When police in a Sacramento, Calif., suburb were searching for a violent killer Saturday, they set up roadblocks in certain areas. This picture is what innocent suburbanites faced as they drove down neighborhood streets trying to get to or from their houses.
I think it’s a perfect example of the conflicts we face between two very strongly opposing views about law enforcement and the rights of innocent people. Do you think it’s right and reasonable for this random innocent driver — who wasn’t suspected of anything — to have this weapon pointed at him at close range under this circumstance?
I don’t think it’s reasonable, but defenders of police would say that it was necessary to protect police safety. Frankly, I’m a little more worried about the safety of the vast bulk of the public — who don’t deserve to have high-powered weapons pointed at their heads when they come to roadblocks in their otherwise safe neighborhoods.
There are two prevailing narratives about police today. One is that they’re all thugs who are drunk on the power of the state and are out to violate the rights of innocent people. The other is that they’re valiant and trustworthy servants of the people who are sacrificially doing a dangerous job to keep the rest of us safe.
I think there’s some true in each extreme, although people on the two extremes generally can’t see much middle ground.
Yes, I do think that a lot of police are out of control. How many incidents do we have to see of police being caught violating people’s rights, killing innocent people and pets, and lying about inconvenient facts to know that there’s a serious problem with police culture? I grew up with a lot of respect for police, but I’ve gotten to the point that I’m afraid of most of them. The attitude that I feel from most police officers I encounter today is one of disdain for the public — the belief that I’m a threat to them, not that they’re public servants working for me.
On the other hand, it’s crazy to believe we don’t need some form of a police force. (I’ve heard a lot of anti-police partisans assert that we don’t need any.) The truth is that some percentage of the population is violent and amoral. Those people are willing to use force or fraud to take things from other people and commit physical crimes. There’s no way around that. We need some way to defend ourselves against those people. Even when done with the utmost care, it’s a dangerous job and it’s going to claim the lives of some of those doing it.
So how do we resolve those two positions?
First, let me stipulate that the really best way is to get rid of the state and let property owners decide for themselves how they want to protect where they live. If some people want to live with no protection, that’s their business, but it’s pretty safe to assume that neighborhoods would band together to hire their own security and set the rules that are appropriate for them. Private cities and communities of various kinds could hire their own police or contract with private companies for protection. There are plenty of possibilities.
But we don’t live in that world. Not yet. I think we will one day. For now, we’re stuck with police who are employees of a coercive state. So how can we have peace and order in society while also protecting the rights of innocent people?
I don’t have any solutions, but it would be a start if each side of the debate could acknowledge that the other side has some valid concerns.
Can police and their supporters admit that there are growing reasons for many of us to be suspicious of them? Can they admit that there’s misconduct of various kinds among police — lying, planting evidence, ignoring suspects’ rights, treating some people (especially minorities) unfairly in many cases? Can they admit that many police officers have absolutely no respect for the people who pay their salaries and that they’re looking to intimidate us? Can they admit that the militarization of modern police makes it appear they’re going to war against the rest of us?
Can those on the other side admit that we need someone to play the role of protecting us from criminals and thugs? Can they admit that there are many good police officers who are trying to do do the right things? Can they admit that police officers are in danger in many types of places, especially unsafe urban neighborhoods? Can they admit that the insults they hurl at all police officers aren’t necessarily deserved — and that scorn should be reserved for the ones who actually appear to be guilty of violating our rights?
The people on these two sides are very far apart, but I think there needs to be dialogue. Unless each side can acknowledge the legitimate concerns of the other, that can’t happen, but I think it’s necessary if we’re to have some sort of reasonable conclusion to the increasing resentment and anger on both sides.
I hate to be pessimistic, but I don’t see much grounds for believing that dialogue, much less changes in attitudes, can happen. Unless change happens, though, we’re going to continue down the path we’re going down now — and it’s not one that I think benefits anybody.
Of course, ending the misguided “war on (some) drugs” would also cure a lot of these problems, but that’s another issue altogether.