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Monday, May 07, 2007

Police and Thieves

I heard a telling conversation between a cop and a bartender the other day in Brooklyn. The cop was complaing about a bicyclist:

"My partner and I were in an unmarked vehicle, going the wrong way over the Union St. bridge. This guy on his bike starts screaming at me for going the wrong way. I stopped the car and told him, 'Don't ever talk to anyone in this neighborhood that way. For all you knew, I could be some nutcase.'"

Note:
1) The cop never tried to justify his own lawbreaking, saying, for instance, "It was an emeregency call." Law-breaking by the police needs no justification in his eyes. The Brooklyn police routinely violate traffic laws to, say, get a slice of pizza.
2) Far from its being the job of every citizen to help enforce the law, as it has been for centuries in the common law tradition, citizens better just mind their own friggin' business. Of course, it has been decisively demonstrated that without norms against and public disapproval of lawbreaking, the law becomes impossible to enforce. And notice that, the harder the law is to enforce... the higher will be the perceived need for professionals to enforce it!

The idea that the same laws apply to both citizen and state official has been a bedrock principle of republican liberty for over 2000 years. And once that condition ceased to hold, republican theorists have stated clearly that the relationship between the goverenment and its subjects had become on between masters and slaves. The American founders based their justification for revolution on such a distinction existing. (Parliament could tax them without the tax applying to its own members.) They would have been outraged at the attitude of my local "law officer." (Of course, they would have been pretty puzzled by the idea of a professional police force itself: Despite being something the state "obviously" must provide, professional police had never existed anywhere in the world at anytime before the early nineteenth century.)

I was at a funeral recently, riding in a car with my aunt and uncle. She mentioned that at the funeral of her son-in-law's father, who is from a police family in a large, American city, hundreds of on-duty cops blocked traffic all over the city for the funeral motorcade to proceed. This was in no way authorized by the city government: they did it because they could. "And good for them," my aunt added.

So the police were stealing maybe tens of thousands of dollars from the taxpayers by doing jobs other than those they were being paid for, declaring themselves to be, not subject to the law, but the law themselves! And this was good why? Well, because I come from a law enforcement family, I guess, and we stand to benefit from making everyone else bend over and take it. (My father, who was a state's attorney, was wonderfully free of this tendency to use his position in every way possible. But he was such an exception that people court officials would be shocked that I had come to court to dispute a ticket rather than just getting him to "fix" it for me.)

The same aunt's-son-in-law mentioned above once took two family members on a ride through that big city escorted by police cruisers, lights flashing, forcing cars to pull over, etc. Why? He wanted to take them to a ballgame, and they were running late! Imagine trying to get out of a ticket using that excuse when he pulled you over.

13 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:22 PM

    We in India are so used to these petty abuses of police power that most of us never think it should be any different. The police violate traffic laws as a rule. They take rides from private citizens in their bikes and cars (and who would refuse a ride to a policeman?). They take free rides in cabs, autorickshaws, and public transports. They take things from peddlers and don't pay them, or just ask them for some money. The bottomline is, police is power, and the sole object of having power is to use it for private gain.

    MCLA

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous9:53 PM

    great article published in the Seton Hall Law Journal that traces the history of "professional" police.

    http://www.constitution.org/lrev/roots/cops.htm

    ReplyDelete
  3. If there is any hope of maintaining the principle that no one is above the law, it's going to have a lot to do with people yelling at the cops when they're out of line.

    How much of this has to do with the drug war and the militarization of police?

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