Abolish the Police

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Recently by Anthony Gregory: Springtime for the Regime

     

On May 13, 1985, in the twilight of the Cold War, residents of Philadelphia were ruthlessly bombed from the sky. The enemy government was conducting a political mission, but innocent inhabitants of that distinctly American city were caught up in the attack. After ten thousand rounds were fired at civilians over a period of two hours, a helicopter swooped in and dropped C-4 and Tovex explosives, destroying 65 houses. Five children were slaughtered in the strike.

The perpetrator was not the Soviet Union, or else the attack might have escalated into international conflict. It certainly would have made it into textbook timelines and become part of the nation's consciousness. No, those responsible for this atrocity were members of the Philadelphia police department. The local cops sought to finish off their political enemies after years of animosity and tension. The proximate legal excuse for bombing their own city? The cops had gotten complaints about noise and the stench of compost.

Twenty-six years have passed since the bombing of the MOVE house and if there was any doubt before, it is now beyond question that the local police have become the occupying troops that Malcolm X described. They are the standing army the Founding Fathers warned against. In the United States, they are the most dangerous gang operating and they do so under the color of law.

Anyone who reads Will Grigg should be familiar with this reality. The man who once edited the magazine for the John Birch Society, an organization whose 60's mantra was "support your local police," has since then focused largely on documenting the daily outrages conducted by these tax parasites. Reading his specific accounts of misconduct and brutality, one comes to the inescapable conclusion that police abuse is not a bug in the system; it is an intrinsic feature.

We can cite some of the most gruesome and high-profile outrages of recent years, such as the murder of Oscar Grant on New Years Day, 2009, a young man shot by a Bay Area cop in the back while lying face-down on the ground; or the brutal beating of Alexander Landau, a college student who dared to ask Denver cops for a warrant before they searched his trunk; or the plight of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones, who was murdered last May in Detroit as she lay on her family's couch while the cops raided the home, tossed in a flash-grenade that set her on fire and then shot her in the head.

Any one of these incidents should set off as much anti-government anger as the Boston Massacre, but some will object that I am cherry picking. So let us limit ourselves to just the last couple months to illustrate the depth of the problem. Last month, police in Trenton shot and killed an unarmed man, saying he was reaching for his waistband. In Orlando, police tased a man to death for being disorderly in a movie theater. In Derby, Kansas, a police officer broke a teenager's arm because he dared to talk back after getting in trouble for wearing sagging pants.

On May 5, police in Tuscon stormed into Jose Guerena's home around 9 AM, and shot him 71 times. Yes, fearful for his family's safety, he was holding an AR-15 in self-defense, but didn't get a shot in, despite lies to the contrary — yet there was no evidence found of any wrongdoing or illegality on his part. In Alabama, a police officer beat an 84-year-old man for reporting a car accident and daring to put the offender under "citizens arrest" — a more civilized version of what police do routinely — and then the officer turned an ambulance away, insisting the elderly victim didn't need medical help. Louisiana cops tased Kirkin Woolridge at a traffic stop on May 18, and he soon died of complications in jail.

Just in the last week, we have the DC cops who brutally beat up a defenseless man in a wheelchair. In Moore, Oklahoma, innocent residents are upset that police shot at their homes indiscriminately in attempting to chase down an "armed suicidal subject." In Fort Collins, Colorado, a police patrol car seriously injured a bicyclist, but unlike nearly any other collision between a bike and car, it is being blamed on the bicyclist.

These are just very recent examples that can be found from a minute of Googling. They are no doubt the tip of the iceberg. They do not begin to represent the millions of smaller injustices conducted by police daily, both under the cover of law and in naked violation of statutes and court decisions, or the thousands of daily injustices and acts of torture and sexual abuse in America's prisons and jails, for which law enforcers are at least indirectly and very often directly responsible.

The chaotic violence of the modern police state is ubiquitous. Every day there are 100 SWAT raids in America. Remember in the old days when SWAT raids were reserved for stopping some terrorist intent on destroying half the city? Maybe that was just in the movies. There were 3,000 SWAT raids in 1981, the year I was born, which was bad enough. There will be 40,000 this year.

In modern America, even small towns have their own air forces. The TV news frets about al-Qaeda, but rarely exposes the threat of the thin blue line. About as many Americans have been killed by police since 9/11/01 as died on that day. Between 1980 and 2005, police killed 9,500 people in the U.S., approximately one per day and almost three-fourths as many people as have been sentenced and executed in the United States since colonial times. A study in Harris County, Texas, found that between 1999 and mid 2005, officers in the county shot 65 unarmed people, killing 17.

But don't police put their lives on the line for us? Only 117 police were killed in the line of duty in 2009, which might seem like a lot, but being a police officer is not even one of the top ten dangerous jobs in America.

Surely, the people who are killed by the cops had it coming. Well, consider how many are killed when the police presumably do not intend to kill at all and so reach for their taser. Amnesty International found that "the number of people who died after being struck by Tasers in the USA reached 334 between 2001 and August 2008."

