Answering an LA Detective

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Last week, I wrote an article calling for a reexamination of SWAT teams as they are used in the United States. The article must have struck a nerve because I received more emails about that one piece than all my other articles combined. Most of the emails I received simply thanked me for calling attention to a growing problem. A few of the emails were funny (as illustrated by the below picture sent to me by an LRC reader).

More than a few of the emails were from citizens who recounted their own experiences with overzealous law enforcement officers, while two others reminded me why I am a fervent defender of the second amendment. However, I did receive one email which I believe deserves a thoughtful reply.

The following message came from a Los Angeles police detective (whose name I will not reveal here). He writes:

Sir-

Respectfully, I see that your knowledge of policing comes from TV clips and the ACLU website. Have you ever done a ride-a-long with real officers ? You talk about heavily armed police but don’t mention heavily armed criminals.

Here in Los Angeles, you could talk to Ofcr Ripatti about being shot by a robbery suspect and becoming paralyzed from the chest down or the officer who nearly had his hand blown off by a gang member with an AK-47 on a ‘routine traffic stop’.

Sadly, big city violence is spreading to small towns through migration of gangs like MS and 18th Street (yeah for open boarders). Small police forces are facing big issues with which they are not prepared.

Yet to be critical from the safety of a university setting is ivory tower elitism. Again, here in LA there are 9,400 officers — only half of which are involved in street work — and 50,000 gang members. This does not include criminals who are ‘free lancers’. The odds are staggering.

You are correct in saying that the solution lies with the citizens : when they put down their i-pods and starbucks and demand civilized behavior from their neighbors and leadership from the folks in city hall — then some sort of peaceful society will emerge.

Thank you for your time,

Detective —

Where to begin?

In answer to the Detective's initial question, yes, I have been on many, many ride-alongs. My father retired from law enforcement, thus I grew up in a policeman's household. His friends were fellow police officers who allowed me many times to accompany them over the years.

I know cops. I know the bravery that many policemen exhibit when faced with uncalled-for violence. I also know that while most policemen want to serve their communities, some others only want respect; they crave respect, and what better way to receive it than with a badge and a gun. Imagine multiplying that feeling of power by adding military garb and automatic weapons. We know those people are not the majority, but they do exist and it would be folly to pretend otherwise.

The Detective wrote, "Yet to be critical from the safety of a university setting is ivory tower elitism." This is a sentiment which I am utterly sick of hearing. I have two jobs. I have house payments. I have a family to support. I pay a hell-of-a-lot in taxes. I live in a "mixed" neighborhood (approximately 40% white, 40% black and 10% Hispanic and Asian). I do not live behind walls protected from the "real world." Furthermore, after the events in Blacksburg a few weeks ago, I don't consider employment on a campus where most people are forbidden from defending themselves as being risk-free.

As I, personally, am not a police officer, the Detective insinuates that it is hypocrisy for me to criticize SWAT actions. This is a common strategy in politics. Rather than debating the opponent's points, it is inferred that the opponent does not possess the moral right to be in the debate in the first place. This sort of stratagem does not sway me.

Police officers, because they represent the coercive power of the state, must be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. As an example, let's say I owned a demolition company and that I received an order to destroy building A. Due to a clerical error, my employees actually destroyed building B, a single-family dwelling in which a woman and her children lived. Furthermore, let's say that the family was in the house when demolition began. The people were terrorized by the violence to their home and their cries to stop were ignored.

Obviously in a situation such as this, my demolition company would very much be in the wrong. Not only would I owe the family restitution, it is likely that subsequent law-suits would shut down my firm and that the appropriate licensing body would forbid me from operating another demolition company.

However, when SWAT does very much the same thing:

On December 4, 1999, police in El Dorado, Arkansas, conducted a drug raid on the home of Dovie Walker. Officers tore the woman's front door from its hinges with a battering ram, damaged another door to her bedroom, broke a latch on a third door, overturned and broke Walker's furniture, and generally "demolished" her house. Police officers had handcuffed Walker's three children at gunpoint before realizing they had mistaken her house for the one next door. Walker was also babysitting children of ages one, two, and three at the time of the raid. [A] police department spokesman told a local newspaper police had no intention of paying for the damage they did to Walker's home….(Balko)

Luckily for Ms. Walker, the mayor of El Dorado interceded on her behalf and initiated restitution.

