Police and Patents of Nobility

I don't have much to add to all the commentary on the Ferguson killing, except to say that many, many examples of police abuse of power are covered by libertarian blogs --but seldom more widely -- so it is nice to see coverage of such an incident hit the mainstream.

Defenders of police will say that police are mostly good people who do a difficult job and they will mostly be right.  But here is the problem:  In part due to our near fetishization of the police (if you think I exaggerate, come live here in Phoenix with our cult of Joe Arpaio), and in part due to the enormous power of public sector unions, we have made the following mistake:

  • We give police more power than the average citizen.  They can manhandle other people, drag them into captivity, search and take their stuff, etc.
  • We give police less accountability than the average citizen when things go wrong.   It is unusual even to get an investigation of their conduct, such investigations are seldom handled by neutral third parties, and they are given numerous breaks in the process no citizen gets.

The combination of these two can be deadly.

Ken White at Popehat writes to some of this

If you are arrested for shooting someone, the police will use everything in their power — lies, false friendship, fear, coercion — to get you to make a statement immediately. That's because they know that the statement is likely to be useful to the prosecution: either it will incriminate you, or it will lock you into one version of events before you've had an opportunity to speak with an adviser or see the evidence against you. You won't have time to make up a story or conform it to the evidence or get your head straight.

But what if a police officer shoots someone? Oh, that's different. Then police unions and officials push for delays and opportunities to review evidence before any interview of the officer. Last December, after a video showed that a cop lied about his shooting of a suspect, the Dallas Police issued a new policy requiring a 72-hour delay after a shooting before an officer can be interviewed, and an opportunity for the officer to review the videos or witness statements about the incident. Has Dallas changed its policy to offer such courtesies to citizens arrested for crimes? Don't be ridiculous. If you or I shoot someone, the police will not delay our interrogation until it is personally convenient. But if the police shoot someone:

New Mexico State Police, which is investigating the shooting, said such interviews hinge on the schedules of investigators and the police officers they are questioning. Sgt. Damyan Brown, a state police spokesman, said the agency has no set timeline for conducting interviews after officer-involved shootings. The Investigations Bureau schedules the interviews at an “agreeable” time for all parties involved, he said.

Cops and other public servants get special treatment because the whole system connives to let them. Take prosecutorial misconduct. If you are accused of breaking the law, your name will be released. If, on appeal, the court finds that you were wrongfully convicted, your name will still be brandished. But if the prosecutor pursuing you breaks the law and violates your rights, will he or she be named? No, usually not. Even if a United States Supreme Court justice is excoriating you for using race-baiting in your closing, she usually won't name you. Even if the Ninth Circuit — the most liberal federal court in the country — overturns your conviction because the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence, they usually won't name the prosecutor.

Also see Kevin Williamson.


  1. Russ R.:

    Ken White leaves out one important element here.

    "the police will use everything in their power — lies, false friendship, fear, coercion — to get you to make a statement immediately".

    Despite all that, you always have the right to remain silent. Use it.

  2. Nehemiah:

    Ken White "...it will lock you into one version of events before you've had an
    opportunity to speak with an adviser or see the evidence against you."

    Or stated another way, "it may lock you into a truthful statement before you've had an opportunity to speak with your attorney to find out how you might weasel out of the situation."

    Look, I think our police forces are way out of balance relative to the task at hand. Some are more heavily armed than a central American country's army. Creates a scenario where bad apples can cause significant damage. However, on balance I think the men and women who take these jobs do a good job.

  3. Onlooker from Troy:

    To your excellent points I'd add the effect of the fed govt providing military equipment at very little or no cost along with financial incentives to pursue the drug war. (the general militarization that has been well documented by Radley Balko)

    Very corrupting influence from the fed govt; nothing new there, of course.

    Also the increasing attitude of us vs. them and a general paranoia that has been instilled into the general police culture at large. They train that way and indoctrinate themselves very strongly with this attitude.

    It's all very chilling, to say the least.

  4. randian:

    If the officer can review videos and witness statements he can conveniently conform his testimony to them. We wouldn't want a cop to be tripped up by his own lies, after all.

  5. markm:

    Radley did not mention another important difference in treatment: If a citizen shoots someone in self-defense and refuses to talk to the cops immediately, he will go to jail until he is cleared. If a cop shoots someone, he not only has 72 hours to get his story straight, with assistance of counsel - whether or not he asks for them - but he will NOT be in jail for that 72 hours.

  6. me:

    Also an interesting boundary-setting question: providing municipal police forces with ABC equipped cruise missiles is clearly beyond the line; but: where is the line up to which it makes sense to resell military equipment to police?

    My take is that I'd want my local police to be woefully underequipped to handle major riots; I would want the army/state forces to have to come in if such a thing were necessary to create a boundary that would need to be crossed at a political level first.

  7. ajv105:

    Sorry to be the one to break the news to you, that, "silent," thing, just went away. It is now a crime to remain silent!

  8. ajv105:

    Please, don't be insulting. There is NO WAR ON DRUGS, there is a WAR ON PERSONAL FREEDOM. The war on drugs is the excuse to escalate and militarize the US vs POLICE FORCE.

  9. ajv105:

    The new caliber of sale/give-away of military equipment to POLICE FORCES is a militarization of the police into a POLICE FORCE, a standing army in the presence of the American people. The job description of the POLICE FORCE has changed from, keeping the peace, to control the citizens/civilians. Have you forgotten you Early American History about standing armies in our streets?

    (And please, ignore that Protect and Serve BS on their cars. It is a LIE! The SCOTUS ruled
    during the Civil Rights Era that was NOT their job, AT THEIR REQUEST,
    to keep them OUT OF PRISON)