterproductive political environment cops have to live under in their respective books “The War on Cops” and “Cop Under Fire”. Police are under attack from different political angles. Politicians of various kinds such as mayors and other elected officials are quick to turn their coat according to the prevalent winds. If community sentiment (real or media-hyped) dictates talking negatively about the police they will do so. Knee-jerk reactions in the form of policy changes or laws with similar effects are not far from reality whenever there is a situation in the media. Both sides of the story need not be covered.
Another angle is the judicial system. We can see the erosion of the legitimacy of the law and the respect for it. The blocking of Trump’s executive orders by rogue activist judges are but a symptom of a much larger problem. Reading the relevant passages of the law leaves no doubt, even for a layman such as myself that Trump was in the clear. Agree or disagree with the contents of the orders, ha absolutely had the legal right to issue them. He was well within his authority as President. When judges clearly abuse their authority in this manner, it harms the people’s respect for the office and their rulings. That is a cause for great alarm. MacDonald goes into the problems the prison system in California faces at length. Activist judges have caused large numbers of convicted criminals to be released from jail. They also make up reasons for continuing their interference, meet one arbitrary demand only to face another. This results in people demanding or at least greatly reducing their scepticism of expanded executive authority. That is a dangerous path to thread.
Further, recent clashes between Trump-supporters and radical violent leftists have highlighted the practice of police chiefs issuing stand-down orders to their officers. In practice this means that police will not interfere in dangerous, escalating situations between demonstrators and pedestrians. The police are present in the nearby area, heavily armed and with a significant personnel presence. But they simply do nothing on account of their higher ups blocking enforcement action. The result has been unsurprisingly that people have taken the law and the responsibility for their own protection into their own hands. The recent Battle of Berkeley was the clearest example to date of this phenomenon. People feel the need to equip helmets, goggles and respirators simply in order to exercise their own first amendment free speech rights. In 2017.
As with many other political hot-button issues of the day, pursuing a solution early in the gestation of the problem is the wise course of action. Sadly, it has become an all too familiar tale of repetition. Problems are allowed to grow and grow until they become nearly insurmountable. What America will face in a year, five years and a decade hence if the current trends are allowed to continue should scare all of us. It is therefore important that we all highlight these issues and work for a sustainable solution.