Bullshit Laws, Fiscal Irresponsibility, and the Inevitability of Police Abuse

Every day fleets of law enforcement officers, from the DEA on down to the local police department, head out onto the streets armed with guns and hair-trigger fears for their own safety.

If they were going to fight the good fight against violence and theft, we could be unreservedly grateful. All too often these armed ingenues, represented by unions, covered by workers comp, and unwilling to tolerate any degree of risk to their person, instead spend their time enforcing petty, bullshit laws that accomplish nothing more than mindless bureaucratic authoritarianism—and revenue for overspent budgets.

Samuel Dubose was missing a front license plate. Walter Scott had a broken brake light. Caroline Small was sitting in her parked car. Eric Garner was selling untaxed cigarettes. James Boyd was camping in the wrong place. David Garcia was feeling suicidal. Zachary Hammond was on a first date with a woman carrying ten grams of marijuana. Freddie Gray was …

Does anyone even know?

These are the “crimes” for which they died.

In July, protestors at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix interrupted Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to heckle their talking-point platitudes and demand concrete proposals for addressing police abuse. O’Malley, whose tough-on-crime polices as mayor of Baltimore sent its police department into a downward spiral of violence and corruption, had little to offer. Earlier this week Scott Walker, the only candidate in the first GOP debate asked a question on the topic, came up with nothing more tangible than better training, more support, and “consequences.”

Not independent investigators to handle accusations of misconduct. Not better record keeping to identify problematic officers and departments. Not body cams or enhanced protection of the public’s right to record. Not abolishing mandatory minimum sentencing laws that make suspects desperate. Not decriminalizing nonviolent offenses. Not ending the disastrous “war” on drugs.

Some of the protestors, who have continued to interrupt Sanders’ appearances, focus on racism. An independently worthy cause, ending racism is nevertheless not enough to solve police abuse. Racism is a sufficient cause of such problem, but not a necessary one.

No. The problem is you.

You have to stop supporting all the petty laws that can ultimately be enforced only with violence. Sex-for-money between consenting adults. Sale by and to and ingestion of substances by peaceful adults. Jaywalking, loitering, broken tail lights and the myriad thousand other nonviolent offenses that exist for no greater purpose than that the upper castes may express their disapproval of those who achieve less than Stepford levels of respectability.

Every law, every rule, every regulation—from cigarette taxes to fines for broken brake lights to driving without a license to civil penalties for refusing to make a wedding cake—carries with it the implicit edict that you are willing to have officers in uniforms kill people to enforce it.

Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh was sleeping when militarized police threw a flash grenade into his crib during a raid looking for someone who sold $50 worth of illegal drugs. No drugs were found, no arrests made; the suspect no longer lived there.

Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh was sleeping when police threw a flash grenade into his crib during a raid looking for a suspect alleged to have sold $50 worth of illegal drugs. No drugs were found, no arrests made; the suspect no longer lived there.

That you are willing to throw flash grenades at babies to keep grownups from ingesting methamphetamine (even though you know once thusly tasked, cops will lie to get those warrants). That you are willing to put that cigarette-tax dodger in a chokehold. That you are willing to kill those Oregon bakers if they won’t pay the fine for not baking the cake, and try to lock their door when the sheriff comes to execute on that judgment. You will risk violence by sending thuggish swat teams into legal medical marijuana dispensaries to terrorize customers inside. You would rather that poor mother with the broken brake light or the expired plates pay her fine to your government than feed her children. You are willing to shoot a man in the head for only having a rear license plate on his vehicle.

You are willing to spend billions packing our prisons, eroding our civil liberties and constitutional rights, and imposing roadside anal probings as the acceptable costs of keeping peaceful people from ingesting the substances of which you disapprove.

To your countenance of such tactics for such ends, add the near irresistible temptation of unearned riches—in an era of profligate spending and mismanaged budgets—and violence is an all but inevitable outcome. Civil asset forfeiture creates perverse incentives that lead police departments to prioritize nonviolent drug crimes, while victims of violence wait weeks for assistance; where crime labs let murder evidence backlog for decades, while drug cases get processed within hours.

Yet the insidious evil of treating citizens like municipal ATM machines takes place on an even smaller level than civil asset forfeiture. An official shake-down system also exists in the form of excessive tickets for petty offenses, doled out to those who cannot afford to fight back (disproportionately poor and minority), and then ballooning and escalating into ever more unmanageable sums until arrest and jail time result.

There are no debtors prisons in the U.S.A. Unless the creditor is the government. Then you’re fucked.

The Justice Department’s scathing report on the Ferguson, Missouri police department documented the disturbing end-game of such practices: a situation where 25% of the city’s revenue came from fines imposed by an unsupervised police force prone to excessive use of force. Jack Hitt at Mother Jones has reported on another Missouri suburb where, in response to a legislative cap on revenue that could be generated via traffic stops, the city enacted a whole host of other petty, bullshit laws (against such menaces as basketball hoops in the front yard, overgrown hedges, disorderly window blinds, and pants worn to low) and increased its non-traffic related arrests by 495%.

For the affluent this may be nothing more than an annoying shadow tax system to prop up an overreaching government that spends so far outside its means it pays tax dollars to research how robot-provided Swedish massage affects rabbits’ recovery from exercise. For the poor, knowing their lives will be ruined by fines they cannot afford to pay, jail time, job loss, and mandatory minimums that destroy families, it is why they run.

It is also why they kill.

Because at its worst, this system of official shakedown invites the very threats that put officers on edge. Dionne Wilson, widow of a slain California officer, understands this only too well. Her husband Dan Niemi showed up to investigate a noise complaint and found himself facing Irving Ramirez, who had a history of drug incarcerations. Carrying both guns and drugs when confronted, and desperate not to go back to jail, Ramirez shot and killed Officer Niemi. Wilson used to wonder why Ramirez was ever let out of prison.

Now she wonders why he ever had to go in.

It is easy to blame the problem of police violence on racist cops with (the gender neutral equivalent of) small dicks and big Napoleon complexes. It is harder to take responsibility for the crap laws and fiscal irresponsibility that make bad cops inevitable.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

  • Jocelyn Baker

    Yes to all of this …