By Ryan McMaken
People of a certain age might remember the old John Birch Society slogan “Support your local police!” The idea here is that your local policeman is a liberty-loving buddy of yours who would only ever support just laws and constitutional mandates. Only those bad guys in the FBI or BATF would ever consider violating your rights.
Now, obviously that has always been a rather naïve fantasy, but the notion certainly has a long history of support among American conservatives. The idea that unionized, well-paid government employees sympathize with the common man instead of with the government that signs the cops’ checks apparently has long made sense (for some reason) to conservatives and many others.
But thanks to the ongoing “state of emergency” and the fact that state governors, mayors, and health officials now rule by decree, we’re witnessing more and more how local law enforcement officers have no particular interest in the rule of law, the Bill of Rights, or basic human rights of any sort. Police have been at the forefront of arresting business owners for the “crime” of using their own private property, or using city parks.
As Judge Napolitano has noted, these “stay-at-home orders”—and the penalties that accompany them—aren’t even real laws since they were never passed by a legislature or brought into being by any process other than on the authority of a single person who is usually a state governor or municipal official. By no definition of “rule of law” do these measures meet basic moral requirements for their imposition on peaceful citizens.
But the police are enthusiastically enforcing these edicts nonetheless, and using them as an excuse to harass the taxpayers.
Here are just a few examples from around the United States.
- Police arrest a business owner for refusing to close his smoke shop.
- Police harass and detain a man for playing softball with his family in a nearly empty park.
- In Delaware, “a local business owner was even arrested for personally violating Carney’s stay-at-home order.”
- Wisconsin police arrested a dog groomer for social distancing–related “violations.”
- Shreveport, Louisiana, police threaten local business owners.
- NYPD officers assault a man for violating social distancing “laws.”
- In Odessa, Texas, a SWAT team descended on a peaceful demonstration at a tavern.
Keep in mind that no one is required to go near these places or interact with anyone involved. Those who wish to isolate themselves from these businesses and their clientele may freely do so. Yet these are just a handful of the many cases of police harassment involving citations, arrests, and other forms of coercion and intimidation brought against people who are just trying to live their lives. Nor should we assume that this is “as bad as it gets.” Since there is no longer any due process or public legislative process subject to checks and balances, governors and mayors can unilaterally decide at any time to ramp up social distancing requirements and business closures. If the public appears uncooperative, public officials can simply order police to being making mass arrests. We have no reason to think the police would not comply with this order.
After all, police personnel, who do not have a particularly impressive record when it comes to stopping or investigating real crime, have plenty of resources to crack down on nonviolent “perpetrators.”
The cases of New York and Odessa are instructive. Odessa law enforcement officers apparently have the extra time and resources to assemble a SWAT team in response to protests, but does this mean there is no real crime that needs investigating in Odessa? Of course not. According to the FBI’s 2018 crime survey, Odessa had 1,049 violent crimes in 2018, including 118 rapes and 819 aggravated assaults. If late 2019 and early 2020 were at all similar, then we’re talking about hundreds of violent crimes that Odessa-area police officials are ignoring in order to harass people for entering a tavern.
Indeed, if Odessa law enforcement agencies are anything like countless police agencies in other areas, only about half of violent crimes are “resolved” at all. That is,
only 45 percent of violent crime lead to arrest and prosecution. That is, less than half of violent crimes result in what is known as a “clearance” of the crime. Property crime clearances are much worse. Only 17 percent of burglaries, arsons, and car thefts are “cleared.”
Among violent crimes, homicides experience the highest clearance rate by far, at 61 percent. Aggravated assault comes in at 53 percent, and rape at 34 percent.
But these are just cases where arrests are made and prosecutions are initiated. A smaller number of cases actually lead to convictions. A crime may be cleared even when the suspect is later exonerated.
New York is not exempt from these trends, yet the New York mayor recently dispatched one thousand cops to break up Jewish funerals and ensure that people don’t have barbecues on warm spring days.
By the way, there were more than forty-six thousand violent crimes in New York in 2018. But don’t fear, the police have extra personnel to come and break up your small backyard gathering.
There’s nothing surprising here, however. Police have long shown a lack of enthusiasm for addressing real crime, knowing that business owners, small-time drug users, and loiterers won’t fight back, and thus make for much better targets.
This is why police are often found to run and hide from truly violent criminals while the victims must fend for themselves, as in the case of the Parkland shooting or the case of the stabbing of Joseph Lozito.
Police are always careful to use the legal defense that they are not obligated to actually protect anyone from anything. The courts agree with this defense, and it is now well established legally that although you have an obligation to pay the police to “protect and serve,” the police have no obligation to actually provide protection.
But police officers and their bosses have convinced themselves that the really important policing right now involves hauling dog groomers off to jail and collecting revenue from parkgoers who are only standing five feet from the next person. But if you have a problem with real crime? You’re likely out of luck.
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.