Politics & Policy

Chesterton’s Cops

New York Police Department (NYPD) officers form a line near City Hall in lower Manhattan, New York City, July 1, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Reformation and deformation

Conservatives are big on “Chesterton’s fence.” That’s G. K. Chesterton’s principle that you cannot reform what you do not understand, that you should not for the sake of convenience knock down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place.

When encountering a fence in his way, Chesterton writes, “the more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”

If you are interested in what defunding the police looks like, Seattle has provided an excellent example in the form of CHOP, the few blocks of the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that the city’s supine municipal government ceded to the occupation of a left-wing militia, which declared itself the law of the land. Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, useless as teats on a boar hog, declared that the scene in CHOP was just a big block party. The block party soon broke out in gunfire and other acts of violence, and it ended with the murder of children. Seattle did not send a platoon of social workers into militia-occupied Seattle to restore order — Seattle sent the police.

Call them Chesterton’s cops.

If they would be reformers rather than deformers, the people who are calling for the abolition of city police departments — “Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police” reads the helpful New York Times headline — should begin by trying to understand why it is we have police departments in the first place. (They are not interested in being reformers; that Times headline is followed by the underline: “Because reform won’t happen.”) As I wrote a few months ago, the familiar city police department is a relatively new kind of institution: We have had courts, bailiffs, and sheriffs going back into antiquity (a duke runs a duchy, a count runs a county, a sheriff runs a shire — he is a shire reeve), but there were no police departments until Robert Peel organized the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829. His program of “policing by consent” was a response to particular problems in his time and presents some useful principles for our own.

Before there were police, there were many different competing models for providing security. The old Mafia, for example, performed many of the functions of a modern municipal government, from adjudicating disputes to policing public morality as a kind of Sicilian mutaween. The Mafia way of doing things remains pretty common in much of the world: The Taliban, for example, represents a similar combination of moral police, social-service provider, adjudicator, and criminal gang. The shortcomings of that way of managing community life are reasonably well-understood — the Sheriff of Nottingham was the corrupt villain of the Robin Hood stories, Wyatt Earp was both a lawman and a career criminal, hired marshals tended to defer to their paymasters. The king’s court was not reliably impartial. As legal practice was regularized, a bureaucratic and professional police force evolved to accompany it. The problems that the modern police department was created to mitigate are very much still with us, and proposals to simply abolish them are fundamentally unserious.

Those police forces have serious problems. In many cities, the local police have through acts of unjustified and excessive violence lost the confidence of at least part of the population, usually in low-income non-white neighborhoods. Practically every big-city police department in this country has been penetrated by organized-crime syndicates at one time or another, from Los Angeles’s Rampart unit, which at its nadir was little more than a gang with badges, to the NYPD detectives acting as enforcers and hit men for the Lucchese and Gambino crime families. Less dramatic forms of police corruption — soliciting and accepting bribes, extortion of drug-dealers and other criminals, sexual exploitation, covering up the crimes of other police officers — remain distressingly common. The headlong foolishness of the police-abolition movement should not blind us to the severe and widespread problems of modern police departments.

Those are problems that could be partially contained through a combination of increased surveillance, professional independent review, and reducing the political power of public-sector unions, which reliably (and successfully) fight against enhanced discipline and oversight. But many reform efforts, including the police-abolition project, promise to recreate pre-Peel problems — some would-be reformers are blinded by ideology, some are unwilling or unable to do the necessary intellectual work.

For example, the idea of “violence interrupters” has enjoyed a slight resurgence in recent months, but the actual scholarship on the experience of programs such as Chicago’s “CeaseFire” project provides very little reason for optimism. A 2009 report sometimes cited as documenting the successes of such programs contains a narrative of failure that would be hilarious if it were not tragic: In a quest for “culturally appropriate messengers,” CeaseFire hired former criminals and gang members, in some cases recruiting them while they were still in prison awaiting release; some of those criminals were not quite as reformed as one might hope (“Some violence interrupters struggled to adjust to a nonviolent lifestyle”) and ended up as “persons of extreme interest” in the very violence they were supposed to be mitigating. Program administrators asked employees to warn them about any criminal activity in order to “avoid a painful termination process or CeaseFire’s reputation being tarnished.” Because there was money changing hands, politicians tried to control the hiring process for patronage purposes. Hiring criminals estranged CeaseFire from the Chicago police, who wanted the program to function in part as a network of paid informers. Staff were taken away from program tasks to “work on perennial funding crises.”

(Please do read the entire report.)

The nexus of political patronage and criminality as a means of attempting to keep the peace would have been familiar in the pre-Peel era. Relying on the informal criterion of “community standing” rather than on public institutions with formal rules, accountability, and oversight — imperfectly realized as those may be — is not entirely unlike how things were done in lawless parts of the Old West or in Mafia-run Sicily a century or two ago. More to the point, it is precisely how things were being run in militia-occupied Seattle, with predictably disastrous results. That does not suggest a very fruitful avenue of reform.

The current atmosphere of chaos is both the fuel and the fire. As of June, murders were up 34 percent year-over-year in Chicago, and shootings were up 42 percent. In 2019, murders in Dallas spiked 30 percent, reaching a ten-year high, and the city’s violent crime is rising in 2020. Cleveland’s homicide rate is up 55 percent year-over-year. Violent crime in Denver increased 21 percent during the coronavirus lockdown.

Reform is a never-ending task. But we cannot address the problems with the police departments if we ignore the problems to which the police departments were a response to begin with.


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