Elect the Cops

When Jello Biafra, former front man of the seminal punk rock band the Dead Kennedys, ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, his campaign was rightfully regarded as a joke.  Biafra’s gonzo tactics and platform featured such eccentricities as using a leaf blower to “clean up the streets” in front of incumbent mayor Dianne Feinstein’s home and designing a “plan” that would require businessmen to wear clown suits between 9 AM to 5 PM.

Although Biafra’s campaign was not entirely serious, there was one plank promoted by the punk rocker that could possibly serve as an effective solution to the ills that plague our inner cities and sprawling suburbs. As bizarre as it may seem, Biafra’s desire to see the popular election of police officers by the citizens they patrol, is an idea whose time may have come.

For conservatives raised on a “law and order” rhetoric and deference to authority figures, the suggestion that deputy law enforcement should be elected, will no doubt sound controversial. Likewise, liberals’ aversion to decentralized decision making is, on the surface, incompatible with such a populist proposal.

Yet, the serious problems that plague American society cannot be addressed so long as the majority of citizens harbor very real fears – and at times disdain – for those entrusted with protecting our person and property from criminals. Though many Americans would not publicly admit to a fear of the local constable, privately there is a near unanimous sentiment that police have too much power and are prone to abusing it.  With new stories of police brutality coming to light daily, it is no stretch to say that these perceptions are realities.  

The creeping dread the average commuter feels on the way to work when a patrol car pulls alongside his vehicle has become an all too common phenomenon.  The mere site of a cop is enough to make the totally innocent clam up. Even my eighty-year-old grandmother once confessed that she had an eerie feeling of “uncertainty” by the mere presence of a policeman. That this unfortunate discomfort between law enforcement and the citizenry could ever change is rarely considered by most Americans. But while it is true that the days of Mayberry, USA and the neighborly constable may be things of the past — do they need to be?

Perhaps a better question is whether or not Americans can afford to keep the current system.  Today, police officers working in the toughest areas are widely regarded more as occupying troops. This drastically increases the chances of violent interactions with locals and by proxy, the over aggressive posture of many veterans on the force.  The “cycle of violence” is not as deadly as that which has plagued the Middle East for sixty years, but it is not a myth either.  

In the suburbs, end of the month police-issued ticket “quotas” are used as a back door tax collection scheme to inflate revenue streams. Government growth is not a concern to all Americans, but government waste is, and these tactics surely fuel it.  Also, motorists stopped for going four miles over the speed limit are less likely to look kindly upon police officers who regularly ignore traffic laws as a personal convenience.  

Though any proposal to seriously alter traditional American law enforcement by the injection of democratic means is bound to provoke outrage, one should at least consider the benefits.  

By giving citizens a better voice in the administration of law, particularly egregious violations of privacy and questionable policing tactics could be scrutinized by those who are actually affected by these policies. Speed traps and other arguable misallocations of resources could be redirected to increase street patrols or furthering direct relationships with members of the community. In certain areas, victimless crimes might fall under salutary neglect. In other areas, the exact opposite approach might be taken. Ultimately, the choice would be the citizen’s.

There are other benefits to putting cops on the ballot. The shuffling of police from precinct to precinct is part of the reason public trust in peace officers is at an all time low. Elections might end this. Rather than being regarded as an occupying army, police operating in even the roughest of areas would be socially and more intimately tied to their neighborhoods through bonds stronger than mere “assignments.” Those with an attachment to community and knack for problem solving might be more apt to campaign for law enforcement positions if they knew they would indeed be serving their communities. Different areas might require different talents and leadership skills from their potential candidates, but this would hardly be a negative.

It is also likely that the militarization of local police forces would halt if the franchise were extended in this new and novel way. Though it is unlikely that the SWAT team would be abolished immediately, forces that behave as if they are an extension of the National Guard, would not do well under such a system. There has never been a popular mandate for the exorbitant spending such squads require and the “need” for them is something that has never been demonstrated.  The “keeping up with the joneses” nature of local government has led to an extension of the bazooka brigades to rural enclaves all over American with deadly consequences. Their elimination should be seen as a major benefit of this plan.

Of course critics of this modest proposal will raise some relevant objections. To implement these ideas in a city as large as San Francisco would be very difficult under existing conditions. Even a modest size city would have grave difficulties with a transition of this magnitude. For these and other reasons, the first steps toward a more democratic arrangement of law enforcement might garner better initial results in smaller towns, or simply at the neighborhood level.

An inevitable criticism will be that electing police will lead to a rise in corruption.  Perhaps. Perhaps not. Though opportunities for palm greasing may increase, the likelihood of being caught red-handed would increase as well.  Furthermore cover-ups by higher-ups looking to protect their jobs would be much harder — and far more likely to carry serious consequences — than they are now.  

The accountability of public officials by the citizens they represent is a basic tenet of republican government. As layers of complexity have been added to government at all levels, the gap between those who swear to “serve and protect” and those they mean to protect, has widened dramatically.

I am not nave enough to believe that voting solves anything in and of itself.  But it can in certain circumstances be a useful bulwark against creeping tyranny and statism run wild.  Considering that at any given moment, police can wield the power of life and death over all of us, is it really unreasonable to consider the notion that in exchange for our trust, they ought to earn our votes?

If Mom and Pop can elect the coroner, why not the cop?

January 31, 2009