There have always been incidents of police misconduct in this country, but today the police seem to be increasingly arrogant and abusive, perhaps because now ubiquitous personal technology devices allow cops’ reprehensible behavior to be easily captured and posted for all to see. Not surprisingly, the police don’t like this exposure, and in blatant violation of civil rights have confiscated camera devices and arrested citizens who use them to record police brutality.
Even more disturbing is that in some states police have convinced courts to contort wiretapping laws to make it a crime to record the police without their consent. Imagine being convicted for the crime of exposing crime. Ironically, police, in the line of duty, are permitted to camera citizens. So much for equal justice under the law.
Clearly, police are attempting, through intimidation, to suppress public scrutiny of their brutish misbehavior. Anyone who happens to observe and record or protest police misconduct can be threatened with arrest for interference, or as accessory to a crime, or for some other trumped-up charge that may not stick in court but is sufficient to scare off most citizens.
Locally, we have had repeated incidents of police misconduct, along with multiple citizen complaints of police thuggery. Both the cities of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria have become concerned, and are considering official measures to police the police.
From the public perspective, when it comes to the police, a few rotten apples tend to spoil the barrel. That is too bad. I want to believe there are still more good cops than bad ones.
But, it takes an exceptional person to be a good cop — one who chivalrously serves and protects the public. Police officers carry guns and cudgels and are empowered by law to use them. The self-discipline it requires to resist the arrogance of power and restrain the emotional response to retaliate in the face of insult and disrespect is an uncommon quality of character that all police officers should have, but not all do have.
Police are the agents of enforcement for society’s rules — the law. But, increasingly the law has been stretched to encroach on civil rights, and the police find themselves the sanctioned soldiers of suppression enforcing constitutionally questionable laws to conduct warrantless searches, confiscate private property, suppress rights of assembly and free speech, and prohibit victimless choices by consenting adults, especially those choices regarding drugs and commercial sex.
When the law itself is unjust the enforcement of it is oppressive, which makes the police objects of dread, mistrust and loathing.
The police are not supposed to question the law, just enforce it, but good cops know when a law is unjust. They understand that such laws undermine respect for law in general and for the entire justice system. Having to enforce such laws day after day must haunt the psyche of good cops.
Bad cops, on the other hand, welcome all laws, especially the unjust ones, because they increase the cops’ power to bully the populace. Busting noses, breaking ribs, smashing down doors and pushing folks to the ground is something thugs live for, and a badge can allow them to get away with it.
Contributing to the delinquency of the police is that, as with most everything else in America, law enforcement has become a profit center. As governments look to augment diminished funds with fines and fees, police become revenue agents as much as public protectors.
And it is apparently not enough for police unions to have extracted lavish compensation packages from taxpayers, packages that include early retirement with lifetime full pay and benefits. The public is further exploited by police zealously enforcing those laws that generate the most revenue for the force. Confiscatory rights allowed in the insane War on Drugs are liberally employed by police to augment department treasuries. Generously manned DUI checkpoints not only produce overtime pay for the cops, they are also opportunities to impound cars at high fees from which law enforcement takes a generous cut.
Under these conditions, it is hard to expect that all police will practice a code of chivalry, but if we want to arrest the descent into a police state, we must hold the police accountable for their behavior. That is not easy to do when cops are shouting at you to put the camera away or face arrest.
Pressure must be put on our elected officials to control the police. It really starts at the top. Who hires, trains and supervises the force? Those are the folks who must inculcate and enforce a code of chivalry. The key position is the police chief. You’ve got to have a good cop there.
— Santa Barbara political observer Randy Alcorn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns.