A Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master

Trump’s authoritarian bloviating and the excessive force used by some police departments do not call for a radical leftist solution. They call for some good old-fashioned American wisdom about the role of government.

George Washington is widely credited with the aphorism, “Government, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” (He may not have said it, but he should have.)

A sane and rational approach has to start with the recognition that we absolutely need government, we need the police, we need an organized force to protect our rights—but it has to be there to protect our rights. For that purpose, government needs to be limited, controlled, and kept accountable.

Complaints that the police are selectively aggressive with black people are too common and universal to be dismissed. See a pretty compelling case made by longtime libertarian reform advocate Radley Balko. So we have to ask what can be done to curb abuses of power and convince a large group of our fellow citizens that they enjoy the equal protection of the laws guaranteed to them in the Fourteenth Amendment.

The good news is that there are some valid and worthwhile reform ideas that have gotten attention over the past two weeks. A wise and thoughtful political leader could probably rally a wide and ideologically diverse coalition in favor of them. Unfortunately, the Democrats are stuck with Joe Biden, instead—but who knows, maybe he’ll stumble onto the right course. Here are a few of the ideas that seem compelling to me.

First, break the police unions. There has been a lot of talk about ending “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that limits the personal liability of police officers for misconduct. From what I can tell, though, this is a far less significant problem than the impact of police unions, which negotiate disciplinary rules that make it nearly impossible to fire or discipline an officer who abuses his power. Public employees’ unions exist to protect government officials at the expense of the people, and this can have particularly deadly effects when it shields police officers.

Second, ban using petty violations as a source of revenue. Check out a long, in-depth report by Radley Balko on one county in Missouri where a patchwork of small towns derive a huge portion of their revenue from fines for minor, pettifogging violations. This creates a huge incentive for police to harass citizens in order to fund their own operations. This tends to hit the poor and minorities harder, because they are more likely to be in violation of these petty laws—more likely to let their car insurance lapse, for example, or to skip a mandatory state inspection—and also because they aren’t able to afford a lawyer to defend themselves. It’s a horribly perverse system that has been widely blamed for the resentment of police that helped fuel the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

While we’re at it, we can curtail civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize money from the people they arrest, even when the amount seized is greater than the legal punishment for the crime, and even when the arrestee is only suspected of being guilty of a crime. It’s a form of legalized theft that once again gives the police a financial incentive to harass citizens.

We need fewer laws in general, and if we were to shoot for the moon, I would add that we should end the War on Drugs. People arrested on drug charges alone are a relatively small percentage of the prison population, but the underground trade in drugs is a major driver of violent crime. This helps transform some inner-city neighborhoods into ungovernable war zones, while also increasing the violent and adversarial relationship between police and citizens, including the adoption of military-style police equipment chosen to help police win shootouts with drug gangs. Drug addiction is highly destructive and has a bad impact on individuals and the neighborhoods in which they live. But like Prohibition before it, the War on Drugs has objectively failed to solve that problem while adding to it by directing massive profits to criminal gangs and fueling violent conflict.

That reform is probably too much to ask at this point, but one that is much more likely, and which actually seems to have some track record of working, is what is called “community policing.” Joe Biden has, fortunately, rejected calls to “defund the police” but embraced community policing.

Community policing is the idea that the police should be part of and connected to the community where they are enforcing the laws. They should know and be known by the locals and build up relationships of personal trust. One story from the recent riots should illustrate the need for this: a black family in Los Angeles who helped defend a local shop from looters, who called on the police for aid only to be arrested by cops who thought that they were the looters. This would be less likely to happen in a place where the police know the members of the local community.

This is often described as an attempt to go back to the origins of policing, in which police were not professionals who commuted into the city from some other town or neighborhood, but were fellow citizens deputized as constables or a night watch. A police chief who has been implementing this system in New Haven (which despite being home to Yale is also a high-crime city) describes the impact of having his new cops walk the same beat for a year.

The first week it’s a quiet walk. Everybody is kind of eyeballing you and you’re eyeballing everybody. By the end of the month you can’t get down the block without a half-a-dozen conversations and honking their horns. People know your children’s names and you know their children’s names. They know your days off.

