Imagine if I were to tell you there is a large group of government employees, with generous salaries and ridiculously cushy retirement pensions covered by the taxpayer, who enjoy incredible job security and are rarely held accountable even for activities that would almost certainly earn the rest of us prison time. When there is proven misconduct, these government employees are merely reassigned and are rarely dismissed. The bill for any legal settlements concerning their errors? It, too, is covered by the taxpayers. Their unions are among the strongest in the country.
No, I’m not talking about public-school teachers.
I’m talking about the police.
We conservatives recoil at the former; yet routinely defend the latter — even though, unlike teachers, police officers enjoy an utter monopoly on force and can ruin — or end — one’s life in a millisecond.
For decades, conservatives have served as stalwart defenders of police forces. There have been many good reasons for this, including long memories of the post-countercultural crime wave that devastated, and in some cases destroyed, many American cities; conservatives’ penchant for law and order; and Americans’ widely shared disdain for the cops’ usual opponents. (“Dirty hippies being arrested? Good!” is not an uncommon sentiment.) Although tough-on-crime appeals have never been limited to conservative politicians or voters, conservatives instinctively (and, it turned out, correctly) understood that the way to reduce crime is to have more cops making more arrests, not more sociologists identifying more root causes. Conservatives are rightly proud to have supported police officers doing their jobs at times when progressives were on the other side.
But it’s time for conservatives’ unconditional love affair with the police to end.
Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way: Yes, many police officers do heroic works and, yes, many are upstanding individuals who serve the community bravely and capably.
But respecting good police work means being willing to speak out against civil-liberties-breaking thugs who shrug their shoulders after brutalizing citizens.
On Thursday in Staten Island, an asthmatic 43-year-old father of six, Eric Garner, died after a group of policemen descended on him, placing him in a chokehold while attempting to arrest him for allegedly selling cigarettes. A bystander managed to capture video in which Garner clearly cries out, “I can’t breathe!” Even after releasing the chokehold (chokeholds, incidentally, are prohibited by NYPD protocol), the same officer then proceeds to shove and hold Garner’s face against the ground, applying his body weight and pressure on Garner, ignoring Garner’s pleas that he cannot breathe. Worse yet, new video shows at least eight officers standing around Garner’s lifeless, unconscious body.
Who can defend this?
And police-department Internal Affairs divisions are nearly as concerning as the cops themselves. Last week, a Miami police officer witnessed a car driving at high speeds in a pedestrian area. When he pulled the car over, the indignant driver stormed out. “Don’t you know the [expletive] I am?” the driver barked. It turns out that the driver was a police lieutenant within . . . Internal Affairs. The department in charge of ensuring proper police behavior consists of gents like this, whose first response is to assume that cops, like members of Congress, are above the law. What happened to the lieutenant? He has been transferred to “Special Investigations,” which, as a local NBC reporter points out, is more a promotion than a punishment.
Police wrongly entering private property with no right to do so and causing death? Check! Last month, an officer in Utah, while searching for a three-year-old reported missing by his family (he was later found hiding in his own home’s basement), took it upon himself to enter the private backyard of a neighborhood home without a warrant — in clear violation of the homeowner’s Fourth Amendment rights (officers are only allowed to chuck the warrant requirement if a crime is occurring where time is of the essence). The officer — who had about as much courage as I did in gym class — was approached by the homeowner’s dog and, rather than retreat or fire at the dog’s leg, shot the dog point-blank in the head. The reaction of the Salt Lake City Police Department was to defend the officer, claiming he had a right to shoot as he was in fear for his life, and made no mention of why the officer entered private property without a warrant in the first place. Anyone who believes in upholding the Constitution should be outraged. Next time, it can just as easily be a young boy who points a toy gun at an officer, a confused elderly person, or even you.
Last month in Georgia, a SWAT team’s flash grenade landed in a baby boy’s crib. Worth noting: It was even the wrong house.
In the past six months, in my own humble neighborhood, I have witnessed officers try to enter a home without a warrant, hoping the residents were none the wiser about their rights; forcibly evict an elderly man from his apartment without an eviction order; threaten to arrest a driver who turned onto a street where the officer had neglected to place the “Street Closed” sign; and throw two teenage kids facedown on the ground for riding their bikes on the street at night.
This is to say nothing of the alarming level of increased hyper-militarization of our police forces, as covered in journalist Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop. National Review’s John Fund and Charles Cooke have also written on the topic on this site. Small towns with SWAT teams and tanks? The beacon of freedom in the world is quickly becoming a police state, and no one seems to be paying much attention.
There is room for optimism, however — the Right is waking up to this reality, thanks in large part to two factors. The Tea Party’s emphasis on constitutionalism has refocused attention on the Bill of Rights. And probably more important, cell-phone cameras are having a tremendous impact — not only in holding officers accountable but in helping to raise awareness of the overall problem. It’s easy to dismiss eyewitness claims of police brutality, but a lot harder to ignore evidence such as a video of a man suffocating to death.
The new video and photo evidence invites the troubling thought that this kind of behavior has long been routine. Only now is it coming to the attention of people who have led lives insulated from heavy interaction with the police. There is some statistical reason to believe that police today may actually be better-disciplined than they were in the past, and there’s certainly reason to hope that dashboard cams, wearable audio and video devices, and other technologies will lead to better outcomes for law-abiding cops as well as for law-abiding civilians.
But that won’t happen unless citizens hold the cops at least as accountable as the government holds private citizens. So, police, it’s been a nice love affair, but right now we need some space. Time to put you in the friend zone. Please don’t call — and, just in case, we’ll keep that video recording of our last encounter.
— A. J. Delgado is a conservative writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.