The rise in police brutality has been one of the biggest news stories of the past year. The fervor that began with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has only escalated, and the nation’s police officers have come under increased scrutiny as reports of their violence have become more widely reported. One result of these incidents has been the developing belief among many Americans that police officers are out of control bullies who specifically target minorities with their violent actions.
Others, primarily conservatives, have opposed these criticisms. They have consistently rushed to the defense of the police who, they point out, have tough jobs that require them to make split-second decisions about matters of life and death. Given the value conservatives place on law and order, this reaction is understandable.
But lost in both interpretations of the news are questions that, especially for conservatives, hold important implications.
What laws should be enforced?
In nearly all of the high-profile stories of police violence, the disparity between the severity of the crimes and the actions of law enforcement has been glaring. Eric Garner, for instance, was choked to death for selling untaxed cigarettes. Freddie Gray’s neck was broken because he allegedly possessed an illegal knife. Walter Scott was shot to death for having a malfunctioning brake light. Samuel DuBose was killed due to a missing front license plate.
In each of these instances, conservatives deflected blame aimed at police back on the victims by saying that they should have complied with the law and not resisted arrest. But this argument avoids the fundamental question of whether or not the laws that were broken were worth enforcing to the point of killing the offender.
Behind every law, from laws against murder to regulations of traffic, is the threat of assault and death. In enforcing laws, police officers necessarily use coercion and the threat of force. Most people comply with these threats, but if they don’t the threats turn into reality. If an individual resists the enforcement of a law, the violence will escalate up to the point of actually killing the offender. This is all implicit in every law and, for this reason, some libertarians have suggested appending “or we will kill you” onto the end of every law.
In The Law, Frederic Bastiat wrote, “We must remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.” Understanding the violence that underlies laws, we should ask which laws are worth killing over. Are laws banning the sale of untaxed cigarettes or the carrying of concealed weapons? Are laws against broken brake lights or missing license plates? Should even resisting arrest or running from the cops result in death?
It’s hard to say that these laws are worth the lives of individuals – lives that most conservatives believe are created in the image of God. Failure to comply with some laws may indeed be vices, but as Lysander Spooner once said, “vices are not crimes.”
What should also be troubling to the “law and order” crowd is the immorality of unwarranted state violence against individuals. The spectacle of people being executed for minor offenses ultimately undermines the rule of law itself for, as Bastiat wrote, “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”
Who enforces crummy laws?
It is peculiar to see conservatives support such heavy-handed enforcement of laws when they are themselves so often opposed to laws and extensions of government power. By hating government oppression on the one hand and offering unqualified support for law enforcement on the other, conservatives expose an alarming lapse in consistency and critical thinking. They further ignore the how the laws they despise are connected to the law enforcement officers they revere.
This was illustrated for me a couple of months ago, during the height of the debates over the Supreme Court’s impending gay marriage decision. In short succession a Facebook friend posted first a meme that mockingly asked victims of police violence if they had considered not breaking the law and then a news story about how Christian ministers were prepared to go to prison rather than comply with gay marriage laws that would violate their faith. These two sentiments were shared a half hour apart without any sense of irony.
Well, here’s the irony: the police officers whose right to use violence conservatives consistently defend are the exact same people who will enforce gay marriage laws They’re the same people who will come knocking on conservatives’ doors if gun bans are enacted. They’re the same people who will drag Americans off to prison if they fail to pay their Obamacare penalties.
Conservatives can pretend to not care what laws are being broken. They can believe that any recipient of police brutality should have just obeyed the law. But the laws, even crummy ones, cannot be separated from the people who enforce them. The trajectory of government is not in favor of liberty, and the time is fast approaching when the police force that conservatives defend will come for them. One wonders if, when that day comes, they’ll be singing the praises of their captors as they’re dragged away.
Do all victims deserve their punishment?
Rather than acknowledge the fundamental problems with police violence, conservatives often focus instead on condescending to the victims. This often takes the form of assassinating the character of the victims, as conservatives glibly observe, “He was no choir boy,” as if that fact itself warrants a death sentence.
The most despicable instance of this was Newsmax’s justification of Eric Garner’s death, as the conservative site sought to absolve the police of guilt in his death by pointing out that he had been arrested before and that he had a wide range health issues. But those non-sequiturs aside, Newsmax was unable to connect Garner’s offenses on the day of his death to his execution on a New York City sidewalk.
It truly doesn’t matter if the people attacked and killed by police are good, moral people. It doesn’t even matter if they’ve been arrested in the past. What matters is whether or not they were doing anything that warranted their death. Unless they were attacking the life, liberty or property of someone else- that is, unless they were committing crimes of aggression – it is difficult to find justification for the use of lethal force.
Are all cops evil?
On the other side of the issue, there are fallacies as well. Many people, both on the left and in libertarian circles, have expressed the false opinion that all police officers are evil. But many police officers join the force because they want to help and protect people around them. They, like the rest of society, have been inculcated with the belief that police officers serve and protect the public.
That their jobs end up attacking, and not protecting, the rights of individuals betrays a fundamental problem with the law, not necessarily the law enforcement officer. If laws against individual liberty and personal property – laws supported by most of the public – didn’t exist, police officers wouldn’t be trying to enforce them. Reducing the scope of the law, then, is the most effective way to reduce the incidence of police violence.
It is important to understand that standing against police brutality is not tantamount to standing against law and order, nor is it criticizing all law enforcement officers. But if law and order – not to mention morality – are to be respected, episodes of police brutality need to be strongly condemned and the perpetrators of it need to be held to high standards of justice. More importantly, the law itself needs to be brought back to its only morally valid role – protecting life, liberty and property.
Note: This article is part of a series exploring libertarian positions through a conservative lens. Click here for the full list of articles.