The Corner

To Name and To Name Not

Here’s a microcosm of the relationship between state and citizen: We know the names of the nine people charged with felonies in the Ferguson looting, but not the name of the police officer at the center of the case. 

The government is all discretion when it comes to one of its own. True, there have been threats against the police officer in question — but if any municipal institution is positioned to defend its members, it is the police. And are there no threats against private individuals who are arrested or investigated? Are there no threats against people in prisons? Police departments and prosecutors regularly release discretionary information that has serious consequences for the lives of private individuals, including those who have not been charged with or convicted of any crime.

If we take seriously the idea that political power ultimately resides in the people, then for the people to do their job and oversee the activities of the representatives they have elected to take care of their affairs, they need information. They are entitled to know the details of the case, including the identity of the officer and the details of his professional history. It is wrong to withhold that information. The investigation of the shooting cannot be evaluated in the absence of that knowledge.

The behavior of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police in this matter is illuminating. They are ridiculously militarized suburban police dressed up like characters from Starship Troopers and pointing rifles at people from atop armored vehicles, i.e. the worst sort of mall ninjas. They are arresting people for making videos of them at work in public places, which people are legally entitled to do, a habit they share with many other police departments. Protecting life, liberty, and property — which is the job of the police — does not require scooping people up for making phone videos; in fact, it requires not scooping people up for making phone videos.

These confrontations are a reminder of the eternal question: Who? Whom? Who is to protect and serve whom here? Is government our servant or our master?

A police department habitually conducting its business in secrecy and arresting people for documenting its public actions is more of a threat to liberty and property than those nine looters are. 

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