I will use this opportunity to respond to this blog post which is commenting on a FB discussion of this meme:
- Every cop has agreed, as part of his job, to enforce laws; all of them.
- Many of the laws are manifestly unjust, or even cruel and wicked.
- Therefore, every cop has agreed to act as an enforcer of laws that are manifestly unjust, or even cruel and wicked.
There are no good cops.
Marco’s post lays out several positions concerning the above.
One saying that we cannot blame the cops for the bad laws; one saying that policing is delegated self defence and another claiming that cops are bad as a result of negative selection (the profession attracts bad people). I am sure that more could be added, but before I get to them, I should tell you a few personal stories.
There is no love lost between me and cops. I got beaten by them twice and based on their testimonies, I got convicted three times for something I did not do. For a single person’s life that is quite a bit. Definitely enough to justify distrust.
The beating stories are actually funny.
The first happened in one of those short periods when I did not have a place to live. One day I found a parked train in a station to sleep in until the middle of the night when the cops came to empty it. I was taken to an office where the cop checked my papers and told me that he will beat the crap out of me if he sees me again. ‘You can’t do that’ I said indignantly. He proved me wrong right there and then.
The second beating happened just after the arrest that led to my imprisonment. I was arrested with another 150 people and taken to a central police station. When my turn came, the detective asked me why was I arrested. “Because I called two policemen fascists” I said. “WHAAAT DIIIID YOU SAY??????” he shouted – “Fascists? The policemen of the Hungarian People’s Republic?????” While he was busying himself trying to prove me wrong with a physical demonstration.
My first and most important mistreatment was my conviction for sedition, you can read the full story here. The policemen who arrested me were shamelessly lying on the stand to ensure a harsher sentence.
My second mistreatment happened in Canada, maybe about two years after I arrived. I was driving a delivery van in rush hour traffic in the morning of an ugly, rainy November day. I got stuck in an intersection between two cars blocking a pedestrian crosswalk. It took several minutes before I was able to clear it. Once I did, policeman who witnessed it stopped me and charged me with not stopping at a crosswalk to allow a pedestrian to cross. What I did could have been construed as inconsiderate but not illegal, what he charged me with was putting the life of a pedestrian into serious danger. The story he presented as evidence under oath had NOTHING to do with what actually happened.
I got convicted and lost several demerit points.
This case was a bit of a turning point in my life. I came to Canada with illusions. This was the day when they died. What happened to me in this Canadian traffic court was much worse than what happened in that communist courtroom where the lies of two policemen were instrumental parts of my conviction. Those policemen were puppets of the state, they said in the courtroom what they were told to say. I actually felt sorry for them. The Toronto policeman was a scumbag all on his own. He was abusing his power. I know that what I did was wrong, but it was a mistake, not an infraction. It wasn’t ‘nice’ and it was not intentional but there is no law against making such a mistake. To satisfy his righteous vengefulness, the policeman lied to get me punished more seriously.
My third conviction was a matter of mistaken identity in a traffic violation, but I do not know how it would have turned out in court because I missed the court date and was sentenced in absentia. To that extent, it was my fault.
I also had some good experiences with police.
Before moving in with my girlfriend, I moved close to her. When she was traveling, I was taking care of her dog while she was away. On my way home from work in my van, I picked up the dog from her place. Because of the one way streets where we live, I had to go around the block twice. A policeman stopped me asking why am I circling the neighbourhood. I explained, he let me go. Up to this day, I feel bad for not expressing to him my appreciation for what he did. To an outside observer, my behaviour – circling the block with a box-van had to be suspicious. Stopping me, ‘investigating’ my behaviour was the right thing to do. That is what I would be expecting from the police. To protect my neighbourhood.
Considering it all, my experiences with cops are far more negative than positive, but I cannot see how the approach and attitude expressed in the Higgs quote could possibly make relations with the police any better.
Back to the debate….
Marco is absolutely right saying that the meme is simplistic. I’d say it is ridiculously so and I will address it in my next post.
I also agree with Marco saying that “The problem […] was not with the cops but with the laws they enforced and that our focus should be on the legislators, not the cops.”
It would be difficult to disagree with Doug Barbieri saying that “Bad laws should not be enforced” or with Dave Kozak pointing out how corrupt the police tend to be.
The problem with these debates is that everybody is right and wrong at the same time.
The quote and the debate suffers from HDS (Hypothetical Debate Syndrome), a typical libertarian affliction. The problem with HDS is that it does not apply well to the real world.
Is the policeman who does not enforce the laws he does not like a good policeman or a bad one?
Who is supposed to decide and how is it supposed to be decided what is a bad and what is a good law?
Who is to say what is ‘manifestly unjust’?
The policeman who got me convicted of a serious traffic violation was acting on his personal moral judgement. He was enforcing a law that did not even exist. Was he right to do so? How much personal judgement should a policeman be allowed to have?
The policeman who slapped me around when he found me sleeping in a parked train did not cause me real harm. He tried to teach me two important lessons: don’t talk back to a policeman and find a more private place to sleep.
The petty criminal who is allowed to get away used to be a standard part of cop dramas and detective stories. The idea that policemen should spend their time on serious crimes, not on petty ones. That they are not supposed to enforce every law and act on every infraction. That they are supposed to exercise personal judgment.
The policeman who stopped me when I was driving around the block with a van also exercised personal judgment.
Personal judgment has always been part of being a cop, any time any place, any political system. There are variations in the systems, there are differences in the laws and there are incentives that influence the overall morality of a police force toward either morality or corruption; toward more or less use of personal judgment.
Assigning all responsibility to individual policemen is not only stupid and irresponsible, it is also counterproductive. Blaming the cops for the problems of the system is akin to blaming the bullets or the guns for the crimes committed with them.
The answers are not simple, but the principle is: don’t hate the sinner, hate the sin. The real enemies of respectable policing are the laws, the policies and the incentives.
We should strive toward a system with good laws and try to get rid of the bad ones.
We should argue vehemently against police corruption, unaccountability, unions and monopoly.
We should oppose the militarization of the police, civil forfeiture laws and any power that provides police forces with direct revenue, such as income from traffic and parking fines. Those are the things that make them indistinguishable from gangsters, not their individual moral failings.
The kind of police and policing we have is a reflection of the whole system. We cannot single policemen out for blame and we cannot seriously think that changing them – even if we could – would change the system.
The kind of policing we have is the symptom of our problems, not its cause.
Above all, we should stop wasting time debating vacuous banalities such is the one represented by the meme that started this conversation. I will address that particular stupidity in my next post.
Some laws are bad and some policemen are corrupt.
Still, not all policemen are bad, and singling them out in the moral cesspool of the state is neither moral nor practical. ‘Bad’ laws had to be passed by politicians who were elected on the promises that they will do just that, while judges and prosecutors apply them. They are responsible for far more harm than policemen.