By the second or third month I almost always hear this story: Chief, you gotta explain this to me, I don’t get it. I’ve walked this beat every day with my partner for three months. And I say hello to this lady every morning. Yesterday, she asked me if I could stay a minute. She wanted to talk. She told me something horrendous had happened to her three or four months ago. I said, Ma’am, why didn’t you tell me then? She said, “Because I didn’t know you then, officer.”

And that’s when the moment of insight occurs….

The only way you get past that barrier of a uniform or skin color is through relationships…. That’s what we’re going back to—we’re going back to a cop that has to earn their trust in the neighborhood, and that takes time. We’re going back to when the community embraces their officer. Not necessarily their department, but the person they know.

This can also include more proactive measures to prevent crime from happening, a form of “broken windows policing” that goes beyond just busting a lot of people for minor offenses. Here is a story from Cincinnati.

When members of the Evanston community started to complain about crime in the vicinity of the store, police officers were at the meeting to listen. The data showed that the location was a place where disputes often turned fatal. They decided to minimize the number of people hanging out in front of the store, not by arresting people, but by moving a bus stop down the street and moving a phone booth further away. Then, when the store’s owner didn’t respond to requests by police to stop allowing drug deals to take place on his property, the city went after his liquor license, said Dunn, who was involved with the process. The city bought the building and tore it down, and is now seeking a developer to build a grocery store. The formerly violent corner is now transformed, because of the involvement of the community and a number of city departments, and, of course, the police.

I don’t know how well this is going to work, and it definitely cannot be imposed from the top down out of Washington, DC. This is something that is going to have to be tried at the local level. But it’s worth a try.

Finally, I think we need to be looking at changing police training.

One of the complaints making the rounds is that there are more stringent training requirements to become a licensed barber then there are to become a cop. This is somewhat misleading because those are basic state-level requirements, and most local forces add additional training on top of that.

But the most intriguing suggestion I’ve heard is that it’s not so much the length of the training as its style. A lot of people have focused on the paramilitary equipment that has become popular thanks to a program that sends military surplus to police departments. But the deeper problem may be the paramilitary style of police academy training. Rosa Brooks, a law professor who is also a DC reserve officer, explains it this way.

When police recruits are belittled by their instructors and ordered to refrain from responses other than ‘Yes, Sir!,’ they may learn stoicism—but they may also learn that mocking and bellowing orders at those with less power are acceptable actions. When recruits are ordered to do push-ups to the point of exhaustion because their boots weren’t properly polished, they may learn the value of attention to detail—but they may also conclude that the infliction of pain is an appropriate response to even the most trivial infractions.

The rest of the piece makes it sound like this means lots of racial sensitivity training for police, which I doubt will make much difference. The solution is not to eradicate some kind of vague “implicit bias,” but to instill habits and standard operating procedures that will lead to less violence and less of an adversarial relationship with the community regardless of the officer’s personal bias. The hardest part about being a cop is that you deal all the time with the dregs of humanity, and it must be difficult to continue to treat people with a habitual level of civility and respect. It takes training.

It is important to note that only the last of these reforms would have been likely to have any effect on the outcome in George Floyd’s case. He was being detained, not on a petty or harassing charge, nor on a drug-related offense, but for passing a counterfeit bill. And there is evidence he knew the officer who arrested him, which did not prevent the arrest (and shouldn’t have). Perhaps he might have survived if Derek Chauvin, or the rookies who were assisting him, had been better and more frequently trained on how to handle suspects safely and deal with signs of medical distress.

But the goal of the reforms should not be to prevent every unfortunate death, not even those that might have been avoidable. In a nation of 300 million people that can’t be done. The goal should be to address the wider, underlying source of grievances so that when an incident like this occurs again, as it inevitably will, a significant portion of the population is not primed to rise up in indignation against the entire system.

Government is a dangerous servant and a fearful master—but so is a rioting mob. To avoid either danger, clear and rational thinking is required to embrace reforms that make sense, and not just those being demanded by the voices that are loudest and angriest at the moment.

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