It is further insinuated in the Detective's email that because criminals are becoming more dangerous and more heavily armed, then the police must use SWAT tactics. However, the Detective's first two examples have nothing to do with SWAT (the tragic shooting of Officer Ripatti and the shootout at the traffic stop). Neither incident could have been avoided by paramilitary police serving a no-knock warrant in order to seize contraband. The Detective does, however, bring up an important point, the reason behind the arms build-up in local police departments: the failed war on drugs.

The war on drugs has been covered extensively on this site by such giants as Lew Rockwell, Anthony Gregory, Gary North, and by my teacher, Mark Thornton, who wrote The Economics of Prohibition. Therefore, I will not discuss the drug fiasco in great detail. I will, however, mention a few brief points.

While the United States' population has increased 48% since 1970, the US prison population has increased 700% during the same time. That is not a misprint. 700%. Furthermore, new research predicts an increase of almost 20% in the prison populations of the South, Midwest and West by 2011! According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of September 2005, there were 2,193,798 prisoners in Federal, State or local jails, 22% of whom were convicted on drug charges (486 thousand people). However, many more are incarcerated due to the drug wars (violence, gangland shootings, etc.).

The Detective is correct about the gang problem. However, I sincerely disagree with the solution. Let us examine the chain of events:

  1. The government outlaws drugs.
  2. Black market entrepreneurs engage in smuggling operations in hopes of receiving greater profits than those which could be made legally.
  3. The government, seeing that they cannot control the influx of drugs, tie punishments to weight. The greater the amount of drugs (as measured by weight), the stiffer is the penalty.
  4. In response, black marketeers make the drugs more powerful. Thus, they may supply the same number of customers as before, but with a lesser physical amount of the drug so as to avoid the increased punishment should they be apprehended. Furthermore, black marketeers recruit minors to carry and sell the drug as juveniles would receive a lesser penalty if arrested.
  5. Users begin to die due to the increased strength of the drug (overdose). Unfortunately, because of high demand and low supply, prices remain high leading to even higher profits; profits which black market entrepreneurs attempt to protect at all costs.
  6. Protecting profits leads to violent attacks on nearby competitors (gang wars) and on the agents of the state (police) who are attempting to seize said profits.
  7. Because of increased violence by black market entrepreneurs who are attempting to protect profits, the government reciprocates by also increasing the level of violence (SWAT teams).
  8. SWAT teams have an incentive to seize even more private property because that property is used to further fund the paramilitary police.
  9. Increased SWAT activity leads to increased violence and an arms race with the black marketeers.
  10. Nothing is solved and the problem continues…

Of course, the drug war cannot be ended because there are too many people with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The politicians need the drug war in order to control the population. The police need the drug war as a means to increase employment, pay and support. The black marketeers certainly need the drug war in order to protect profits. However, if the war were ended, the potential for illegal profits would end and thus the incentive for much of the violence. Jobs would increase (for domestic production of now legal recreational drugs), the drugs would be safer (potency would be reduced to pre-drug war levels) and current addicts could receive treatment rather than having their lives destroyed by prison. Furthermore, we could finally see an end to agents of our own government terrorizing citizens.

And if it does not end? Then the innocent, as always, will continue to be the primary casualty of the war.

Just as the government does with foreign wars (with which we should not be involved), the government blames all civilian casualties on the black marketeers in the drug war. Those black marketeers do deserve a majority of the blame for civilian casualties. The newspapers are replete with stories of children and the elderly who were injured or killed when rival gangs have attacked each other in the streets. However, the police must shoulder some of that blame as well.

Paramilitary police serving no-knock warrants destroy private property, terrorize innocent victims, kill pets and yes, have killed innocent citizens. This must stop.

Therefore, I am taking the Detective's final bit of advice. I am putting down my coffee and am calling on the citizens of this country to join with me in demanded that this wasteful drug war be ended. Just as prohibition failed 80 years ago, prohibition has failed today.

Enough is enough.

May 10, 2007