The Great Divergence: Cop or Police Officer?

January 5, 2015

“Poor government leadership was the top problem in 2014.” — The Gallup Poll, Jan. 2, 2015

WHAT IF IT’S NOT about race? What if the police are only incidentally involved? What if something else is at stake, something more important?

First, the police are not “cops.” That is a derision, and an 18th-century French one at that. In a constitutional republic, they are police officers. Second, the invigoration or enforcement of law is everybody’s business. It is why some members of our foundation put aside distaste for quotas to argue for demographic representation on local police forces.

Historian Dan Hannan notes that, in our form of government, police officers are different from the rest of us in only one respect: “The policeman was and is a citizen in uniform, not an agent of the state; he has no more legal powers than anyone else, except to the extent that those powers have been temporarily and continently bestowed on him by a magistrate.”

When the topic is the police, then, we want to be careful of context. For example, should we give officers the power to round up, quarantine or even expel persons with social or communicable diseases? Should we register or incarcerate persons of a given nationality with whom we are at war, or others whom we believe would change our national character inexorably? What about excessive marijuana indulgence? Here’s an old one: Do we want officers to arrest citizens for crimes against morality — for prostitution, say?

Okay, should we ask the police to wrestle a 300-pound man to the ground in a chokehold for selling individual cigarettes without a tax stamp? What about a teenager who is seemingly bent on injuring other citizens, including police officers?

The point is that the police don’t order any of that, we do. It depends on what kind of society a particular generation wants and whether it intends our nation to remain the “City Upon the Hill” that guided early American exceptionalism. For the worst of those examples, as offensive as they sound to our ears, are so common as to be unworthy of mention in most of the rest of the world.

And right there is the useful discussion, not the mere tactical exchanges between a Bill de Blasio and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. Nobody at that table, alas, seems to have a complaint per se with the application of violent government power against the individual — only when it is used against them or in a way they disapprove.

So, is policing relative? Can code violations be ignored in certain situations and neighborhoods? Should resisting arrest be softened to a cultural misunderstanding or enforcement dampened during politically sensitive moments? Should public safety be deferred or private property sacrificed?

Well, not if it is law rather than man that rules.

On that point, individual police officers, prosecutors, defenders and judges have something important to share. It is the oath that they either swear or affirm voluntarily and under state and local requirements.

These oaths prescribe the power temporarily bestowed on these officers. A commendably high number — every officer I know — live by their oaths. Today’s citizenry, though, doesn’t give civic oaths or even the Pledge of Allegiance much thought. Nor does our leadership seem to appreciate the profound historical documents on which those oaths are based.

How, then, can this generation grasp the central issue, the one obscured by the rhetoric and propaganda? How can it intelligently debate whether its communities want law enforcement to consist of fellow citizens or of agents of an ambitious and impersonal government.

Events will show how liberty and prosperity differ in societies or even neighborhoods taking those divergent paths. Police officers, please know, won’t have made that choice for us; they will have been caught in the middle when we had to decide. — Craig Ladwig

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