Politics & Policy

Police Shootings and the Eternal Dilemma

The police problem is the political problem.

The problem with the “few bad apples” view of the killing of Walter Scott by police officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, S.C., is that it is the nature of these apples to go bad.

Slager has been charged with murder in the Scott case, and the video shot by a witness to the shooting suggests that the police officer altered the scene after shooting the fleeing, unarmed man in the back. There is good reason to believe that the officer’s account of the incident is untrue — and good reason to believe that it nonetheless would have been accepted at face value if not for the video.

Keeping in mind the debunked “hands-up, don’t shoot” account of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the predictably cynical, irresponsible exploitation of that episode by professional race-baiters and their media enablers, those inclined to treat police departments sympathetically counsel us to 1) withhold certain judgment about the Scott case until after a thorough investigation is conducted, and 2) refrain from using the episode to make generalizations about police departments and their integrity.

The particular question can be safely entrusted to the courts; the general question we must consider ourselves as citizens.

The Left wants this controversy to be about racism, but it is in fact about the nature of government power. The police problem is the political problem.

We find ourselves in the familiar predicament: The institutions and the people that we deputize to secure our liberty are — it is inevitable — the most significant threat to that liberty. This is evident at all levels of government.

We see it in New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s empowering his cronies to loot the state of $1 billion under cover of a phony jobs program that produced 76 jobs — business as usual for an administration that managed to use the state corruption commission as an instrument of corruption.

We see it in the IRS scandal, where the ongoing litigation pursued by Judicial Watch this week produced a memo from a senior IRS official explicitly directing her underlings on how to go about evading congressional oversight and public transparency.

And of course we see it dramatically in police departments, which are by nature more dramatic than other government institutions — there are not very many top-rated television programs about tax-compliance officers.

As the Scott shooting dominates the headlines, former NYPD commissioner Bernie Kerik is on tour promoting his recently published prison memoir, while the penetration of policy agencies by organized-crime syndicates and drug cartels is a regular occurrence. That police officers routinely commit crimes while purporting to enforce the law is beyond dispute — the tally of petty theft and evidence-tampering alone is sobering. From coroners to prosecutors to big-city gang task forces to drug-dealing Baltimore police officers, the criminality in the law-enforcement process is, if not necessarily a dominant tendency, a plainly and inarguably systemic one. Lord Acton was right, and so was Detective Jimmy McNulty: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America.

That’s an orchard’s worth of bad apples.

Police misconduct commands intense public attention for several reasons. Law-enforcement scandals usually are a good deal less complicated than the management of the IRS’s nonprofit-compliance bureaucracy or the financial maneuverings of the Cuomo administration, and most people have some direct experience with police; like a sex scandal, a police scandal is within the common frame of reference. More important, the Hobbesian rubber hits the republican road when the state is doing what it alone is explicitly empowered to do: carrying out acts of violence. The legal use of force happens in two contexts: war and policing — and most contemporary Americans will never get very close to a war.

The progressive tendency, and a great deal of conservative thinking, too, is rooted in the dismal moral calculus of Thomas Hobbes: The world is chaotic, and the only cure for that chaos is Leviathan, the all-powerful state. We can try to put a leash on Leviathan with laws and constitutions, elections and other democratic institutions, the formal freedom to criticize the state, etc., but in the end the alternative is so dreadful — bellum omnium contra omnes — that we must bear not only the state’s general torpor, its waste and peccadillos, but also its crimes. In the 800 years since the ratification of Magna Carta, we have not managed to come up with a political solution that does not in the end present us with a choice between servility and revolution. The Left, being schizophrenic, wants revolution and servility simultaneously: smashing store windows on Saturday night, cashing a welfare check on Monday.

As an alternative to that, the Right proposes . . . what?

The limited-government philosophy is of little use here; even the most radical reformers do not propose to dissolve police departments as such. But we can use some engineering when political philosophy fails us. (“The Enlightened One, if he had meditated on it, would not necessarily have rejected a technical solution.”) There is no getting around the police problem, but neither is there a technological reason that our police officers cannot be kept under constant invasive surveillance while they are going about what is, after all, the public’s business, done on the public’s dime. Body cameras, dash cameras, GPS, audio, unannounced inspections — we have an array of options at our disposal, and police should be constantly subject to real-time oversight across multiple channels. (Police detest this, of course, which is why they spend so much time harassing and illegally arresting people who record them at work.)

Police departments, particularly their internal investigations, should be radically transparent. Evidence audits, ledgers, and all internal communication — all of it — should be subject to public review. The police work for us, and they require our oversight. If you don’t like it, lots of luck earning $300,000 a year in the private sector in Philadelphia, detective.

We need police. And the question we have to answer is: How much police misconduct are we willing to accept as the price? “None” is a naïve answer — but if that is our answer, we should start acting accordingly. The police cannot be everywhere at once, and neither can citizens with telephone cameras.

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