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It seems that hardly a week goes by without a new story of a seemingly unwarranted police shooting, mistaken arrest, wrongful prosecution, or wrongful conviction making the news. We have had a rather fierce debate here on Ricochet about whether the police are out of hand, going back years in some cases. It’s not like we are starved for examples, whether they are SWAT raids gone awry, armed interventions to euthanize a deer, traffic stops where the officers seem to have overreacted, and so on.
The questions that have not been directly asked so far (though have been often debated in the comments) are: 1. How extensive are the actual problems? 2. Are we seeing an actual rise in problematic behaviors or are we merely noticing them more in this age of instantaneous outrage and ubiquitous cameras? 3. Were police abuses as common (or uncommon) in the past, but simply more hidden from view? 4. Are we conflating different problems? Specifically, are we painting with too broad a brush, or are we mixing different problem sets and thus missing the the actual state of things? I ask the latter with regards to the mixed jurisdictions and responsibilities of local, state, and federal law enforcement.
Dash cameras in cruisers are a fairly recent innovation. YouTube has existed for only a decade. Body cameras were impractical until very recently. Internet reporting, with its ability to rapidly disseminate information (or disinformation), only goes back 20 years. There is a strong argument to be made that we are all still novices in attempting to discern the real stories from the manufactured anger, and that we actually enjoy (or at least receive a certain satisfaction and endorphin rush) whenever some new abuse comes to light. Tabloid reporting, yellow journalism, and manufactured outrage are certainly nothing new in the news. Only the veneer of “objective reporting” is really new, and we know how thin that veneer really is. Ferguson demonstrated rather clearly that many on the left actively seek to undermine local and state authority if it will serve their own ends, and that the media seem to be the last to see or acknowledge the truth.
Then there is the issue of data. How many “bad cops” went undetected in the past? We will likely never know this, and this lack of data makes it rather difficult to make an honest assessment of the progress or regress of law enforcement today. Perhaps things really are better now because the likelihood is higher that certain abuses will eventually be caught. Perhaps, however, the reverse is true instead, and omnipresent recording devices and surveillance mean that the bad guys are better able to intimidate the public.
There is also the issue of public fear of law enforcement, a fear born of major changes in the last 20 years. Since the Clinton Administration, we have seen a new face of government activism in law enforcement. Raids like Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the general corruption of Janet Reno (whose prior history as the Florida Attorney General was horribly stained with witch-hunts) awoke many to the real dangers of a partisan and vindictive executive. The Patriot Act, Homeland Security, airport security kabuki, and mandatory interstate traffic searches have all been, operationally, treating US citizens as potential criminals who have to expose themselves to constant search. The overreach of the drug war, with property confiscation laws, ever-increasing scrutiny of our daily financial transactions, and limits on our ability to move our own money abroad, have also legitimately increased our fear of the heavy hand of the law.
To return to the questions at the beginning then, and to phrase them a bit differently: Where are the real problems? How extensive are these problems? Are we seeing shifts in the problems, or are we just noticing them more? Are the local agencies (the ones with whom we interact most often) suffering for the sins of others? Have the problems there always existed and we’re only noticing them now? Or are they really growing worse?
I’ll close this with an example from my own area. The village of New Rome, Ohio, was notorious for decades for its corruption. The village set a series of speed traps, suddenly choking down the speed limit from 55 to 35 to 25 on a major US highway. These traps earned them millions of dollars a year. These millions, of course, paid the mayor (who bought extensive property in Florida) and the police chief, and funded a large amount of equipment each year. New Rome’s infamy was well known for many decades — a village of fewer than 100 people, most of them related, voting for the same mayor (or his ancestors), running a private sinecure for their own enrichment. They operated under an old quirk in Ohio laws that allowed for Mayors’ Courts to operate autonomously, never meriting any scrutiny from the state police or county sheriffs for their long-standing abuses. What broke New Rome at last? The internet, and its facilitation of rapid communication.
New Rome’s abuses were longstanding, but its victims were isolated individuals, people just passing through. Yet the Internet allowed these disparate people to communicate with each other and draw attention to the problem. They made enough noise to get attention at the state level and shut the racket down at last.
New Rome was hardly atypical in Ohio. In fact, the problem it typified was extensive. Similar little villages had been fleecing motorists and shaking down citizens for generations. Only with the confluence of outrage and the Internet was it finally noticed and fixed.
Power corrupts. We all know that. There have always been bad cops and there always will be. But are they actually more prevalent now, or has the emergence of the camera culture merely brought more of them to light? If so, are we unfairly heaping blame on the rest of the law enforcement community, or are law enforcement abuses really on the rise? Or are we seeing the corruption at the top stain everyone’s perceptions?