This all puts aside the unspeakable corruption that plagues virtually every police station in America. From an Orlando officer covering up evidence of vicious brutality against a 100-pound woman to the systematic corruption of a small-town department in Kansas to San Francisco undercover cops stealing drugs for themselves, even the reported cases of police misconduct — there were 2,500 such reports last year — are enough to show the whole system is rotten. A cursory look at the admitted child rapists and other such lowlifes who often "serve" as officers for years before being caught also puts the lie to the very idea that police are on average any more noble than the general population.

Limited-government libertarians often reserve at least three functions to the state — military, courts and police. But why police? We never tire of talking about America as it was before the government swallowed society whole. In particular, we reminisce about the principles of 1776. Yet, although there was plenty to object to in colonial law and law in the early republic, police as we now know them didn't exist back then.

Philadelphia adopted a police force in 1845. New Orleans, Cincinnati, Chicago and Baltimore followed suit in the next decade. From the beginning these were politicized bodies, involved in corrupt local politics and enforcing questionable laws. They were not immaculately conceived any more than the state itself. But it was not until the Progressive Era that the modern police force was truly born. At the turn of the century, cities adopted fingerprinting and forensics labs. Soon came radios and patrol cars. Berkeley, California, home to many great strides in progressive social engineering, was also a pioneer in creating modern police. August Vollmer, Berkeley's chief of police, trained a new generation of cops through the University of California. His protégé O M. Wilson went on to revolutionize the forces of Wichita and Chicago.

By the 1960s, police were more often in cars than walking the streets. This made a big difference. Lawrence M. Freedman writes in Crime and Punishment in American History:

A cop on foot was a familiar cop, a neighborhood cop; he knew his beat, and the beat knew him. He was also pretty much on his own. Headquarters was far away; he was beyond its beck and call. But now a ton of steel separated the motorized officer from the community; police cruising in patrol cars were strangers to the dark, dangerous streets; these police tended to feel alien, beleaguered; the locals, for their part, thought of them as an outside, occupying force.

This alienation from the community tends to galvanize the police into a tight-knit gang complete with its own identity: "The police are a tight, beleaguered group. They develop their own subculture, and it is a subculture of tough, macho conservatism. . . . They see human beings at their worst, and that certainly colors their philosophy of life."

Furthermore, cops have come to "believe in fighting fire with fire. Police brutality was part of a more general system of police power. It rested on a simple credo: the battalions of law and order had the right, if not the duty, to be tough as nails with criminals. Force was the only language the criminal understood."

Force might be necessary to deal with violent thugs, but allowing the greatest predator of all — the state — to monopolize the sector of the economy concerned with using force against criminals is a recipe for oppression and injustice. The entire history of government police demonstrates they cannot be trusted. They are the henchmen of all the totalitarian regimes we see on the History Channel. In the United States, they were always a menace, at least to some. They tended early on to focus their brutality against the other — immigrants, gangsters, ethnic minorities, transients and the counterculture. Today they still bias their violence against the fringes of society, the young and the powerless, but they are now so vast a presence that no one is safe, no matter how respectable, no matter his demographic.

The 20th century brought us all the horrors of progressivism, and one conspicuous example has been the militarized city police force, which has become an organization hostile to all manner of civilized decency. The last century, particularly since the 1960s, also meant an increasing nationalization of police, arming them with military weapons, plugging them into national databases, harmonizing oppression throughout the country so there is no escape, charging cops with new national crusades against drugs and other non-crimes. Then there is the revolving door between the military and police precincts, with veterans, often traumatized from battle, increasingly enlisting back home as cops. The institutional and cultural nationalization has made matters worse, although local police, as agents of the state, have been very eager partners in the federalization of law enforcement. They have never been the great defenders against national usurpation conservatives long hoped for; but today they are all-out quislings.

Needless to say, all anarchists should support outright and immediate abolition of the police. We're talking about the enforcement arm of the state, after all. If you oppose the state monopoly, you must favor eliminating the state's method of maintaining its monopoly — through the police. And indeed, if you distrust socialism, you should distrust law-enforcement socialism as much as anything, for this is the original sin that allows all other state depredations to follow. Also, when the state misallocates resources, it is not nearly so evil in itself as when it inevitably misallocates violence on a massive scale.

For much of U.S. history, Americans had less government and fewer police. Government will necessarily be weaker, all else being equal, the fewer enforcement agents it boasts. Without any armed enforcers, the state withers away. The fewer armed state agents the better. The growth of modern leviathan in the 20th century accompanied the rise of the city police force. Big government and cops go hand in hand.

If your goal is to end the welfare state, the regulatory state, the wars, or anything else seriously bad about government, abolishing the police would seem to be a major priority. Do you oppose taxation? Abolish the police, as well as all other agencies of government law enforcement, and see how threatening those 1040s and state tax forms seem then.

