Cops, Guardians of our Rights, or Irrelevant to Crime?

Libertarians generally believe in individual responsibility, relegating to the state only that which they cannot easily do for themselves. One such delegation is a monopoly on the use of violence to protect property and lives.  We have become comfortable having police answering 911 calls when some of our rights have been violated. 

I’ts not well known that the history and rationale for policing are comparatively recent nnovations. Until around 1800, cities were small and protection of lives and property was up to the individual and his neighbors. Households had massive doors, sturdy locks and defensive weapons.  A night watch man patrolled after dark, called out the hours and raised the hue and cry when he witnessed crime. Sherifs who investigated crime and arrested miscreants, worked with the county justice system.

The industrial revolution made cities large, wealthy and crime more odious to important people.  A theory based on a few anecdotes emerged that it was better to prevent crime than it was to merely find and punish criminals. Cities would hire men who would walk the streets reminding citizens constantly of the law by watching for suspicious activity. It was thought that this surveillance would forestall crime.  London instituted a police (“polis” is Greek for “city”) force in 1829 and continued it despite evidence that it did not reduce serious crime.  New York City had the first police force in the USA in 1840.

The image of the cops that most of us cherish is of a mildly obese, garrulous, red faced, politically connected Irishman who occasionally used his nightstick on errant youngsters to steer them away from a life of crime, but who was also occasionally “bent.” (Testimonial; I grew up in an neighborhood where bootlegging had been a way of life; all of the distillers’ sons became township policemen; one needed to protect the family business, y’know.)

In the last 75 years or more, cops became expensive and they retreated to cars that cruised larger areas than neighborhoods and became faceless bureaucrats for most residents. I don’t know if this retreat from being personalities was responsible for the crime wave after WW2. Violent crime peaked in the mid 1970s and all crime in 1980 if one believes the numbers since about 50% of crime goes unreported.  Despite the intrusion of violence and theft into individual lives,  governments did nothing until the mid 1990s when President Clinton arranged to hire an additional 100,000 policemen nationwide. “Three strikes” laws were passed in about half of the states. The “broken window” theory was enacted by NY City Mayor Giuliani in 1993 using the controversial “stop and frisk” gambit directed at male minorities. These unconstitutional searches often uncovered “illegal” weapons and chemicals deemed to be “drugs” leading to arrests. Prisons filled up and men disappeared from African American neighborhoods. The US Army donated M16 rifles to domestic police forces after a “terrorist” attack in 1997.  Police could start acting like an occupying army.

Underlying this political posturing the crime wave was disappearing on its own, but that didn’t stop politicians, cops, and social scientists with harebrained schemes from taking credit for the improvement.

As stop and frisk became unpalatable, another subterfuge needed to be deployed. In Kentwood (and in many other cities) our police chief is very proud of his DDACTS program. The following is from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration web site.

Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) is a law enforcement operational model supported by a partnership among the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and two agencies of the Department of Justice: the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the National Institute of Justice.

DDACTS integrates location-based crime and traffic data to establish effective and efficient methods for deploying law enforcement and other resources. Using geomapping to identify areas that have high incidences of crime and crashes, DDACTS uses traffic enforcement strategies that play a dual role in fighting crime and reducing crashes and traffic violations. Drawing on the deterrent of highly visible traffic enforcement and the knowledge that crime often involves the use of motor vehicles, the goal of DDACTS is to reduce the incidence of crime, crashes, and traffic violations across the country.”

Our chief identifies 4 or 5 high crime areas of Kentwood (understand our public housing) where he concentrates his patrols. The cops stop cars for minor infractions on the ten to fifteen year old beaters that impoverished young black men drive, and surprisingly, they “usually find drugs.” Looking for crime vastly increases the likelihood of finding crime which in turn validates the initial premise that the DDACTS areas are high crime areas. The youthful minorities feel themselves to be under constant surveillance and are justifiably enraged. In a real sense, modern policing leads to crime.

But the battering ram has two ends. Older, settled African American home owners who vote and pay taxes are terrified of these gangs and demand a greater police presence, which they get. (Interestingly, some years ago, the city commission had $300,000 “free government money” to build a park in the historically African American patch in Kentwood. At least 10 individuals showed up at the commission meeting to reject this manna from heaven because they didn’t want to provide a place nearby for gangs to congregate. The park was never built.)

Notice that the focus of policing has subtly shifted from preventing crime to selecting out those who are imputed to be criminal for special attention.

This whole policing philosophy has recently become controversial because abuses and killings of individual African American men by police can now be documented on cell phones and published widely on social and legacy media.  Race baiting groups who thrive on controversy use these images to incite resentful minority youth to riot. The political left indicts poverty and poor public schools in minority communities and the apparent absence of minorities among the politicians and police in the afflicted communities as causing the mayhem. The right points to the the often cobbled together criminal records of the victims and of the justification of self defense that police unions advance.  And so it goes.

Various solutions have been proposed; none good.  The African Americans who vote demand protection, so driving the need for a police presence. Police wearing body cameras is fraught with other personal privacy and legal complexities, More training for police might shift the focus to even more dysfunctional extremes. Picture citizens forced to wear radio frequency emmiters so that police can exclude those without criminal records. 

The current state of affairs has no political solution except the libertarian refrain; we ought to diminish the number of human activities deemed to be criminal, especially those relating to the “War on Drugs” and the notion that it’s the state’s role to turn minor infractions into indictable crimes. 

At a more fundamental level, we could question the whole rationale of “policing” as serving the prevention of crime. There is no reliable data that supports the assertion that “Bobbies” patrolling London after 1830 lowered the crime rate. The city of Kennesaw., an Atlanta, Ga suburb, mandated each household to have an operational firearm with sufficient rounds of ammunition around 1980. Famously, it has about half of Kentwood’s police costs per citizen and also less than half of our crime rate.  The medieval notion that sturdy doors and locks along with an armed citizenry can deter crime at least has the beginning of empirical support.

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