Amid calls to reduce police violence, we need to consider whether we really want police to enforce the regulations of an overweening administrative state.
Enforcing Petty Laws Can Be Violent
Consider some of the high-profile police killings that started with routine police enforcement of some petty local ordinance. Eric Garner, the black man who died in 2014 after NYPD officers put him in a choke hold, was breaking the law—he was selling single cigarettes, “loosies,” outside a convenience store. Did that crime warrant a visit from the police?
In the case of Philando Castile, the man police shot and killed in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, last week, the encounter was apparently a routine traffic stop prompted by a broken tail light. Who among us hasn’t been pulled over for that? It’s true that Castile was armed, but had a valid permit to carry a concealed handgun. When he told the officer he had a gun and then reached for his wallet, the officer shot Castile multiple times.
Walter Scott, the South Carolina man killed last year by a police officer who shot him in the back as he fled, was initially pulled over for a broken tail light. Scott was stopped in the parking lot of an auto parts store. According to his brother, he was headed there to get the tail light fixed.
The Police Can Arrest You For Almost Any Infraction
In many states, almost any minor infraction of the law is an arrestable offense. Even in a politically conservative state like Texas, where elected officials routinely mock liberal, overregulated states like California and New York, small crimes and traffic violations not punishable by jail time can still get you arrested. That’s in part thanks to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, which held that arresting someone for not wearing a seatbelt isn’t a violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
Keep in mind that arresting someone is inherently violent. Much of law enforcement is, and of course that means police officers themselves are often in danger, which in turn might explain why some of them seem so jumpy and, at times, too quick to draw their guns and shoot.
The case of Alton Sterling, the man killed by police last week in Baton Rouge, demonstrates how quickly an arrest can become violent, and how quickly the rights of bystanders can be violated. Sterling was killed by police officers after an encounter outside a convenience store where he was selling CDs—illegally, it turns out, but with the store owner’s permission.
Police were responding to a 911 call warning that an armed black man was threatening someone outside the store. That call, it turns out, was likely made by a homeless man who’d been harassing Sterling, and Sterling showed him his gun to make the man go away. Video of the ensuing incident with police clearly shows Sterling didn’t have the weapon in his hand when one of the officers yelled “gun!” and fired six shots into his chest. The store owner claims that after police shot Sterling they confiscated surveillance video, his cell phone, and locked him in a police car for hours despite his protests that they get a warrant.
What Do We Really Want The Police To Do?
Given all that, shouldn’t we think carefully about what laws we want to dispatch the police to enforce, and which ones aren’t worth the risk of potentially deadly violence? That of course brings us to mass incarceration and the war on drugs. Drug-related offences vastly outnumber any other category among those incarcerated in federal prisons, accounting for nearly half of all offenses. The share of drug offenders is less in state prisons (16 percent in 2012), but still significant.
Of course, the problem of mass incarceration goes beyond the drug war. More than 10 percent of those in state prisons are there for “public-order” offenses like liquor law violations and “commercialized vice, morals, and decency offenses.” Maybe most Americans agree we should lock people up for things like prostitution or weapons violations. But would they agree that jailing people is the best way to deal with someone who fails to appear in court for a traffic ticket, or stumbles out of a bar drunk when it closes? Probably not.
By all means, let’s talk about improving race relations, let’s mourn those who have been killed, and work harder at unifying the country and bringing people together. But let’s not stop there. Let’s think about what we want the police to do, and why, and ask ourselves whether we really want to have the kind of country where the long arm of the law is constantly reaching out and tapping us on the shoulder.