Libertarian Police Skepticism Goes Mainstream

In 2014, critiquing the police went mainstream. “Police militarization” stopped being a term heard exclusively on libertarian internet radio shows or reddit forums, and instead became a normal talking point mentioned by politicians and news stations.  I believe I have maintained a healthy skepticism of all government, even local police forces, but it felt weird when reality pushed past the limits of fiction and kept going. Back in 2012, many libertarians were wary of the capabilities of the US intelligence community. But then Edward Snowden happened, and suddenly anyone not communicating exclusively in ephemeral Diffie-Hellman key exchanges using Perfect Forward Secrecy while wearing a tinfoil hat looked like a moron.

That same phenomenon has repeated itself in the past year; in the summer of 2014, any civil libertarian worth his or her salt probably believed the War on Drugs had given too much power to police forces at the expense of privacy and individual rights.  But would they have predicted police forces using military grade equipment on city streets, pointing semi-automatic rifles at unarmed civilians, arresting journalists, killing civilians with chokeholds, and then going on semi-strike by not “making arrests unless when necessary”? No one could be paranoid enough to believe that and be taken seriously.  But once again, the crazies were proven right:

This is an actual picture of Ferguson.

I don’t wish to get into specifics of what happened to Michael Brown.  It’s far beyond the ability of an internet blogger to prove guilt or innocence. Instead I’d like to paint a picture of police in Ferguson and America generally.

First, look at this blog set up by the Cato Institute.  The blog has an update with usually 7 or so stories about police misconduct every week day.  Just for fun, let’s note the story listed for the worst in December; apparently the FBI was investigating the LAPD’s county jail and the deputies felt the best option was to (1) kidnap a prisoner who was going to testify to the FBI, (2) change his name and records and place him in another facility, and then (3) pretend that he had been released. This wasn’t even a major national story even with all the police headlines last year.

Next, let’s go to Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area. Set a timer for 3-5 minutes and then click on this link to Radley Balko’s broadside on the St. Louis municipal government structure.  After that timer goes off, realize you’re probably only 10% of the way into an article cataloging the apparently incalculable horrors the St. Louis suburban governments inflict on their own residents for money.  This isn’t the whole story of Ferguson, but it’s a big window into what the role of the police seems to be, and unfortunately it’s not for public safety.

As I stated before, I’m not in a position to determine whether Officer Darren Wilson was guilty of a crime or not; but I can tell you that it’s incredibly rare for a grand jury not to charge someone.  FiveThirtyEight notes “U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them”.  The article does point out that while most people are charged by a grand jury, police officers are almost never indicted.  Some, including St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, have argued there was not enough evidence to indict despite media speculation.  However, if we take an inside look from Popehat on grand juries, it’s apparent prosecutors can and will get an indictment regardless of any evidence or lack thereof, unless they specifically make a bad case. Thus, if we take the fact that prosecutors seem to be able to find probable cause in almost anything, pair that with the knowledge of consistent police abuse documented across the country, and then add the specific difficulties St. Louis municipalities impose on their own constituents, it’s very difficult to argue prosecutors couldn’t indict Darren Wilson without also implying this is the rarest of situations.

And then the Eric Garner grand jury also found no probable cause to indict the police officers responsible for using an illegal chokehold to kill an unarmed man accused of selling illegal cigarettes while there was damning video evidence.  Arguing that the lack of charges in both cases are part of a regular functioning justice system (despite the rarity of grand juries deciding not to charge) implies in incredible degree of coincidence.

The year got even weirder when, in response to the growing dissatisfaction with police issues in the news (and specifically comments by New York Major Bill de Blasio), the NYPD officers’ union urged its members into a virtual work stoppage. Apparently, all “unnecessary arrests” were to be avoided until the NYPD got the support it deserved from the mayor.  But, as The Atlantic asks, since arrests dropped 80%, why were there so many “unnecessary arrests” to begin with?

Despite what we’ve seen in 2014, there will still be people, mostly on the Right, who contend that cops have a tough job and should always get the benefit of the doubt. They will also contend people’s outrage regarding closed grand juries is irresponsible speculation.  Unfortunately, simply trusting that the system will work itself out is no longer an option.  Conservatives should extend their critical views of public sector teachers’ unions to police unions, and their outrage at a government managed healthcare system to a government managed justice system; the incentive problems aren’t any different.  It is likely that the abuse of governmental police power has occurred for quite some time, but only recently has technology allowed us to know it.

The Left should also note this projection of governmental force.  Issues of race are inextricably linked to the problems discussed here, but the importance of the state to these issues cannot be understated. The institution of government is one of preservation of existing power dynamics.  While self-interest driven markets push people to view others as beneficiaries of exchange, the state creates stagnation, perpetuating its own institutions regardless of the effects on others, and regardless as to whether those institutions perpetuate prejudice. Just as political parties erect barriers for challengers and the TSA is stuck protecting against the last type of terrorist plot, the suburban governments of St. Louis are stuck feeding on their own citizens to perpetuate an urban plan long out of date. Of course, since the state is raw power, its target will often be the least powerful and given the hierarchies progressives know so much about, it’s not hard to see who the victims will be.  Fighting for reform of state power is also fighting to help the powerless.

I hope that the problems exposed in 2014 do not disappear from public view, to be once again only discussed by libertarians. Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address, for what it’s worth, and Rand Paul has discussed criminal justice reform for some time now, although his policy recommendations may not go far enough.  While this topic may seem to concern only those in the margins of society, the costs of dealing with an increasingly failed and expensive criminal justice system will expand beyond what middle class voters might regard as “criminals” (civil asset forfeiture comes to mind).  Without a functioning justice system, there can be no consistent rule of law, and if the law doesn’t rule, we may not be happy with the people who do.