How Much Police Brutality Is Enough?

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“…I’m one of these guys who thinks cops can slap people around from time to time — if it’s called for and if they don’t get caught….”

“The thin blue line needs to operate in a wide gray area when it comes to maintaining the social order….”

The quotes above are from a recent column by National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg. The same column condemns the police torture of Abner Louima and so begs the question — just how much police brutality is acceptable in the name of “maintaining the social order?”

Absolutely none, of course. And for that matter police aren’t needed to maintain the social order at all. But before explaining why that’s the case, it’s worth looking at some of the ways in which police brutality undermines the very social order Goldberg wants to use it to protect.

“Respect for the rule of law” may be a vague phrase — laws don’t enforce themselves, after all, and in that sense don’t really rule anything — but it’s not meaningless. Indeed the maxim is a favorite among conservatives, or at least it was during the Clinton administration. It stood in contrast both to the arbitrary “rule of men” and to the idea that anyone, even the president, was above the law. Police brutality makes a mockery of the rule of law on both counts.

Goldberg argues that “cops cannot instill, maintain, or elevate order…if they are not respected, and at least a little feared.” The problem with this is that fear actually lessens respect for both the law and its enforcers. Clearly the Rodney King, Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo incidents all created more fear of cops, especially among blacks, but that fear turned into resentment, not respect. Goldberg might argue that these were all excessive cases, and in any event the cops in all three got caught. But even the most routine incidents of harassment erode the fabric of civil society and social order. It’s with good reason that blacks accuse police forces of institutional racism, while gunowners in the Midwest get ready for a showdown with the BATF at any moment. Law enforcement has done a great deal to create and justify everyone’s “paranoia” and “hatred.” We can thank the NYPD in large part for the continuing relevance of Al Sharpton.

The harm that police brutality inflicts upon the social order is plain enough then, but would there be a social order at all without the police to protect it? Yes, without question there would be. As hard as it may be for 21st century Americans to believe, the modern police force is a very recent historical development, not even 200 years old. The first modern metropolitan police force was created by Robert Peel in London, 1829. For most of the preceding 2,000 and more years Western civilization had more or less flourished without anything like our police. See this article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which includes the following description of community law enforcement in Anglo-Saxon England:

“When crimes were observed, citizens were expected to raise an alarm, gather their countrymen, and pursue and capture the criminal. All citizens were obliged to pursue wrongdoers, and those who refused were subject to punishment. If a crime was committed with no witnesses, efforts to identify the criminal after the fact were the responsibility of the victim alone: no governmental agency existed for the investigation and solution of crimes.”

Even Jonah Goldberg himself has an inkling of how private justice works. In an otherwise muddled article that defends the practice of police beating suspects he stumbles upon this basic insight:

“It is difficult for us to fathom how important it is that justice not always be left to a courtroom. I know this sounds heretical and smacks of vigilantism. But this principle is also obvious to people in their everyday lives — and it is what makes everyday lives possible. A man with an errant hand deserves a slap across the face from a lady — without the lady fearing that she’ll be charged with assault. A man who treats his children shamefully should be shamed. And a person who lies should be called a liar. We mete out such justice every day of our lives.”

Libertarian dogmatists should take note that in Goldberg’s example the lady may be “initiating force” against the lothario but she is not in the wrong. (This is of course completely different from some of the girls of my acquaintance, who have been known to throw beer cans at a certain poor little drunken Irish boy.) The point is that initiation of force is not the only kind of unacceptable behavior in the universe, or at least in the communities in which people actually live.

Monopoly on force however, of the kind possessed by the state and its police, is certainly an evil, an unnecessary and unacceptable one that by its very nature undermines the social order. The entire raison d’etre of the State is after all to replace, not defend, civil society. As the sociologist Robert Nisbet explains in part in his book The Twilight of Authority:

“Of all the really fundamental desires in human life, protection is surely first: protection from the kind of violence or threat of violence that Hobbes made the very essence of the state of nature. Never mind that the fear and torment Hobbes ascribed to the prepolitical condition of mankind might on better ground in many parts of the world be ascribed to the political condition….

“There is irony as well as tragedy in the present relation of the political state to the maintenance of order in the hundreds, even thousands, of towns and cities in the West where today disorder has become the rule, where human beings quite literally live, in large sections, in u2018continual fear and danger of violent death,’ to use Hobbes’ famous words on the state of nature. I say irony, for the selling point of the modern national state…has always chiefly been the claimed capacity of the political state, of the heralded doctrine of sovereignty, to create solid and predictable public order.”

The idea that everyone would be waging a war of all against all in the absence of the state, and that crime would explode without the police being there to prevent it, is historically false. People are indeed fallen and fallible, but that is as true of the police as it is of civilians — if not more so. Law enforcers are at least as likely to be criminals as the rest of us, as every conservative and libertarian should know after the age of Clinton and Reno. Likewise after Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima and Waco, it boggles the mind that even Jonah Goldberg would defend police brutality and claim that it helps maintain the social order. The evidence is overwhelming that police brutality, like the state itself, accomplishes just the opposite.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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