Will the Police Protect You?

For years, I have declared a preference for taking my chances with criminals rather than with the police. Criminals usually want my property, not to control my life or to cage me like an animal. With criminals, I can pull a gun in self-defense. Until lately, however, the average person has scowled my way whenever I voiced that preference.

The situation is changing. A tipping point in the public attitude toward law enforcement is under way… finally! A significant number of people have realized that America is either currently a police state or it is teetering on the crumbling edge to one.

Part of the sea change comes from the deliberate militarization of police departments, where tanks, drones, and SWAT teams have become standard. A military-style training, in which civilians are viewed as combatants, has deepened the antagonism of the police toward the public so that violent incidents are commonplace. Many police officers no longer bother to disguise their savagery. Police at the University of California, Davis who pepper-sprayed peaceful, seated Occupy protesters a year ago come to mind. Why should they be subtle? Their anti-terrorism mandate has erased the restraints of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, there is no oversight. The police define their own rules of conduct, police departments investigate their own misdeeds behind closed doors, and district attorneys and police unions aggressively shield the criminal acts of cops. Victims who complain are often charged with elastic crimes, such as “obstructing law enforcement,” which are later dropped in exchange for their silence.

Part of the sea change also comes from the increased use of law enforcement against children in public schools. Last May, New Mexico police officer Chris Webb was visiting a school for career day when he asked a group of young boys to wash his police car. A 10-year-old refused. According to an ensuing lawsuit against Webb and the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, the officer told the youngster, “Let me show you what happens to people who do not listen to the police.” Webb then used a Taser on him, sending 50,000 volts of electricity into the 100-pound boy’s chest. He lost consciousness. Instead of seeking medical care, however, Webb merely carried him into the principal’s office. The officer claims it was all an accident and points to his punishment — a three-day suspension — as proof the police department believes him.

The incident is not isolated. Last month, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed against a Mississippi school district that arrests students, handcuffs them, and ships them off to youth court for minor infractions like breaking the dress code. Among the defendants are judges of the county’s youth court and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services. They are accused of violating the children’s constitutional rights through such practices as incarcerating them for days without a probable cause hearing.

The backlash goes on and on. The raw money grabs being made by police in the name of civil forfeiture have also sparked fury. Under civil forfeiture, property that was involved in a crime can be confiscated and sold by police departments. It doesn’t matter if the victims of the forfeiture have committed no crime or have never been charged with one.

On Nov. 5, for example, a pivotal civil forfeiture case commenced in Boston. Over a 20-year period, a handful of drug crimes were committed in a motel owned by Russ Caswell and his wife; the “crime scenes” represented about 0.05% of their total rentals. Nevertheless, the federal government and the local police department are attempting to take the Caswells’ $1 million motel and split the proceeds. Ironically, the money grab arose because the Caswells themselves reported suspicious activity.

These and other factors, including the rise of YouTube videos that capture police brutality, contribute to the discomfort with which average people are beginning to view the police.

The importance of this change cannot be overstated.

Years ago, I interviewed several dozen sex workers and surveyed about 200 more for the purpose of writing a book about the realities of the “profession.” The women expressed one political attitude over and over: They did not trust the police, the courts, or any aspect of law enforcement. They recognized the legal system for what it is — an enemy. From visceral experience, the women knew law enforcement as a corrupt system that brutalizes harmless people and criminalizes peaceful acts.

Their attitude was refreshing. The single greatest obstacle over which I used to stumble in arguing for fundamental legal change was the inculcated belief that the police were there “to serve and protect.”

I argued in vain that the police have no duty whatsoever to protect people from criminals; that’s not their job description. The courts have been clear on this point for over a century. In 1856, the U.S. Supreme Court (South v. Maryland) found that law enforcement officers had no responsibility to protect anyone. Their duty was to enforce the law in general. More recently, in 1982 (Bowers v. DeVito), the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals held that “there is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being murdered by criminals or madmen.” Later court decisions concur.

Police vehicles often sport slogans like “Proud to serve!” If they aren’t there to protect you, the question becomes who are they serving? The courts have answered: Police departments exist to enforce the law. The police serve the government, not the people. They uphold the law with total disregard for whether their actions create or prevent violence. If government decides that certain forms of consent between adults must not be tolerated, then the police will draw their guns and barge into otherwise peaceful situations. To uphold an unjust law, they will create violence and victims.

To understand the reality that the police are not there for you is an extremely valuable piece of information. If you are depending on them to protect you, to guard you against real crime, to stop intruders or muggers and to prosecute after the fact, you have been sorely misled.

Every citizen who wants to be free must prepare for his or her own defense against violence. The market is there to assist with security services, alarm systems, property monitoring devices, ever more sophisticated locks, and, of course, guns of all sorts. In the end, we are responsible for our own security. The state will not come to your rescue. On the contrary, it is the market that provides the means by which we are rescued from the state.

Sincerely,

Wendy McElroy

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