Sorrow over recent the murder of two New York policemen should not detract from the continued need for reform of all institutions exercising the legal monopoly on the use of force. The need for fundamental reform extends far beyond the police forces to encompass corrections officers, border security, the intelligence services, and the military. It is unfortunate that many conservatives who normally are the loudest defenders of personal freedom and state limits in the economic sphere tend to blindly support government agencies when more personal freedoms are at stake. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal leaps to mind.
Put plainly, there is a vast difference between arguing that a rookie officer should not kill a 12-year old holding a toy gun and advocating violence against officers. One can object to choking a man to death for selling illegal cigarettes without approving the looting that accompanied demonstrations in Ferguson. Those who represent the nation’s enforcers need to distinguish between political opposition and lawlessness. Their job is not to support all applications of force, no matter how unproked, no matter how violent.
The state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force should be subject to a high standard of conduct. Yet the great political deference to state officials has instead fostered a climate of mediocrity in which officials accustomed to uncritical deference grow lax in both their competence and their respect for civil rights. Our border security officials are beyond management. The culture of prison guards has become corrupt and violent. The vast resources that intelligence agencies spend collecting data on ordinary citizens detracts them from the difficult job of collecting intelligence on foreign enemies. The military has lost the ability to apply power subtly or supply its troops at an acceptable cost. Police departments display a fetish for military hardware and finance themselves with extrajudicial seizures. Just as the Catholic Church seemed to attract a disproportionate share of sexually confused males, these agencies increasingly attract petty men with a fetish for power. I remember a time when to raise the issue of abuse by clergy was to question the representative of God on Earth. One would think that the many great men in these institutions would object to the corruption that threatens them.
No nation can be great, no democracy can be safe, unless those who exercise the monopoly on legal force are fully answerable to the people over whom they hold that power. That cannot happen if the institutions supervising them are not fully independent. It cannot happen absent openness and debate about the conditions under which the state can gather information and use force.
I increasingly find that my personal interactions with police officers are annoying rather than pleasant. Resources seem to be devoted to the collection of revenue and the enforcement of minor laws rather than the protection of public safety. As the father of a minority son, I deeply resent the need to talk to him about how to navigate the heightened dangers he faces if stopped by an agent of the state.
The vast majority of Americans are law-abiding and patriotic. They have the right to expect their government to act on that assumption.