Some will argue that the police protect our rights. But if the market is really better than socialism, abolishing the police outright shouldn't be a problem. Why trust the state to continue cornering the market on rights protection? If protecting life, liberty and property is important — and it most certainly is — we cannot to let the central planners and their armed enforcers run the show. Fire them immediately. The market will find a better way to protect us within 24 hours, if it takes nearly that long. If we all take up the abolitionist cause, certainly by the time police are abolished, civil society will find a way to fill the void.

And of course, the very premise that we must maintain state police for the sake of our rights assumes that they protect our rights more than they infringe them. This is completely dubious. Surely we have no "constitutional right" to police protection, as the Seventh Circuit Court determined in Bowers v. Devito (1982). When there's a riot or huge unleashing of social unrest, police often bail out, leaving shop owners and other people to fend for themselves, who do a better job anyway, as during the 1992 LA riots. What's more, the police often exacerbate the catastrophe by disarming homeowners and shooting at people committing petty offenses, like they did after Katrina. Furthermore, studies seem to indicate that police strikes don't lead to any demonstrated rise in crime.

We can probably assume that abolishing the police would not lead to the apocalypse people fear, not even in the short run as the market sorts things out. Why?

First of all actual crimes are almost never prevented by the police. The vast majority go unsolved. At best, the police investigate them after they occur, and then usually do nothing. Sometimes they make an arrest, which might, at a huge expense to taxpayers, result in someone in jail — and maybe even the right person. Even in this minority of cases, the idea that jail is a remedy to the rights violation, or prevents more rights violations from occurring, is an unchecked premise. Even putting violent predators in prison where they can brutalize less violent people may not actually reduce the amount of aggression, if we count the victims in the cages, as we should. Meanwhile, even the government's pursuit of actual criminals entails numerous rights violations in itself — investigations of the innocent, enslaving jurors and witnesses, turning lives upside down. Victims are never made whole. And for this we have to run the risk of being shot or wrongly arrested by the state.

Second of all, the police actively encourage violent crime in myriad ways. They enforce the drug war, which probably doubles the number of homicides and vastly increases street crime, along with some help from gun control, which they also enforce. Gun control, by the way, demonstrates that people do fear the police more than criminals — otherwise no one would follow these gun laws. Instead, law-abiding folks know the risk of being caged for this non-crime is more significant than the risk of being caught unarmed by a private thug. So does gun control operate in preserving the advantage for private criminals. Abolishing the police outright, even if it put upward pressure on crime rates, would probably overall lead to fewer crimes because of the elimination of the criminality incited and encouraged by state activity.

Third and most important, the police themselves routinely violate the rights of innocent people as a major component of their job description. The greater their numbers, financing and power, the worse it gets. It is the job of police to harass the innocent, to jail people for victimless crimes, to stop people for minor traffic violations, to trick people into admitting law breaking, to fulfill quotas for arrests, and to generally instill in the community a fear and awe of the state. It is almost impossible to be a police officer on the beat and not violate the non-aggression principle on a regular basis. As a material fact, most police conducting arrests on the street are committing acts of kidnapping, theft, trespass, and invasion. Those who arrest people who end up in prison are effectively accessories to rape and assault.

Even if having police is a desirable thing, we cannot do so safely until the bad laws are off the books, and then it would be best to fire all police and start over. If having had a severe criminal record tends to disqualify people from the job, so too must having been a reputable police officer. If I am too harsh in this regard, it is just one more reason to abolish the government's police and allow for the market to take over. Allow entrepreneurs to decide which former government police are redeemable and employable as private security and which are not.

What to do about violent thugs? The market, social norms, private security, the wonders and corollary institutions of private property, gated communities, private gun ownership, religious values — all the blessings of civil society are on our side. But the police rarely are. When a violent criminal kills or assaults or rapes or steals, we all condemn it, and we can find a way to deal with it when the criminals are not protected by the system. But what about when the criminals are the system?

Private security is already a greater bulwark against violent and property crime than many people realize. As of 1997, according to the Economist (as cited by Robert Higgs):

There are three times as many private policemen as public ones…. Americans also spend a lot more on private security (about $90 billion a year) than they do, through tax dollars, on the public police ($40 billion). Even the government itself spends more hiring private guards than it does paying for police forces.

For a decade and a half, we have had three times as many private guards as public ones, yet it is an oddity indeed to hear about their abuses, unlike those of the police that make the papers every day — and that's just counting reported offenses. It should be no wonder. As market actors, private security guards are generally heroic defenders of property, commerce and life, and are liable for the wrong they do, unlike the state's armed agents, who work for an institution of monopoly, theft, kidnapping, rape rooms and murder.

Can we really survive without government police? When we consider how much they do to disrupt civil society, it would seem obvious that we can. The police, on balance, are a force for decivilization and disorder. They commit massive violations of person and property. They enforce gun and drug laws that basically create organized crime and breed gang activity. Most of what they do encourages, rather than diminishes, violence. Despite all this, America remains a fairly civilized place. If we survived this long with the police, just imagine how much better off we'd be without them.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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